Sharon: Gaza settlers will leave homes by summer
JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Thursday all 8,200 Jewish settlers will be pulled out of the Gaza Strip starting in summer, and he ordered a troop withdrawal from a refugee camp – signaling that a bloody two-week offensive in northern Gaza could be easing.
Sharon said next year’s settlement evacuation would be completed within 12 weeks despite opposition from settlers and their backers. After nightfall, settlers demonstrated across Israel against the pullout.
Israel Radio reported that the pullout of the settlers would begin in May, but participants in the closed parliamentary meeting Sharon addressed on Thursday quoted him as saying only that it would start in the summer.
In Washington, the Bush administration renewed its approval of a planned pullout from Gaza and said the timing was up to Sharon’s government but hoped the withdrawal will be a link to a peace based on the “road map” plan.
The original “unilateral disengagement” plan, approved in June, called for a four-stage pullout beginning in summer 2005. Sharon tried to advance the date to the beginning of 2005, but a month ago reverted to the original formula.
On Thursday evening, Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz ordered a redeployment in northern Gaza, where Israeli forces have been carrying out their largest Gaza operation in four years of fighting. Defense officials said troops were ordered to pull out of the Jebaliya refugee camp.
Army Radio said the redeployment would amount to a pullout from northern Gaza, restoring the situation before the invasion Sept. 30. However, the officials said the army would react quickly if Palestinian militants resume rocket fire at Israeli towns.
The radio station said the Israelis were leaving with new capabilities to spot and hit militants launching rockets, an apparent reference to pilotless drone aircraft Palestinians say have been hovering over the territory, sometimes firing missiles.
Early Thursday, Israeli tanks and bulldozers pulled back from the Palestinian town of Beit Lahiya after tearing up roads, flattening greenhouses and knocking down dozens of houses.
The two-day foray into the town was part of the Israeli military offensive in the northern Gaza Strip, now in its third week. Five Palestinian militants and an elderly civilian were killed in three missile strikes, starting Wednesday evening.
Since the Sept. 29 start of the campaign, triggered by a Palestinian rocket attack on an Israeli town that killed two small children, 105 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli army fire, about half of them civilians, including 18 under the age of 16.