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Last Updated: Monday, 2 February, 2004, 20:01 GMT
Sharon orders Gaza pullout plan
A settler family passes a soldier in Netzarim settlement in Gaza
About 7,500 people live in 17 Jewish settlements in Gaza
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has ordered a plan for the evacuation of all Jewish settlers from Gaza.

He told his Likud Party he intended to relocate all "problematic" settlements in the Palestinian territories.

Analysts say it is the most specific pledge yet by Mr Sharon, though he gave no timetable for withdrawal and said he would want settlers to agree first.

Settlers' groups and senior politicians came out immediately against the plan which would affect about 7,500 Jews.

Mr Sharon, previously viewed as a champion of settlers, first revealed his intentions for Gaza in an interview with the left-wing Haaretz newspaper.

"I have given the order to plan for the evacuation of 17 settlements in the Gaza Strip," he was quoted as saying.

What Mr Sharon is doing is yielding to the terror
Yisrael Medad,
Settlers' Council
"I am working on the assumption that in the future there will be no Jews in Gaza."

Leaders of the settlers have expressed outrage.

"It's unbelievable. We ran out of Lebanon, the Hezbollah was strengthened. We're running out of Gaza, God forbid, Hamas is strengthened," said settler spokesman Shaul Goldstein.

Mr Sharon has previously said that he supports the US-sponsored peace plan known as the roadmap, under which Israel is required to remove all settlements established in the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank since he came to power in 2001.

The settlements are considered illegal under international law.

Observers say that Mr Sharon is hoping to visit US President George W Bush later this month and the surprise announcement may have been timed to boost chances of a meeting.

But the BBC's Orla Guerin in Jerusalem says there is still a long way to go before any evacuation could take place, and no-one in Gaza will be packing their bags tonight.

'State of shock'

Mr Sharon's closed-door meeting with members of Likud to expand on the remarks he made to Haaretz provoked anger, according to those present.

Map showing Gaza City and Gaza's main Jewish settlements
"I am simply in a state of complete shock," Yechiel Hazan told public radio.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom stressed that no binding decision had been made.

"This subject has to come to cabinet decision and Knesset [parliament] decision," he said, adding that he was against the plan.

"Unilateral steps will not reduce the violence and the friction, in fact they may only exacerbate the situation," he said.

Challenge to leadership

At least 875 Israelis and 2,600 Palestinians have died since the beginning of the intifada uprising in September 2000 by Palestinians wanting a separate state.

If Israel wants to leave Gaza... no Palestinian will stand in its way
Saeb Erekat,
Palestinian minister

Some settler leaders told Israel's Maariv newspaper that if Mr Sharon went ahead with the evacuation plan, it would "nullify his right to rule the state of Israel".

Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said the evacuation would be welcomed, if it proved to be more than a public relations exercise.

"If Israel wants to leave Gaza... no Palestinian will stand in its way," he said.

But attempts to remove even unoccupied outposts of Jewish settlers in the West Bank have been met with anger and violence.

Correspondents say many settlers may be expected to oppose physically any plans to move them from areas which they believe are theirs by right.

Haaretz published extracts of the interview with Mr Sharon on its website, saying a full article would be run on Tuesday.

The BBC's Matt Prodger
"Back in December Mr Sharon threatened to pull out of the road map"

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