"This vacuum for which the Palestinians are to blame, cannot go on forever. So as part of the disengagement plan I ordered an evacuation - sorry, a relocation - of 17 settlements with their 7,500 residents, from the Gaza Strip to Israeli territory," Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told Haaretz in a wide-ranging interview in Jerusalem yesterday morning.

"The aim is to move settlements from places where they cause us problems or places where we won't remain in a permanent arrangement. Not only settlements in Gaza, but also three problematic settlements in Samaria," he said.

He seemed relaxed, like someone who had made a decision and was comfortable with it. He said he had given orders for the move, "which is not simple and cannot be done overnight. We are talking of a population of 7,500 people. It's not a simple matter. We are talking of thousands of square kilometers of hothouses, factories and packing plants. There are people who are third generation there," he said.

"First it has to be determined where they will be relocated - who will go to farmlands and who will go to industrial areas.

"It will be necessary to reach an agreement with the residents, to rebuild what will be demolished, to move thousands of dunams of hothouses, educational institutions, thousands and thousands of vehicles, it's not a quick matter, especially if it's done under fire."

Sharon said various agencies are already at work on the plan, under his orders, "and to work to make sure that most of the settlements are relocated smoothly." He said the process will take one to two years.

In any case, there won't be any Jews left in Gaza after an agreement, while in Samaria there will be a few settlements. The impression he gave is that the mention of removing settlements from the West Bank was the first time he has spoken openly about doing so.

"These steps should not be seen as the end of the process, but this is what I intend to do. If the Palestinians want to sit with us, we will sit down with them and discuss it with them."

Asked if he was bringing the evacuation plan to Washington to show President George Bush at their coming meeting, Sharon responded: "Clearly this must be done with American agreement and support. We are not taking any steps that contravene their positions. Agreement is needed on both the evacuation and the matter of the fence. It is important that everything we do be part of the Bush vision and fits in the American concept."

On the assumption that moving settlements would cost billions, is there any chance the administration will finance it? he was asked.

From what the prime minister said it is evident he will ask for special aid. "I haven't yet discussed financial aid, but clearly we will need to discuss it with them. Since 1967," he said with a smile, "they were opposed to the establishment of settlements. now they can say `we warned you,' but the Americans rely on us in the region and what will develop here as part of the president's vision. If our steps are received that way, we will have to persuade them. We and they share the same interest."

Sharon is aware of the possibility the move would create serious domestic problems, but he regards the survival of the current government as very important. "It won't be easy in the Likud institutions. But if a poll were taken of all the members of the Likud, the picture might be different," he said.

"What can be done? It is impossible to leave the situation that has been created without dealing with it. This is important and vital from the security perspective and it has to be done."