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Sharon eyes swift evacuation of settlers

JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wants all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip evacuated at the same time instead of in three stages, officials said yesterday, reflecting a major shift in tactics in his pullout plan.

Sharon's goal is to prevent drawn-out and violent confrontations between settlers and the security forces, as well as multiple confrontations in his Cabinet.

According to his "unilateral disengagement" plan as approved in June, the Gaza settlements are to be removed in three stages by the end of September 2005. Four small West Bank settlements are also to be evacuated.

Sharon presented the new formula to his Security Cabinet, a forum of senior ministers, yesterday. Dropping the staged pullout of Gaza is meant to stifle criticism and limit armed resistance to what would be the first time Israel has ever removed authorized settlements in the West Bank or Gaza.

Since Sharon first raised the plan in December, settlers have been organizing to resist. Though most of the 8,000 Gaza settlers are expected to accept compensation or alternative housing and leave quietly, a small hard-core of settlers would probably dig in and try to fend off security forces.

The one-off evacuation also helps Sharon solve political problems. Faced with a Cabinet rebellion, Sharon pushed the plan through in June, but had to agree to additional votes for each stage of the evacuation.

Sharon has already lost two battles over his pullout plan -- a nonbinding referendum by party members and a convention vote. The next confrontation is set for today.

Early today in Gaza, Palestinians said a 14-year-old boy was shot and killed during an Israeli operation in the Rafah refugee camp on the Egyptian border. Israeli military sources said soldiers were tearing down an abandoned structure and fired on a suspicious Palestinian approaching them.

Yesterday, an Israeli helicopter fired missiles at a car in the West Bank town of Jenin, aiming to kill a local militant, Palestinians said. The missiles missed the target and hit a different car, although no one was hurt.

In Gaza, Palestinian hospital officials said Israeli soldiers near a Jewish settlement shot and killed a 34-year-old man outside his house.

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