Sharon promises to remove Jewish settlements from Gaza

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon tells his party the Gaza settlements will have to be dismantled

All 17 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip will eventually be dismantled, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told a Likud Party meeting Monday.

"He said it is possible there will be no more Jews in the Gaza Strip," said Yechiel Hazan, a Likud legislator, after emerging from the closed-door meeting.

About 7,500 Jews live in the 17 settlements on the Gaza Strip. The settlements account for nearly one-quarter of the territory.

The settlements are built on officially occupied territory and are considered illegal under international law.

Earlier on Monday, the Haaretz daily newspaper's website quoted Sharon as saying the Gaza settlements would be dismantled.

"It is my intention to carry out an evacuation – sorry, a relocation – of settlements that cause us problems and of places that we will not hold onto anyway in a final settlement, like the Gaza settlements," Sharon was quoted as saying on the Haaretz website.

The comments appear in excerpts from an article by columnist Yoel Marcus. The full article is to appear in the paper on Tuesday.

Sharon didn't indicate a timetable for dismantling the settlements, and said the settlers would have to be consulted.

The settlements were included among issues that would be dealt with in the final phase of the U.S.-backed road map to peace. Sharon has said in recent months Israel would take unilateral action if no progress had been made by summer.

Those unilateral steps include removing some settlements and imposing a boundary on Palestinian territory.

"I am working on the assumption that in the future there will be no Jews in Gaza," Sharon said.

Sharon said he would talk the plan over with U.S. President George W. Bush at a meeting he hopes to schedule later in February.

News of Sharon's plans was met with skepticism from opposition parties and the Palestinians alike.

The National Religious Party, a pro-settler party that holds six seats in the ruling coalition, threatened to pull out of the government. Losing the party's support wouldn't be enough to bring down the Likud-led coalition, which currently has 73 of the Knesset's 120 seats.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said the Israelis would only replace the 17 settlements with 170 more.