Sharon Drops Pledge Not to Harm Arafat

Palestinians might not get a state for many years as a result of Israel's unilateral "disengagement" plan, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in interviews published Monday, providing more details of his proposal to withdraw from all of the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements.

Sharon also said Israel is no longer bound by a pledge to the United States not to harm Yasser Arafat (search), saying the Palestinian leader and the head of Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas, Hassan Nasrallah (search), are potential targets for assassination.

The prime minister gave wide-ranging interviews to the Yediot Ahronot, Maariv and Haaretz dailies, as well as Israel Radio and Israel Army Radio, ahead of the weeklong Jewish holiday of Passover (search) which begins at sundown Monday.

In the Gaza Strip, the bodies of three Palestinians — apparently shot by Israeli forces before dawn — were found near an Israeli settlement. The army said troops had opened fire on three suspicious figures near the border fence with Israel.

Israeli security forces were on high alert for the holiday, with reinforcements deployed at outdoor markets, malls and synagogues. The military banned all Palestinians from entering Israel to try to ward off attacks. The tight closure is to remain in effect at least until Israel's Independence Day, April 26, officials said.

Sharon said the withdrawal plan is a "deadly blow" to the Palestinians and that he would not coordinate with them — an apparent response to ultra-nationalist critics who have accused him of succumbing to Palestinian violence.

"In the unilateral plan, there is no Palestinian state. This situation could continue for many years," Sharon told Yediot.

The prime minister told Maariv that his plan "will bring their [the Palestinians'] dreams to an end."

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said he welcomes an Israeli withdrawal, but only as a first step.

"He [Sharon] has to remember that he has to withdraw also ... from the West Bank," Arafat told reporters Monday.

Palestinians charge the withdrawal plan is a ruse to trade Gaza for a permanent grasp over most of the West Bank. The prime minister wants to evacuate all 21 Israeli settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank.

"If he cancels the partnership between us and the Israeli government, then it's a deliberate attempt by him to postpone or delay the creation of the Palestinian state," said Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat (search).

The Palestinians say they welcome any withdrawal, but that it must be coordinated with them and be carried out as part of the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, which envisions a Palestinian state by next year.

Sharon said he would seal off Gaza after a withdrawal, at least initially. He said a patrol road between the Gaza Strip and Egypt would remain under Israeli control for the time being.

"At the moment, the plan is to evacuate all the [Gaza] settlements, to prevent the Palestinians from operating ports and to keep the border with Egypt under our authority," Sharon told Yediot. "In my opinion, it would be best to disconnect from all the territory."

Sharon did not explain how Gaza would function in such a situation. He said Israel would continue supplying water and electricity, but said the flow might stop in the event of a major Palestinian attack on Israelis.

Regarding Arafat, Sharon said that three years ago he promised President Bush that Israel would not harm Arafat, but since then circumstances have changed.

"Arafat was [then] given red carpet treatment everywhere in the world. Today it is clear to the United States and to everyone just who Arafat is," Sharon said.

Israel and the United States are boycotting Arafat, charging that he is responsible for Palestinian violence.

On March 22, Israel assassinated Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin, and officials said Israeli forces would mete out similar treatment to others involved in the organization or execution of attacks against Israel.

Asked by Army Radio if that meant Arafat and Nasrallah were targets, Sharon replied, "Whoever aims to kill Jews, whoever sends murderers to kill Jews, is marked for death."

Israel accuses Arafat of encouraging and financing attacks on Israelis. Nasrallah said earlier this week that his group will help Hamas avenge Yassin's death.

Sharon said he had not sought American approval for any strike against Arafat or Nasrallah. "I didn't ask permission from anyone," he said.

Sharon plans to travel to Washington this month in hope of winning an endorsement for his disengagement proposal from Bush.

During the weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday, hardliners demanded that Sharon immediately bring his plan to a ministerial vote.

Sharon angrily responded that the plan has not been finalized, Israeli officials said — and then suggested they leave the government if they are unhappy. "Anyone who wants to can get up and leave," Sharon reportedly told the ministers.

If hawkish coalition partners quit, Sharon is expected to court the dovish Labor Party to keep his government afloat. Labor leaders have said they will support Sharon's peace moves even if they don't join the coalition.

Sharon last week agreed to hold a referendum on the Gaza withdrawal among 200,000 members of his Likud Party. Sharon said he would abide by the results.