The leaders described Israeli intentions to that effect as "suspicious and vague".

"I can not give him [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon] the benefit of the doubt. Sharon is a habitual liar; he says one thing but does the opposite," said Abd Allah Abd Allah, the Palestinian Authority deputy foreign minister.

Speaking to Aljazeera.net on Monday, Abd Allah pointed out that Sharon was negotiating with the Americans and with his own cabinet ministers, not with the Palestinians.

"He should remember that without negotiating directly with the Palestinians, there can be no peace in this region, neither now nor in the future." 

The PA official argued that the Sharon plan to leave the Gaza Strip was "obviously aimed at consolidating the Israeli occupation of the West Bank". 

"We know quite well who Sharon is. We know that he wants to annex much, if not most, of the West Bank into Israel, and we know he is not to be trusted. For these reasons, we do not give him the benefit of the doubt." 

Caging Gaza 

Palestinian scepticism about Sharon's unilateral scheme stems mainly from the crippling and draconian measures Israel is planning to impose on the estimated 1.3 million impoverished Gazans following the planned withdrawal. 

"Sharon is vague about the withdrawal, but he is very clear about the price he expects to receive in return for the withdrawal even before it is carried out"

Yasir Abd Rabbu,
former PA official

The Israeli press has quoted Sharon and his aides as stressing that Israel will retain "complete control" over Gaza to prevent the Palestinians from harbouring a "sense of victory". 

"He is not really talking about withdrawing from Gaza. He is talking rather about caging Gazans inside a big jail," said former Palestinian Authority official Yasir Abd Rabbu. 

"Sharon is vague about the withdrawal from Gaza, but he is very clear about the price he expects to receive in return for the withdrawal even before it is carried out," Abd Rabbu told Aljazeera on Sunday.

Concessions from the US

Sharon, who is due in Washington in mid-April for talks with President Bush and his aides on the disengagement plan, reportedly will demand "far reaching American concessions" as a "reward" for the withdrawal from Gaza. 

Sharon is due in Washington in
mid-April for talks with Bush

In addition to retaining control over Gaza borders, skies and shores, Sharon will ask an increasingly vulnerable Bush, to agree a series of ambitious Israeli demands Palestinian and Arab leaders contend would eviscerate the entire peace process of substance. 

The Israeli demands include a certain American commitment to refrain from pressuring Israel to return to the 1967 borders in the context of any prospective final-status settlement with the Palestinians. 

Moreover, Sharon will seek a similar American guarantee ruling out the repatriation of Palestinian refugees into Israel proper. 

Finally, Sharon will also press the Bush administration to okay the present path of the separation wall as well as Israel’s "right" to annex three large settlement blocs in the West Bank, including the Ariel block, the Jerusalem settlements, especially Maali Adomim, and the Gush Itzion settlement south of Bethlehem.

It is not clear how President Bush, who is fighting to retain his own job, will relate to Sharon’s demands.

Conflicting signals

The Bush administration has been making what seems to be conflicting signals to both the Israelis and the Palestinians. 

"All peace efforts since 1967 have been based on UN resolution 242. Any departure from this resolution would spell the end of all hopes for a just and lasting peace in this area"

Abd Allah Abd Allah,
Palestinian Authority deputy-foreign minister

Last week, a visiting American delegation, headed by Deputy-Secretary of State William Burns, assured Palestinian leaders that the Bush administration was still committed to the road map for peace and the president’s vision of a viable Palestinian state living peacefully alongside Israel. 

However, Sharon, in an interview with the Haaretz newspaper published on Monday, pointed out that his disengagement plan was aimed at "dashing Palestinian hopes for a state".

Moreover, Sharon stated in the same interview "for sure the Americans agree that we will not have to return to the 1967 borders". 

An American guarantee to that effect would constitute the most radical departure from the long-standing American policy on the Arab-Israeli conflict since 1967. 

This certainly worries Palestinian leaders a lot. "All peace efforts since 1967 have been based on UN resolution 242. Any departure from this resolution would spell the end of all hopes for a just and lasting peace in this area," said Abd Allah Abd Allah. 

"I think the Americans understand this very well."