PM: Cabinet to Vote on Start Date for Pullout Next Month

Sharon: Gaza terrorists now have missiles capable of downing crop dusters; dismisses claims IDF not doing enough to halt mortars.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday that the cabinet will vote as early as next month to authorize the start of the pullout from the Gaza.

MK Yossi Sarid (Yahad) said during the meeting that instead of staging a drama before and during the evacuation, the government should announce a final date for evacuation. Following that date any person remaining will not enjoy the provision of water and electricity, education, health services and supply of goods.

Sharon replied he does not believe the precise date of evacuation should be made public as yet. According to the prime minister, the evacuation will begin in either late June or early July 2005.

"The prime minister made it crystal clear the attorney general [told him] he had to give settlers at least six months' notice before evacuating them," said the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chair MK Yuval Steinitz (Likud) after the meeting. "Therefore, instead of asking the government to make a final decision in April or May, he will ask the government to make a final decision in January or February."

Steiniz said that Sharon had planned to seek cabinet approval in April or May for the actual removal of all 21 settlements in Gaza and a further four in the northern West Bank, but was advised by Attorney General Menachem Mazuz to speed up ratification.

At the committee meeting, Sharon said also that the evacuation of Gush Katif settlements will go ahead according to plan, but not under fire.

Gaza terrorists capable to hitting crop dusters

The prime minister also told the committee that Gaza terrorist organizations now have shoulder-mounted missiles, and there are mounting concerns that they will shoot down crop dusters flying over agricultural zones next to the Strip.

Sharon said that crop dusting was continuing in the area, despite the growing fears, and Israel has warned the relevant organizations in the Strip that if any Israeli aircraft is damaged in the area Israel will respond with harsh measures.

Sharon came under fire from right-wing MKs during Monday's meeting, who claimed the Israel Defense Forces are helpless against the mortar fire inflicted on settlements in the Gaza Strip.

MK Shaul Yahalom (National Religious Party) accused Sharon of not giving the IDF a free hand to act against the mortars, and blood is being spilt recklessly.

Sharon said in response that there are no restrictions on the security forces. He said that he and the government put "constant pressure on the IDF to act to put an end to mortar fire, and any statement to the contrary is malicious and solely to score political points."

Sharon vowed that the planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and West Bank will not be carried out under fire. "During the evacuation - the fire shall not persist," Sharon said resolutely. "We have passed on to the Palestinians severe warnings through the U.S. and EU, that we will not allow shooting during the evacuation, and that our response will be very harsh," Sharon said.