Sharon: Evacuate Gaza Settlements Together

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) told senior Cabinet ministers Monday he wants to evacuate all Gaza settlements at one time instead of in three stages, officials said, reflecting a major shift in position.

At a meeting of the Security Cabinet, Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz presented their plan to evacuate all 21 Gaza (search) settlements together, the officials to remove the settlements in three stages. Settlers and their backers, many from Sharon's own Likud Party, oppose the withdrawal from Gaza, and a staged removal could have set the stage for months of confrontations between Gaza settlers and police.

In its session Monday, the Security Cabinet approved giving the military overall responsibility for removing the settlements, while assigning the job of taking the settlers out to the police, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

On Sunday, Israel and the World Bank (search) concluded a round of discussions about the planned pullout, officials said.

Israel told World Bank officials it wants to destroy the houses in all Israeli settlements in Gaza, except one. The bulldozed homes would be replaced by high-rise apartment buildings for Palestinians now living in refugee camps, while the buildings in the remaining settlement, which was not named, would be used as a hospital.

Local World Bank officials could not be reached for comment on Monday.

A diplomat said countries donating aid to Palestinians have asked the bank to explore rehabilitation options for Gaza. He said a final decision on how to rebuild Gaza would be taken by a committee of major donor nations.

Other analysts said they believed the concept of buying settlements or other properties built on war-won land was unlikely to win approval.

Meanwhile, an Israeli helicopter fired a missile toward a car carrying four Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank town of Jenin on Monday, but missed. The missile hit a nearby home, causing no injuries.

The apparent target was Mahmoud Abu Khalifeh, a local leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (search), a violent group with ties to Yasser Arafat's (search) Fatah movement.

The Al Aqsa group in Jenin has claimed responsibility for an Aug. 11 bombing at an Israeli roadblock in the West Bank in which two Palestinian civilians were killed.

Abu Khalifeh said he was in the car when an explosion went off nearby. "We jumped out of the car and started firing randomly," he said. "We thought that the army was nearby."

The army acknowledged the failed attempt and described the target as a "senior member of a terrorist organization in Jenin." It said in a statement that "the missile missed the target and incidentally damaged a house."

Also Monday, Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails resumed a hunger strike after a weekend break. The fast began two weeks ago. The prisoners have presented a list of demands to improve their conditions, but the main thrust of the strike is a political blow against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Issa Karake, head of Palestinian prisoners' association, said inmates in Ashkelon jail, who suspended their strike on Friday pending the outcome of negotiations with prison authorities, resumed fasting Monday after the talks brought no results.

Karake said that the participation of the Ashkelon inmates meant that nearly all the 4,000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons on security charges were on hunger strike.

The striking prisoners have been drinking liquids, including milk and fruit juice. Israeli officials say many prisoners never began striking, and hundreds of others have ended their fasts.

The strikers have the backing of a grandson of Mohandas Gandhi, the legendary Indian leader, who is currently touring the West Bank and urging Palestinians to adopt nonviolent means of resisting Israeli occupation.

On a visit to the Palestinian parliament Sunday, Arun Gandhi told Palestinians that pacifism could be a powerful weapon in the battle for world opinion.

"What would it look like if a group of leaders from Palestine were to lead 50,000 men, women and children in a march," he said.

"Maybe the Israeli army would shoot and kill several people, they may kill a hundred, they may kill two hundred people and that would shock the world."