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The U.S. State Department yesterday praised the Knesset's approval of removing settlements from Gaza and part of the West Bank as a step forward in peacemaking with the Palestinians.

Deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said after the vote, "We think the withdrawal plan presents an opportunity to advance the interests of both sides. The United States believes that the Gaza disengagement plan, as presented by Prime Minister Sharon, offers real opportunity for progress and a return to the political process."

Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat also welcomed the vote, but said, "if the Israeli government is serious about peace, it should come back to the negotiating table to implement the road map and make the proposition for withdrawal from Gaza part of the road map, and not an alternative to it."

"We've been watching (them) discussing our future, the future of our children, the future of the Palestinians, with one factor - us being absent," Erekat added.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Sha'ath expressed his hopes that pullout from the Gaza Strip would be the first step toward an independent Palestinian state.

Hamas hailed the vote as a victory.

Spokesman Mushir Al-Masri told Reuters, "The approval today of the Sharon plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip is a big achievement of the Palestinian people and the resistance, which alone has pushed the Zionist enemy to think of leaving Gaza."