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Official: Israel may dismantle settlements

Israel may dismantle a “considerable” number of Jewish settlements and draw a border around the rest, Israel’s vice premier told The Associated Press on Thursday.
Settlements like this one near Jenin could be vulnerable if the Israeli government decides the U.S.-backed peace plan is destined to fail.Gil Cohen Magen / Reuters file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Israel may soon be compelled to dismantle a “considerable” number of Jewish settlements and draw a border around the rest, Israel’s vice premier told The Associated Press on Thursday — a go-it-alone approach that he suggested has Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s tacit backing.

Such talk by Vice Premier Ehud Olmert about the West Bank and Gaza Strip is increasingly frightening the Palestinians, who fear they will end up with much less land than in a negotiated agreement. The Palestinians — and the world — will not accept an Israeli dictate, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia warned in a separate interview.

Without a peace deal, “the fire will burn, the terror will grow,” Qureia told the Israeli daily Maariv in interview excerpts published Thursday.

New violence in Gaza
In new violence, an Israeli arrest raid in the Gaza refugee camp of Rafah triggered a gun battle that killed six Palestinians, including at least three bystanders, and wounded 17 people, hospital officials said. Troops arrested a senior Hamas fugitive and demolished his family home and two neighboring houses.

Israel has said it would keep chasing militants until Palestinian security forces crack down themselves — as required by the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan. However, Qureia has said he cannot use force against Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other groups for fear of sparking civil war.

Olmert told AP in an interview Thursday that there cannot be a peace deal without such a clampdown, and that time is running out.

“If there is no agreement, I believe it is incumbent on Israel to take unilateral steps and to create a unilateral separation between us and the Palestinians,” said Olmert, a Sharon confidante.

His proposal falls far short of the Palestinian demand for a state in all of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, areas Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel will “definitely” not withdraw to the 1967 lines, and will also keep “the united city of Jerusalem,” Olmert said.

“But it will be a lot different from the reality that exists today,” he said, adding that most Palestinians would no longer live under Israeli rule. Referring to a new border, he said that while it would include some major settlements, “a considerable amount of settlements and a considerable number of people will have to move into different areas.”

Olmert said he was not sending up a trial balloon for Sharon, but that “if you ask me if the general direction of the prime minister is similar to mine, the answer is yes.”

About-face for Sharon?
A removal of settlements would be a dramatic departure for Sharon, who has been the settler movement’s leading patron for a quarter century.

Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pauses during an interview with The Associated Press in Tel Aviv, Israel, Thursday Dec. 11, 2003. Olmert said Israel would have to dismantleAriel Schalit / AP

In recent days, Olmert has defended his plan against harsh criticism from Sharon’s Likud Party, but the prime minister has not joined in the attack.

Instead, Sharon has spoken repeatedly about possible unilateral moves, and is to deliver a major policy speech at a conference on national security next week.

“It is an entire policy that is being planned,” said Uzi Arad, the conference organizer and former security adviser to ex-premier Benjamin Netanyahu.

Olmert said it is up to the Palestinians to decide whether they want to negotiate an agreement. “If they are unable to go ahead and unwilling to fight terror organizations, then there will be a unilateral, comprehensive step taken by the state of Israel and I think that may indeed change fundamentally the situation in the Middle East for a considerable amount of time,” Olmert said.

Qureia, the Palestinian prime minister, warned that it would be “a terrible mistake to try to impose a solution on us by force.”

Qureia at disadvantage?
However, Qureia appears to be in an increasingly weak position. He has failed to win a promise by militants to halt attacks on Israelis. They have told him they want to hear from Israel first whether it is willing to halt all military operations, including targeted killings of wanted men.

Israeli officials have suggested they are ready to scale back, but have refused to make blanket promises.

In such a volatile atmosphere, violence could flare again quickly — and perhaps set in motion Israel’s go-it-alone plan.

Even before Sharon floated the idea of unilateral steps, Israel began building a separation barrier whose completed portions — about 100 miles — run near the 1967 lines, but in other areas is to cut deep into the West Bank.

Israel says the barrier is to keep out militants who have killed hundreds of Israelis since 2000, while the Palestinians call it a land grab.

“You cannot build a fence on our land, to cage us like chickens and hope all will be well,” Qureia told Maariv, adding that he remains confident he can reach an agreement with Sharon.

Aides for the leaders are trying to set up a summit.