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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 May, 2003, 05:46 GMT 06:46 UK
Sharon signals 'occupation' end
Ariel Sharon
Sharon has been a pioneer of the settlement movement
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has signalled he is serious about reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians.

Mr Sharon indicated a willingness to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza - unusually for him describing Israel's military presence in the Palestinian territories as an "occupation".

"I think that the idea of keeping 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation is the worst thing for Israel, for the Palestinians and also for the Israeli economy," the website of Israeli daily Maariv quoted him as saying.

Mr Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas, better known as Abu Mazen, are expected to meet on Wednesday in Jerusalem, Israeli officials said.

It would be their second meeting since Abu Mazen took office on 30 April.

Mr Sharon faced fierce criticism from within his own Likud party on Monday - with 11 ministers and deputies making blistering attacks on the international peace initiative known as the roadmap, Israeli army radio reported.

The Israeli prime minister's comments came as US President George W Bush is considering holding a summit with the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers in Jordan next week, Israel has said.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said the talks would focus on implementation of the roadmap.

Violence continues

Some of Mr Sharon's critics have expressed doubt over his comments, saying that his newfound willingness to compromise is merely a political manoeuvre as he does not expect it to be put to the test.

Phase 1 (to May 2003): End to Palestinian violence; Palestinian political reform; Israeli withdrawal and freeze on settlement expansion; Palestinian elections
Phase 2: (June-Dec 2003) Creation of an independent Palestinian state; international conference and international monitoring of compliance with roadmap
Phase 3 (2004-2005): Second international conference; permanent status agreement and end of conflict; agreement on final borders, Jerusalem, refugees and settlements; Arab states to agree to peace deals with Israel

Meanwhile, violence has continued with an 11-year-old Palestinian boy shot dead in the West Bank during a confrontation between stone-throwing youths and Israeli soldiers, witnesses said.

A Palestinian man was also shot dead as he infiltrated Israel from Gaza and another surrendered, the Israeli military was quoted by the Associated Press news agency as saying.

The diplomatic push follows Sunday's decision by the Israeli cabinet to accept the roadmap and its goal of creating a viable Palestinian state - the first time an Israeli government has ever accepted such a plan, albeit with reservations.

Nearly half the Israeli cabinet either voted against the peace plan or abstained, and ministers set down conditions for accepting it - including a demand that the Palestinians take the first step to end violence.

Before voting, the cabinet also passed a motion rejecting the Palestinian demand of the right of refugees to return to their former homes in Israel - a move which Israel says would demographically destroy the Jewish state.

Contentious term

Mr Sharon had defended the decision at a Likud Party meeting on Monday.

Abu Mazen
Abu Mazen has promised to crack down on suicide bombings

It is the first time Mr Sharon, who has long argued that a Palestinian state would pose a mortal danger to Israel, has publicly used the word "occupation" to refer to Israel's presence in West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Right-wing hardliners disapprove of the concept of occupation as they claim Israel has a legitimate claim to the territory for religious and security reasons.

Mr Sharon said he would do everything to reach a political arrangement with the Palestinians - even if he had to fight alone for it - because it was important for Israel.

"(Israel's) control over the Palestinians cannot continue without end. Do you want to stay for ever in Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah and Bethlehem? That is not right," he said.

He also warned his cabinet that failure to approve the plan - which the Palestinians had already accepted - would lead to a crisis with Washington.

Tough challenges

Israeli officials said Mr Sharon would hold a meeting on Tuesday morning with government ministries and security forces to discuss Israel's stand during the Middle East summit expected to take place next week.

Our Jerusalem correspondent says that for both the Palestinians and the Israelis, there are uncomfortable challenges to be met if the roadmap is to succeed.

The Palestinian prime minister has promised to crack down on Islamic militants and end suicide bombings against Israeli targets.

The Israeli prime minister is required to withdraw some troops from Palestinian areas and to put a complete stop to the building of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The BBC's Richard Galpin reports from Jerusalem
"Cynics would say that this is tactics; that in reality he knows Israel will never have to push through with this"

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