JERUSALEM – Israel will increase investment in some West Bank settlements even as it pulls out of the Gaza Strip, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (search) said Monday, giving a boost to the "disengagement" plan ahead of a crucial vote by members of the ruling party.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) has proposed removing all settlements in Gaza, as well as four in the West Bank, and rapidly completing a separation barrier Israel is building in the West Bank. The 200,000 members of Sharon's Likud Party (search) will vote on the plan May 2.
Sharon meanwhile picked up support from Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom for the Gaza withdrawal.
"We stand today facing the decision to evacuate some settlements for the benefit of strengthening others," Shalom said. Sharon said last week that even under terms of a peace treaty, Israel would insist on keeping five settlement blocs in the West Bank.
Shalom's linking the Gaza pullout and the West Bank buildup reinforced Palestinian fears that the "disengagement" plan is a ruse to ensure Israel's grip on the West Bank.
The Palestinian leadership said in a statement Monday that the Sharon plan would turn Gaza into "a big jail," with Israel still in control of all border crossings and air space.
Shalom's backing further strengthened Sharon's hand, giving him a clear majority in his Cabinet ahead of the party referendum.
In another setback for opponents, Likud on Monday canceled two debates between Sharon and the leading Cabinet detractor, Uzi Landau, who has denounced the plan as a reward for terrorism and dangerous to Israel.
Landau, an effective public speaker, was hoping to persuade Likud voters. Polls indicate a majority of the 200,000 Likud members support the plan.
Netanyahu, a former premier and key Likud figure, announced his backing for the plan on Sunday, pointing to assurances from President Bush that Israel would not be asked to pull out of all of the West Bank.
He said he was also satisfied with Sharon's commitment to finish a contentious separation barrier, which snakes into the West Bank in parts to include some settlements, before the withdrawal begins.
Netanyahu reaffirmed Israel's commitment to the settlements that will fall on the "Palestinian" side of the barrier.
"There, we are going to invest. I myself am going to approve hundreds of millions of shekels to invest in the settlements beyond the main fence," he said.
Netanyahu's plan might violate the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, which requires Israel to halt settlement construction.
Last week, Attorney General Meni Mazuz ordered a freeze on all settlement construction funds until an oversight committee is set up to ensure the money is not diverted to unauthorized West Bank outposts.
The Finance Ministry said there was no contradiction, since Netanyahu was referring to investment in security, not new housing.
Netanyahu said an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza — where 7,500 Israelis live in one-third of the crowded territory and 1.2 million Palestinians live in the rest — was inevitable.
"Most of the population in the state of Israel wants to leave the Gaza Strip. That's a fact. The question is — what does a leader do in such a situation?" he said.
"Sooner or later I think the wide desire among the nation to leave the Gaza Strip would win," he said, adding that U.S. support for keeping some settlements was a key victory.
In Gaza City late Monday, tens of thousands of Palestinians gathered at a soccer stadium for a demonstration at the end of a three-day period of mourning for Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi (search), killed Saturday in an Israeli missile strike.
Islamic Jihad leader Abdullah Shami said Palestinians would keep attacking Israel. "Assassination and killing give us more power and determination," he said.
In violence Monday, the Israeli military shot and killed a Palestinian militant as he attempted to escape arrest in the West Bank village of al-Fawwa, Palestinian witnesses and the army said. A second militant got away. Soldiers left the body of the dead Palestinian at the side of a road.
An Israeli soldier was wounded when a Palestinian threw a flaming car battery at an army jeep a checkpoint south of the West Bank city of Nablus.
After nightfall, three Israelis were slightly injured when a rocket hit their house in the northern Gaza settlement of Nissanit. Several hours earlier, a settler was seriously wounded there in another rocket salvo.