JERUSALEM, Feb. 21 -- Israel's cabinet on Sunday solidly approved Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers from the Gaza Strip later this year.
The 17-to-5 vote in favor of the disengagement plan was a major personal and political triumph for Sharon, who has fought for more than a year for approval to withdraw about 8,200 settlers from 21 settlements in Gaza and cede the lands to the Palestinians. Thousands of Israeli soldiers based in and around the settlements would also be evacuated.
Israeli soldiers walk in the Kfar Darom settlement, one of 21 in the Gaza Strip slated to be evacuated this year.
(Ariel Schalit -- AP)
The plan, which Israel's ultra-nationalists and settler groups oppose, also calls for withdrawing about 500 settlers, and the soldiers who protect them, from four settlements in the northernmost areas of the West Bank.
"The evacuation of communities from Gaza and northern Samaria is a very difficult step," Sharon told ministers at the start of the cabinet session, according to a statement released by his office. Samaria is the northern part of the West Bank. "It is difficult for the residents, for the citizens of Israel, for me, and I am certain that it is difficult for members of the cabinet. But this is a vital step for the future of the state of Israel."
In another major vote, the cabinet approved, 20 to 1, a modified route for a fence and wall complex that Israel is constructing through and around the West Bank. Israel says the barrier is meant to protect Israel proper from Palestinian suicide bombers and other attacks. Palestinians call the barrier an attempt by Israel to unilaterally establish a border that is supposed to be decided in negotiations between the two sides and say it swerves deeply into the West Bank to grab Palestinian land.
The new path would move the barrier closer to a 1949 armistice line separating Israel and the West Bank, commonly known as the Green Line, so that 7 percent of the West Bank would be placed on the Israeli side of the fence and wall, rather than 16 percent, as originally planned. The West Bank's largest settlement, Maleh Adumim, just east of Jerusalem, and a massive group of settlements south of Jerusalem called Gush Etzion would be situated on the Israeli side.
Palestinians have complained that Sharon is relinquishing control of Gaza, where 8,200 Jewish settlers are surrounded by about 1.2 million Palestinians, so he can strengthen his grip on the West Bank, where about 243,000 settlers live in 120 settlements surrounded by about 2.2 million Palestinians.
Sharon proposed the disengagement plan after concluding that Israel was losing too many lives and spending too much money by holding on to the Gaza settlements, and after determining that Israel did not have what he referred to as a "partner for peace" on the Palestinian side. But after longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat died last year and Mahmoud Abbas was elected as his replacement, Sharon said he would like to coordinate the withdrawal with the Palestinians. It remains unclear how that would be accomplished.
As part of the rapprochement, however, Israel started releasing early Monday the first of about 500 Palestinian prisoners it said would be freed by midday. Israel has also said that it has stopped targeting senior Palestinian leaders for assassination and demolishing the homes of Palestinians involved in deadly attacks against Israelis.
Signaling a regional warming trend, Jordan returned an ambassador to Israel on Sunday for the first time in more than four years. Jordan had withdrawn its ambassador shortly after the Palestinian uprising broke out in September 2000.
Hours after the cabinet vote, Sharon signed official evacuation orders setting in motion the withdrawal of settlers starting July 20, Israel's first withdrawal from territory seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war since it left the Sinai Peninsula in 1982 under the Camp David peace agreement.
By law, the entire evacuation process must be finished by the end of the year; officials expect it to be completed by September.
Israel's cabinet had previously endorsed the plan in concept, but with caveats that had delayed a decisive vote. Last week, the Knesset, or parliament, approved a $1 billion financial package to compensate settlers evacuated under the plan.
Even so, Sharon must win still more votes before starting the withdrawal. The evacuation of the 25 settlements and their 9,000 residents is planned to occur in four stages. Before each stage begins, the cabinet must decide whether to approve it, based on existing circumstances.
More immediately, Sharon does not yet have enough votes in the Knesset to guarantee passage of his proposed 2005 budget, which has become entangled in the disengagement battle. If the budget is not approved by March 31, the government automatically falls, which could delay or even kill the Gaza withdrawal.