Israel's Cabinet gave final approval Sunday to the government's planned withdrawal from Gaza and four West Bank settlements, marking the first time an Israeli government decided to dismantle Jewish settlements on land claimed by the Palestinians for a future state.
Speaking to American Jewish leaders hours after the withdrawal plan was approved, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that it was the most difficult decision he has ever made.
Calling the move "historic," he said it would "determine the future of the state of Israel."
Sharon signed an order making it illegal for Israelis to be in Gaza and northern West Bank after July 20, a government official said.
The Cabinet also approved the final route of Israel's separation barrier in the West Bank, initially constructed to keep out Palestinian attackers but increasingly seen as a blueprint for a final border between Israel and a future Palestinian state. Expected to run about 425 miles, the barrier is about one-third complete.
With Sunday's twin votes, Sharon's government began charting Israel's final borders unilaterally, something none of his predecessors have attempted since Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war.
Sharon, a former patron of settlers, told Cabinet ministers that "it's not an easy day, it's not a happy day," but the withdrawal was vital for Israel's security.
Ministers voted 17-5 for the evacuation plan, sealing the political defeat of withdrawal opponents seeking to put the plan to a national referendum. The evacuation of about 9,000 settlers will begin in July and take two months.
The government plans to allocate $871 million for the settlers, with compensation depending on the size of a family, whether it owns or rents, what it owns and how long it has lived in the settlement.
Under the order Sharon signed Sunday, those settlers not leaving by July 20 face removal by force. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the Cabinet that thousands of troops would participate in dismantling the settlements.
Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led the five opponents of the Gaza withdrawal, all ministers from Sharon's Likud Party.
Netanyahu said he could not support a withdrawal without a national referendum, but his challenge of the prime minister appeared part of a campaign to position himself for eventual Likud leadership.
Israel's vice premier, Shimon Peres, a longtime advocate of a withdrawal from Gaza, said Sunday's vote was historic.
"After 40 years in Gaza ... what have we gained?" Peres said.
The evacuation is to begin in July and will be carried out in four stages, with the Cabinet to approve each stage separately. The Cabinet has not yet decided the order in which settlements will be dismantled.
The only way the withdrawal could now be stopped is if Sharon fails to get his 2005 budget passed by March 31. If he has no budget by then, his government automatically falls.
As of now, Sharon does not have a guaranteed majority in parliament for the spending plan.
The final route of the West Bank separation barrier approved by the Israeli Cabinet puts at least four West Bank villages on the Israeli side of the barrier, leaving the residents isolated from their fellow Palestinians.
According to the revised route of the barrier from Jerusalem to the south, the largest Jewish settlement, Maaleh Adumim, and the Gush Etzion bloc would be included on the Israeli side of the barrier. Both are near Jerusalem.
Once the barrier is completed, the residents of Hussan, Wadi Fukin, Nahalin and Bittir will fall on the Israeli side of the barrier. The four villages with their 10,000 Palestinian residents are part of about 6 percent-8 percent of West Bank land to be added to the Israeli side.
Construction of the West Bank barrier began in 2002. Israel said it needed a shield against a wave of Palestinian suicide bombers and gunmen. The Palestinians denounced the construction as a land grab, saying Israel could have built the barrier on its land.
Last year, the world court said in a nonbinding opinion that the construction of the barrier is illegal and should stop.
The route originally proposed by army planners would have sliced off nearly one-fifth of the West Bank, but large segments were struck down by Israel's Supreme Court as causing too much hardship for Palestinians.
The Cabinet, in a 20-1 vote with one abstention, approved a revised path that is closer to Israel's old boundary with the West Bank. However, in the Jerusalem area the new route dips deep into the West Bank, a path that could undercut the Palestinians' attempt the establish their future capital in the eastern sector of the city, abutting the West Bank.
Several Cabinet ministers acknowledged that while the barrier might have been conceived as a temporary defense against Palestinian attacks, it also would help determine final borders.
"The route of the fence is significant in terms of future negotiations over Israel's borders," Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said, adding that "the objective today is to determine the route so it encompasses as many Israelis as possible."
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, speaking before the vote, reiterated in an interview with the German news magazine Der Spiegel that Israel must dismantle all settlements and halt construction of the barrier.
"What right does Israel have to build settlements on our land?" Abbas said.
Sharon has said in the past he has U.S. blessing for holding on to large West Bank settlement blocs in a future peace deal. Last year, President Bush affirmed to Sharon in a letter that "new realities" in the West Bank, meaning concentrations of Israeli settlers, could not be overlooked in drawing future borders.
Abbas told Der Spiegel that Bush cannot determine the Palestinians' fate.
"The American letter to Sharon is unacceptable because it pre-empts solutions for a final phase we haven't reached yet," he said.
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