The following is the full text of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's televised speech on the first day of the evacuation of settlers from the Gaza Strip.
Sharon: Israel cannot hold on to Gaza forever
The day has arrived. We are beginning the most difficult and painful step of all, evacuating our communities from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria (West Bank).
This step is very difficult for me personally. It is not with a light
heart that the government of Israel made this decision on disengagement and the parliament did not lightly approve it.
It is no secret that, like many others, I had believed and hoped we could forever hold onto Netzarim and Kfar Darom.
But the changing reality in the country, in the region, and the world, required of me a reassessment and change of positions.
We cannot hold on to Gaza forever. More than a million Palestinians live there and double their number with each generation.
They live in uniquely crowded conditions in refugee camps, in poverty and despair, in hotbeds of rising hatred with no hope on the horizon.
It is out of strength and not weakness that we take this step. We tried to reach agreements with the Palestinians that would move both peoples towards a path of peace.
These were crushed against a wall of hatred and fanaticism.
'Good for Israel'
The unilateral disengagement plan I announced two years ago is the Israeli answer to this reality.
This plan will be good for Israel in any future scenario. We are reducing daily friction and its victims on both sides.
The Israeli army will redeploy along defensive lines behind the security fence.
Those who continue to fight us will meet the full force of the Israeli army and security forces.
The Palestinians bear the burden of proof. They must fight terrorist organisations and dismantle their infrastructure and show sincere intentions for peace so they can sit with us at the negotiating table.
The world is waiting for the Palestinian response - a hand stretched out to peace or the fire of terror.
To an outstretched hand we shall respond with an olive branch, but we shall fight fire with the harshest fire ever.
The disengagement will allow us to look inward. Our national agenda will change.
In our economic policy we will be free to turn to closing social gaps and to waging a real fight on poverty.
We will advance education and increase the personal security of every citizen in the country.
'Pain and anguish'
The controversy over the disengagement plan has caused difficult wounds, a bitter hatred between brothers, and strong statements and actions.
I understand the pain and anguish of the opponents, but we are one people, even when fighting and arguing.
Residents of Gaza, today we end a glorious chapter in Israel's history, a central episode in your lives as pioneers, as realisers of the dream of those who bore the security and settlement burden for all of us.
Your pain and your tears are an inextricable part of the history of our country.
Whatever differences we have, we shall not abandon you and after the evacuation we will do everything to rebuild your lives and communities anew.
I want to tell the soldiers and police, you face a difficult mission. You do not face an enemy, but brothers and sisters.
Sensitivity and patience are the order of the hour. I am sure that is how you will act. I want you to know the people stand behind you and are proud of you.
Citizens of Israel, the responsibility for Israel's future is mine. I initiated the plan because I reached the conclusion that this action is essential for Israel.
Believe me, the pain I feel with this act is the same as the full realisation that we must do it.
We are taking a new path that also has no small number of risks, but which also contains a ray of hope for us all.
With God's help this path shall be one of unity and not division, and not animosity between brothers, of unconditional love and not hatred.
I will do my utmost to ensure that it will be so.