Sharon pressured over pullout plan

International pressure is mounting for Israel to withdraw from occupied land as Sharon mulls the fate of his so-called disengagement plan - which his own Likud party has rejected.

    Israeli premier's plan has been rejected by his own Likud party

    But contradictory reports and declarations continued to appear in the Israeli press on Thursday on how Sharon would choose to resolve the political crisis sparked by the overwhelming rejection of the plan in Sunday's Likud referendum.

    His deputy and Trade Minister Ehud Olmert said in an interview published on Thursday that the plan would not be watered down to satisfy Jewish settlers, as he had suggested himself in earlier press reports.

    "There is no interim position in this one; the area is too small. If you don't retreat from it all, you have no choice but to retain your military presence across the entire Strip," he told The Jerusalem Post.

    New plan 'soon'

    The Haaretz daily had mentioned a watered down plan, including the removal of three Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip instead of all 21 and two in the West Bank instead of four.

    Ehud Olmert (L) has been a
    staunch ally of Ariel Sharon

    Olmert said the plan would be submitted unchanged to the cabinet "within weeks".

    Israel's national security council chairman Giora Eiland, said that a comprehensive solution is needed.

    "After the disengagement plan did not get approval in the Likud referendum, we need to look for a more comprehensive solution and not to simply make minor changes in the original plan," Israel Radio quoted Eiland as saying in a speech.

    After his gamble of whole-heartedly supporting Sharon's controversial plan, US President George Bush exerted fresh pressure on the embattled Israeli premier to deliver on his promise to withdraw from Gaza.

    "When you see a step toward peace it is important for a peaceful nation like America to embrace it," Bush told the US-funded Arabic-language television station al-Hurra in an interview on Wednesday.

    'Historic moment'

    "I think this is an historic moment for the world. I think it is a good opportunity to take a step forward. Now is the time to make progress and I believe we can."

    The night before, the so-called Quartet of diplomatic powers in the Middle East - the European Union, Russia and the United Nations along with the United States - lent their qualified support to Sharon's initiative.

    Two more Palestinians were killed
    by Israeli soldiers on Thursday

    "The Quartet welcomes and encourages such a step, which should provide a rare moment of opportunity in the search for peace in the Middle East," the four said in a joint statement after a meeting in New York.

    The unilateral plan, which also stipulates Israel will retain control over some West Bank settlements, has angered the Palestinians since Sharon's plan deviates from the UN-backed "road map".

    Continuing violence

    But violence broke out earlier on Thursday at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a site holy to Jews and Muslims, situated in an enclave of the town under permanent Israeli army control.

    The unnamed Palestinian was not armed an Israeli spokesman said.

    Also on Thursday, Palestinian medics recovered the body of a Palestinian killed a day earlier in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian medical sources said.

    The body of the Palestinian was found in a closed military area near the Karni crossing point between the north-eastern Gaza Strip and Israel.

    An army spokesman told AFP that, after coming under fire, soldiers had spotted two Palestinians near the border fence in that area.

    No weapons were found on the body.

    "They opened fire and hit one of the Palestinians while the other one managed to escape," the spokesman added.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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