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Settlers agree to meet with Sharon

Seek more money for Gaza pullout

JERUSALEM -- Ending months of angry opposition, several Jewish settler leaders agreed yesterday to sit down with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to discuss Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

The meeting, set for today, was the latest sign that some settlers have come to terms with the plan and are preparing for life after the pullout this summer.

Settlers are demanding higher compensation from the government for giving up their homes. And some leaders, who are urging followers to refrain from violence, say they want to move their communities as a group to Israel.

Zevulun Orlev, a lawmaker who helped organize the meeting, said the participants would outline settlers' concerns for Sharon. Orlev said he still bitterly opposed the withdrawal, but he reluctantly acknowledged its inevitability. ''We have to understand that we have to prepare for the possibility of the day after," he said.

The meeting follows a bruising but failed struggle in parliament to defeat Sharon's plan for uprooting all 21 settlements in Gaza and four small settlements in the West Bank.

Sharon says the removal of these communities, which are home to 9,000 people, will improve Israel's security and help consolidate control over larger West Bank settlements.

He reportedly told a parliamentary committee yesterday that Israel should press forward with plans to connect the largest Jewish settlement in the West Bank to Jerusalem despite strong US and Palestinian objections. But Isaac Herzog, Israel's housing minister, said his government had no immediate plans to go ahead with the project, which calls for building 3,500 homes.

Palestinian officials condemned Sharon's comments. The Palestinians say that project will prevent them from setting up a viable independent state with east Jerusalem as its capital.

Many settlers have now turned their attention to the future, particularly to compensation.

One report said settler leaders would demand an additional $1 billion in compensation at today's meeting, on top of the $900 million allocated by the government.

In a separate development, Israel's deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said Sharon is counting on President Bush to keep his commitment that Israel can retain several large Jewish towns near Jerusalem as part of a peace accord with the Palestinians.

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