Israel will have to carry out a wider withdrawal from the West Bank after the initial pullback planned for next year, Israeli Vice Premier Ehud Olmert said in an interview published yesterday.
More Jewish settlements in the West Bank will be removed, even if Israel is not involved in peace talks with the Palestinians, Olmert told the Jerusalem Post.
As a part of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's "unilateral disengagement" plan, Israel would withdraw from all the Gaza Strip and the four West Bank settlements by the end of next year.
"There is no option of sitting and doing nothing. Israel's interest requires a disengagement on a wider scale than what will happen as part of the current disengagement plan," Olmert told the Post.
In Gaza earlier yesterday, meanwhile, about 10 Israeli tanks went into the Khan Younis refugee camp. Palestinians said three gunmen were killed by Israeli fire.
Olmert declined to define the extent of the second pull back, but said it was necessary to prevent Israel being forced to give up all the lands captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
Sharon has said that one goal of the plan is to solidify Israel's hold on the main West Bank settlement blocs. More than 230,000 settlers live in 150 West Bank settlements, many within the large blocs.
Since the death of Palestinian president Yasser Arafat, Israel has indicated that it would be willing to coordinate the withdrawal with the Palestinians and return to the negotiating table.
But Olmert, a Sharon confidant, said the second withdrawal would go ahead regardless of whether the expected talks are successful.
It was one of the clearest indications yet from an Israeli leader that the disengagement would be only the first phase of a future Israeli pullback from most of the West Bank, to make room for a Palestinian state.
Olmert also cast doubts on the ability of Mahmoud Abbas, the leading candidate in a Jan. 9 Palestinian presidential election, to broker a peace deal with the Israelis.
Until now, Abbas, a pragmatist, has received tacit support from Israel and the US, who refused to deal with Arafat who was accused of fomenting terror.
Olmert told the Jerusalem Post that Abbas has not shown the ability to crack down on the militant groups, which is a key Israeli demand.
"Without this we don't see much chance for progress with the Palestinian Authority," Olmert also said.
Campaigning in the West Bank town of Tulkarem on Wednesday, Abbas called on Israel to tear down its West Bank separation barrier, telling thousands of enthusiastic supporters that the huge structure will never bring peace.
"I say to our neighbors ... no fence will bring peace or bring you security," Abbas told a rally at a Tulkarem stadium just 500m from the barrier.
In Gaza yesterday, troops raided the Khan Younis refugee camp, exchanging fire with Palestinian gunmen and leveling agricultural land. Three Hamas gunmen were killed in the fighting.
The army said Israeli forces were on an operation to stop the firing of rockets and mortars by Palestinian militants at nearby Jewish settlements and Israeli army bases. They said the air force fired missiles at two groups of militants.
Palestinian officials said one of the dead was a local Hamas field commander and that the other two were also members of Hamas.
The Palestinian Education Ministry said that three schools were closed due to the fighting and that the scheduled midterm examinations were postponed.