Sharon: Gaza Evacuation Will Happen

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) insisted in media interviews released Thursday that the Gaza Strip (search) evacuation would take place even if a proposed delay is approved, and said he has no plans for further withdrawals from the West Bank (search) until the Palestinians take action against armed militants.

Sharon also vowed to push forward with plans to build hundreds of new homes in existing Weheduled their first meetings to coordinate the Gaza pullout.

The government is considering a three-week delay in its plan to withdraw from Gaza and four small West Bank settlements this summer.

The declared reason for the delay is respect for Orthodox Jews who observe a three-week mourning period, ending Aug. 14, for the destruction of the biblical Jewish Temples. Many of the 9,000 settlers slated for evacuation observe Jewish rituals.

But some Cabinet ministers have suggested the delay is needed to buy the government more time to iron out the many snags in the withdrawal preparations.

"The disengagement will be carried out," Sharon told Israel Army Radio. "Whoever thinks this will open the way to delays or not implementing (the evacuation) or other pressures is simply wrong."

A decision on the delay is expected this week, and possibly as early as Thursday.

Sharon proposed the Gaza withdrawal as a unilateral act to help define Israeli borders because the internationally backed "road map" peace plan stalled almost immediately after it was introduced in June 2003.

Neither side carried out the initial phase of the plan, which called for Israel to halt settlement activity and Palestinians to dismantle groups responsible for attacking Israelis.

In the interviews, Sharon said any further withdrawals from the West Bank would take place only under the road map. "Progress is only possible through disengagement now, and efforts to have the Palestinians take required steps. If they take required steps, then we can embark upon the road map," he told Israel Radio.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has said he is ready to coordinate the Gaza pullout with Israel and is eager to restart formal peace talks. But Israel is pushing Abbas to take tougher action against militants.

Since Abbas was elected in January, Israel has expressed willingness to coordinate the Gaza pullout with the Palestinians. On Thursday, top officials from the two sides scheduled a series of meetings to discuss such issues as economic coordination and ensuring an orderly handover in Gaza.

Sharon said Israel would respond to any future Palestinian attacks launched from the Gaza Strip, but said he could not envision a scenario in which Israeli ground forces would return to the area.

Israel will fight militants "without limits," he told the Jerusalem Post, "but I do not see a situation in which we would be required to go back in on the ground."

The Palestinians have said they are ready to assume control in any area Israel vacates and are seeking assurances that the Gaza pullout is only the first of a larger territorial withdrawal by Israel. The Palestinians hope to establish an independent state in Gaza and all of the West Bank, with east Jerusalem as its capital.

But in Thursday's interviews, Sharon reiterated his stance that Israel plans to retain large West Bank settlement blocs under any final peace agreement. He added that Israel is moving forward with construction of hundreds of homes in some of these settlements.

"We are building 1,000 apartments in Betar Illit and hundreds of apartments in Maaleh Adumim," Sharon said, referring to two of the largest settlements.

The comments threatened to cause new tensions with the United States, Israel's closest ally.

The United States has said it would support Israeli control over large settlements in a final peace settlement. But during a meeting with Sharon in Texas this month, President George W. Bush demanded no new construction in the settlements.

Meanwhile, Sharon criticized Russia's plans to sell anti-aircraft weapons to Syria. Sharon said the arms sale threatens Israel and he plans to bring it up with Vladimir Putin during the Russian president's visit to Israel next week.

Putin, the first Russian leader to visit Israel, told Israel's Channel 1 TV on Wednesday that the missile sale would not upset the balance of power in the region.

"We, of course, can't intervene in Russia's sale of weapons to other countries," Sharon told Israel Radio. "What concerns us about the shoulder-fired missiles, the anti-aircraft missiles, is that these missiles could fall into the hands of terror organizations."

Sharon dismissed Putin's explanation that the missiles are vehicle-mounted and cannot be converted into shoulder-fired rockets that could fall into the hands of Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas or Palestinian militants Syria sponsors. "We don't accept this explanation," he said. "We see it as a danger to Israel."

Syria is believed to be interested in acquiring the missiles, in part, because it wants to beef up its air defenses. Syrian President Bashar Assad reportedly was furious when Israeli jets buzzed one of his palaces in late 2003 as a warning while he was in residence.