Between 7000 and 8000 Israelis live in 20 fortified settlements among 1.4 million Palestinians in Gaza, a coastal strip measuring 360 square km.
 
Under a 1993 interim peace deal, Palestinians won self-rule over 79% of Gaza.

Israel retained control of the rest, but Palestinians want all West Bank and Gaza settlements removed to make way for a Palestinian state in a final accord.

Evacuation

A longtime champion of Jewish settlements, Sharon suggested a possible change last year under pressure to implement a US-led peace  "road map".

Addressing hawkish Likud party members last month, he said: "It is clear Jews will not remain in Gaza forever."

The first Gaza settlement, Kfar Darom, was founded in 1970 as what Israel's then left-wing government called a strategic buffer against any future hostilities with Egypt.

Construction was boosted after 1982, when Israel evacuated its settlements in the occupied Sinai peninsula under a peace accord with Egypt.

Israel's biggest settlement in Gaza, Neve Dekalim, was built in 1983.

Land appropriations

Palestinians accuse Israel of continued land appropriations for settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

Israel defends these as necessary to build bypass roads and clear areas that may be used to mount attacks in the Intifada uprising that began in September 2000.

Gaza has little of the biblical significance that draws ideological Zionists to settle in the West Bank, although Samson is believed to have toppled the Philistine temple there and Gaza City has a seventh-century synagogue.