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In his dry and declamatory way, Ariel Sharon turned the Israeli reality on its head this week.

In the speech that he delivered to the nation, he did not apologize to the settlers (the truth is that they should be apologizing to the citizens of Israel, who were forced to pay - monetarily and in human terms - for the expensive adventure in Gaza). He spoke words of truth that no prime minister before him ever dared to say.

For the first time, we heard the reason for the shift in his position: demography. It is demography that forced the evacuation of Gaza on anyone wishing to live in a state with a Jewish majority and who is not prepared to rely on the messiah. The approximately 1.3 million Arabs now living in the Gaza Strip are what changed Sharon's mind. "We will not be able to hold onto Gaza forever. Over a million Palestinians live there, and they are doubling in number every generation."

Indeed, on the eve of the disengagement, Jews became a minority between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. The percentage of Jews living in territories controlled by Israel is now 49 percent; after the withdrawal from Gaza, they will once again be in the majority.

In the same speech, Sharon expressed compassion for the other side: "They are crowded into especially densely populated refugee camps, in poverty and suffering, in hothouses of increasingly rising hatred, without any horizon of hope."

These, too, are new words, which essentially place responsibility for the suffering and high unemployment that have developed in the Gaza Strip during the Israeli occupation. Not only did we not invest there, not only did we not build or develop, but we exploited them as a cheap labor force, we sold them our `Grade B' and `freshness date expired,' and we did not enable them to build up an industry that might have competed with its Israeli counterpart, heaven forbid. In Gush Katif, 7,500 people gained control over 20 percent of the land in Gaza, and over more than 20 percent of the water. If that is not cruel colonialism, then what is?

Sharon's speech indicates that he has very belatedly reached the obvious conclusion that the immense gap between the villas and the tin shacks would end with a huge explosion, a bloodbath, and this is what he wishes to prevent. He understood that life "without any horizon of hope" is a proven prescription for turning human beings into walking bombs.

Sharon did not use his speech to joyfully declare that he has no intention of withdrawing from even one millimeter of Judea and Samaria. In fact, he opened the door to a continuation of the process: "The world is awaiting the Palestinian response, a hand toward peace or the fire of terrorism. We will respond to the outstretched hand with an olive leaf, but we will respond to fire with stronger fire than ever before."

Herein lies a hint that the Gaza prototype, with requisite corrections, would be applied in areas to the east. In an interview appearing in last Friday's Yedioth Ahronoth, Sharon provided a few more details about his plans for the West Bank: "Not everything will remain; the settlement blocs will remain."

Toward of the end of the speech, Sharon offered another, surprising, diagnosis: "The disengagement will give us a chance to look inside ourselves. The agenda will change. Economic policy will find the time to address closing the social gaps and a real war on poverty."

You could hardly believe your ears. For this is the exact argument of the left: that the settlements were built at the expense of the development towns, investment in infrastructures, in roads, in education and vocational training, and are therefore the major cause of social and economic gaps and poverty.

At this point, Sharon has the opportunity to stop the demolition of the 2,000 homes in the evacuated settlements. Why destroy a means of production that can slightly reduce the poverty and suffering?

Some would argue that the Palestinians want us to demolish the homes. So what? Since when have we become their demolition contractors? Let them destroy the buildings if they want to. Mahmoud Abbas recently said in an interview on Channel 1 that he would like us to leave the homes standing, "so that they can be used for the benefit of the Palestinian people." Tzipi Livni, who supports demolition: did you hear that?

The disengagement should be exploited to send a message of conciliation, of civil behavior. The British did not demolish, and neither did the Turks. Sharon should therefore stop the bulldozer today.