JERUSALEM – Israel will not follow the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan and could remain in much of the West Bank for an extended period after it withdraws from the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in a newspaper interview published Wednesday.
Sharon's comments were his most detailed yet on his long-term vision for the region. Palestinian officials said the remarks confirmed their fears that Israel plans to draw its own borders and keep a large chunk of the West Bank (search), rather than negotiate a peace deal with the Palestinians, as envisioned by the road map.
In violence Wednesday, 10 Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli troops in two West Bank towns. Among the dead were at least six fugitives and an 11-year-old girl, Palestinian hospital officials said.
Sharon's plan of "unilateral disengagement" from the Palestinians — a withdrawal from Gaza and four West Bank settlements in 2005 — has created deep divisions in Israel, with opponents resorting to increasingly harsh rhetoric against him.
Police said they are investigating death threats against the prime minister.
On Tuesday, senior Cabinet ministers approved the payment of cash advances to settlers who leave their homes ahead of a September 2005 deadline — the first practical step toward the Gaza pullout.
Settler families could get more than $100,000 each as a down payment. Yonathan Bassi, the head of the government agency making the compensation payments, told the Haaretz daily that about 100 families have already applied.
The government hopes the money will entice large numbers of settlers to leave voluntarily, and make it easier for troops to evacuate those remaining.
In an interview with the Yediot Ahronot newspaper published Wednesday, Sharon said that once Israel withdraws from Gaza and the four West Bank settlements, "it is very possible ... there will be a long period when nothing else happens."
He said that as long as there is no significant shift in the Palestinian leadership and policy, "Israel will continue its war on terrorism, and will stay in the territories [of the West Bank] that will remain after the implementation of disengagement."
The road map was adopted by Israel and the Palestinians last year, but never got off the ground. The plan envisioned a Palestinian state by 2005, but did not spell out its borders.
U.S. officials have said, however, that Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza must end. President Bush has since said that it would be "unrealistic" to expect Israel to remove large Israeli population centers in the West Bank — a statement seen by Sharon as backing for his plan to keep large West Bank settlement blocs in any future deal with the Palestinians.
Sharon said he will abide by his disengagement plan, not the road map.
Asked by Yediot how disengagement differs from proposals by a former Israeli opposition leader, Amram Mitzna (search), to withdraw from Gaza to break the stalemate with the Palestinians, Sharon said: "Mitzna suggested something different ... to continue dismantling settlements based on the road map.
"This would have brought Israel to a most difficult situation. I didn't agree to this. Today, we are also not following the road map. I am not ready for this," he said.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said Sharon confirmed Palestinian fears that the disengagement plan is a ploy to cement Israel's control over large areas of the West Bank. U.S. and European Union officials have assured the Palestinians that they would only back disengagement as part of the road map.
"Sharon's intention is to destroy the road map and to dictate his long-term interim solution of Gaza as a prison and 40 percent of the West Bank within a wall, and this will not fly," Erekat said.
According to polls published Wednesday in Yediot and Maariv dailies, 58 percent of Israelis support Sharon's disengagement plan, and about one-third oppose it. Both surveys had error margins of 4.4 percentage points.
In the West Bank city of Nablus, troops surrounded a building where fugitives were holed up, and a gun battle erupted, Palestinian witnesses said. Five armed men from the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (search), a violent group with ties to Yasser Arafat's Fatah (search) movement, were killed in the fighting. Hospital officials initially said six gunmen were killed.
The mother of one of the fugitives said her son had told her by cell phone he and his friends were running out of ammunition.
An 11-year-old girl living nearby was also shot to death, her family said. The girl's uncle said she was shot toward the end of the fighting, after most of the soldiers had left and residents were emerging from their homes.
The Israeli brigade commander in the area, identified only as Col. Yuval, said his forces did not fire as they withdrew, even as they came under Palestinian fire, suggesting that the girl was not killed by his men.
In the West Bank town of Jenin, Israeli undercover troops killed four Palestinians in a raid of a car-repair shop, witnesses said. One of the dead was identified as Fadi Zakarneh, an Al Aqsa fugitive.
Palestinians said three of the dead were bystanders.
However, the army said six wanted men were in the building, armed with assault rifles and pistols. It said four of the fugitives were killed and two arrested.