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Israeli official warns of confrontation over settlements

JERUSALEM -- A government plan to dismantle Israeli settlements and impose a new boundary with the Palestinians will spark a bitter confrontation with Jewish settlers but still must proceed for the country's security, the prime minister's top deputy said yesterday.

 

Vice Premier Ehud Olmert's comments pointed to fears of a bitter internal conflict over Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's recent announcement that Israel will have to evacuate settlements even without a peace agreement. The Palestinians vehemently oppose the plan, and now members of Sharon's Likud party say they would rather break a government coalition than back it.

"I have no doubt there will be a very painful, difficult, heartbreaking process, and a confrontation of [previously] unknown proportion in the life of this country," Olmert told the Foreign Press Association. "It's a serious crisis . . . There's no doubt about it. I expect it to be very emotional and very confrontational."

Olmert said Israel had to leave most of the West Bank and Gaza, an about-face for his Likud Bloc, because otherwise Arabs will soon outnumber Israel's 5.5 million Jews in the territory it controls. Israeli and Palestinian officials still were trying to arrange a meeting between Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart, Ahmed Qurei. A meeting between Sharon and Qurei is seen as an important step toward reviving talks on the US-backed "road map" peace plan. The Palestinians have made clear they do not intend to dismantle militant groups, a move required by the road map and Sharon's main demand. Qurei has instead tried in vain to coax a pledge of nonviolence from the militants -- an approach Sharon has dismissed as insufficient.

Speaking in Beirut yesterday, the head of the Hamas political bureau repeated that the organization opposes any halt in attacks.

Khaled Mashaal dismissed the Israeli prime minister's position as one that would only grant the Palestinians self-rule on 42 percent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip "without sovereignty, without Jerusalem, and without a return" of Palestinian refugees to Israel.

Mashaal also said that Iraqis fighting US-led forces in Iraq are an inspiration to the Palestinians.

Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmed Maher, was expected in Israel today in an effort to get the peace plan back on track. Meanwhile, the army continued a crackdown in the West Bank city of Nablus, saying it had arrested Hamas leader Adnan Asfour. Asfour's brother, Said Asfour, said troops had also taken away a computer and a number of maps.Later yesterday, an Israeli soldier killed a 5-year-old Palestinian boy in the Balata refugee camp near Nablus, witnesses and hospital officials said. Hospital officials said the boy, Mohammed Al Araj, was shot in the chest. The army said soldiers opened fire in Balata after being attacked by a crowd that threw rocks, bottles, and an explosive device. It had no information on a boy being shot, but said it was still investigating.

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