Sharon hopes to negotiate on Thursday what he will receive in exchange for a unilateral withdrawal from the occupied Gaza Strip and four Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, said an unnamed Israeli political source.

White House officials Stephen Hadley and Elliot Abrams, along with Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, are to meet Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart Ahmad Quraya on Thursday.

Sharon is hoping the talks will pave the way for success in his planned 14 April meeting with US President George Bush in Washington.

At the height of international criticism for the separation barrier that Sharon is constructing and which cuts off parts of the occupied West Bank, the Israeli premier announced a plan to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

Concerns

However, Palestinians fear a unilateral withdrawal will demarcate the borders of a future Palestinian state and annex parts of the West Bank. Sharon's plan also entails cementing Israel's grip on larger settler blocs in the West Bank.

Die-hard settlers do not want to
leave their illegal outposts

Under the US-led "road map" aimed at ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Israel is expected to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip and dismantle Jewish settlements there.

Under international law, all Jewish settlements are illegal, a stance not recognised by Israel.

Quraya voiced hope for the first time on Wednesday that removing Jewish settlers from Gaza could revive peacemaking and used tough words to condemn bombings carried out by Palestinian activists. 

Siege at hospital

Elsewhere in the West Bank, Israeli occupation forces surrounded a hospital on Thursday in the city of Bethlehem and detained 12 Palestinians suspected of planning resistance attacks, reported our correspondent. 

Eight of those detained are members of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of Palestinian President Yasir Arafat's Fatah movement, including three top leaders, reported Aljazeera's Shireen Abu Aqla.

Another four detained are doctors with ties to the group, she said. Some 30 to 40 Israeli armoured vehicles surrounded the psychiatric hospital early in the morning backed by helicopters.

Clashes erupted between the resistance fighters and occupation soldiers but there were no injuries.

The hospital director said there is severe damage to building.