Wed, Dec 29, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Sharon seeks early pullback vote

DETERMINATION As Israel released 159 Egyptian and Palestinian prisoners, Sharon pledged to strike hard at militants who try to attack Israelis during the withdrawal

AP , JERUSALEM

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said on Monday he will seek final Cabinet approval for a Gaza withdrawal in February, four months earlier than planned, and threatened harsh retaliation if Palestinian militants try to disrupt the pullback.

Sharon's warning came as Israel released 159 prisoners in a gesture to Egypt and the new Palestinian leadership.

Sharon told lawmakers on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that he is pushing forward the Cabinet vote at the request of Israel's attorney general, according to meeting participants.

The idea, he said, is to give settlers six months to prepare for their evacuation.

The early vote does not change the schedule for the actual pullout, which is to begin in July, but was the latest sign of Sharon's determination to carry it out.

Under Sharon's plan, Israel will pull out of the entire Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements next year, uprooting 8,800 settlers from their homes.

Sharon says the continued occupation of Gaza, where 8,200 settlers live amid 1.3 million Palestinians, is untenable. Jewish settlements in Gaza come under attack daily.

During Monday's closed meeting, Sharon pledged to strike hard at militants who try to attack Israelis during the pullout.

"This evacuation will not be carried out under fire," he was quoted as saying. "We conveyed a serious warning [that] ... our response will be most severe."

When Sharon unveiled his plan early this year, he envisioned the pullout as a unilateral act, saying there was no serious Palestinian negotiating partner.

But since the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Nov. 11, Sharon has said he would be willing to coordinate the withdrawal with the new Palestinian leadership if it cracks down on militants.

Sharon said he hopes the Palestinians will begin taking action after Jan. 9 presidential elections, such as sending Palestinian security forces to areas used by militants in Gaza to stage rocket and mortar attacks.

"They can do this, but nothing has been done so far," he was quoted as saying.

Sharon also warned that Palestinians have acquired shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. As a result, Israel banned crop dusting near Gaza to remove potential targets. On Monday, Sharon said the planes would take to the air again and warned Palestinians of severe reprisals if they fire at the small aircraft.

Israel has quietly backed Abbas, who is considered a moderate, and has approved a series of measures meant to facilitate next month's voting.

In another gesture to Abbas, Israel released 159 Palestinian prisoners on Monday. Abbas welcomed the release but said Israel must free the thousands of prisoners still serving lengthy terms.

About 7,000 Palestinians are held by Israel on security-related charges, and Abbas is under intense pressure at home to win their freedom.

The prisoners released on Monday had no more than two years remaining on their sentences, and dozens were held only for staying in Israel without entry permits -- most of them working. Israel refuses to release Palestinians imprisoned for fatal attacks on Israelis.

The release was part of a prisoner swap with Egypt, which released an accused Israeli spy on Dec. 5. Israeli officials described Monday's release as a sign of warming ties with Egypt.

Akram al-Heymouni, a 47-year-old leader in the ruling Fatah movement, was greeted by about 150 people at his home in the West Bank city of Hebron. His five children jumped on him and hugged him, and his 69-year-old mother broke down in tears.

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