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Israel Releases Palestinian Prisoners and Plans to Withdraw Settlements

Israel released 500 Palestinian prisoners Monday and over the weekend, and the parliament decided to shutter a series of Jewish settlements. A reporter in Jerusalem explains the Israeli cabinet's decisions.

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  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won cabinet approval yesterday for two ambitious projects that will reshape the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.

    By 17-5 the cabinet approved the withdrawal of all Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and for West Bank settlements this summer. And by a 20-1 vote the cabinet approved rerouting the security barrier now under construction between Israel and the West Bank. The new line restores more land to the Palestinians than the original plan.

    For more on all this we go to Greg Myre of the New York Times in Jerusalem. Thanks for being with us. Let's start with the Gaza vote. What's the practical significance of that vote?

  • GREG MYRE:

    Well, Prime Minister Sharon has been working for months to try to get this Gaza withdrawal going this summer. He's had several close votes in his cabinet and in parliament.

    But this was really the final major hurdle he had to clear. There are a couple potential obstacles in the way, but he looks to be on track to remove all 8,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza strip this summer. It will be the first time that Israel has removed a major settlement from areas that the Palestinians are seeking for a future state.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Well, as you mentioned, this is controversial. How were there only five votes against it?

  • GREG MYRE:

    Well, the previous votes had been much, much closer than this. However, Mr. Sharon has managed steadily to get rid of the people who have been opposing it. He had some real right wing parties in his cabinet. He has dismissed those ministers other ministers have quit.

    He's brought in the moderate and left-leaning Labor Party, and they voted in favor and supported this project. He still has some opposition from within his own party, the Likud Party. But by and large, he's been able to one way or another dismiss or get rid of those who were opposing the Gaza withdrawal and bring in ministers who support his plan.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    And the public supports the withdrawal. Is that right?

  • GREG MYRE:

    Yes, the public is still very much in favor. All of the polls have consistently shown about two-thirds or even a little more of the Israeli public supporting a withdrawal from Gaza.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    All right, now the vote on the security fence. Now there, the cabinet had no choice but to do something, right?

  • GREG MYRE:

    Right. Israel has already made a decision to build the security fence. They approved a route about a year and a half ago. However, Israel's Supreme Court ruled last year that they had not taken into account the humanitarian needs of the Palestinians.

    Palestinians in a number of villages were finding it difficult if not impossible to get to jobs, to get to school, to get to farmland. So in response to this, Israel has tried to make a route that will impinge less on daily Palestinian life. That was the intent here.

    The previous plan was going to keep about 15 percent of the West Bank on the Israeli side of the barrier. This new plan will put about 7 percent of the land on the Israeli side. However, the line, as it is drawn now, will still include most of the major Israeli settlement blocs on the Israeli side of the fence. And the Palestinians are still not happy about this.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    So if the barrier is ultimately completed along the line approved yesterday, how many Israeli settlers will be on the Palestinian side of that line, that barrier? And how many Palestinians will end up on the Israeli side?

  • GREG MYRE:

    Right. It's hard to come up with exact figures at this point but it seems that there would be tens of thousands of Jewish settlers on the eastern side or the Palestinian side of the fence. There would probably be tens of thousands of Palestinians on the western or the Israeli side of the fence. So there would be a number of people in effect, on the wrong side of the fence.

    That issue still has to be worked out. It would be… there are certainly talk or discussion that Israel would have to remove those settlements that are outside the fence, and also there has to be a solution found for the Palestinians who are living on the Israeli side of the fence so that they can have a relatively normal or a normal daily existence and can get to work and can get to their farmland, can get to schools.

    So there's still some complications and issues to be worked out. And the Palestinians are still very much opposed to this security barrier or this separation barrier, but this is the route that Israel has approved now and that they're working off of.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    So tell me a little more about the Palestinian reaction.

  • GREG MYRE:

    Well, on the two issues, the Palestinians are generally happy that Israel is getting out of Gaza. That's land they want for a state so they're supportive of that, but they want that to be coordinated. They want to be part of the process.

    And they still have great reservations about things that Israel may do in Gaza in terms of not allowing the port and the airport and the crossing points to be open and free. So they still have concerns that Gaza will be walled off and will in effect be a big prison as the Palestinians stay and cannot develop economically.

    Now with the separation barrier in the West Bank, the Palestinian line is, if Israel wants to build that barrier on the West Bank boundary, then there's nothing the Palestinians can do about it. Israel's free to do that.

    What they don't want is that barrier to be inside the West Bank. The Palestinians want all of the West Bank for a state. And then they say that that is — Israel should not be allowed to build in the West Bank. So that's the issue where things really get sticky.

    Israel says that they need that barrier inside the West Bank to protect settlements and to build a secure line that they can defend. The Palestinians say, "no, if you're going to build it, build it on the West Bank boundary."

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Now the — meanwhile on the Israeli side, the really right-wing and the settler movement are unhappy about the Gaza pullout. Is there any other way they could derail this?

  • GREG MYRE:

    They're saying they will still try, but they do definitely seem to be losing steam. The settlers and their supporters have organized very large demonstrations, gathering 100,000 or more people at public rallies.

    But this has not stopped Mr. Sharon from going forward and pushing his plan through to parliament and through his cabinet. The one potential obstacle is that Mr. Sharon must get a national budget passed by the end of March.

    If not, then Israel is forced to go to elections, his government collapses, and that could delay his plans or scuttle them altogether. This is sort of an annual mini- drama in Israel, where there's so many different parties and factions, the budget always comes down to the last minute. It will have more impact this year because of the pending Gaza pullout.

    But that's the one place where Mr. Sharon still faces a potential problem. He's got to get that budget passed before the end of March. Most analysts believe that he will do that, but that's the thing he has to clear. It's really the final major hurdle.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Greg Myre of the New York Times, thanks for being with us.

  • GREG MYRE:

    Thank you.

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