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Israel to hold on to main West Bank settlement blocs
Updated: 2006-02-08 10:15

Israel will retain its main West Bank settlement blocs and all of Jerusalem when its permanent borders are drawn, but it will give up parts of the West Bank where most Palestinians live, said acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in his clearest statement of Israel's future.

Olmert's interview on Channel 2 TV was his first since taking power a month ago, replacing Ariel Sharon, who is still in a coma after suffering a massive stroke January 4. Olmert staked out the center ahead of Israel's general election on March 28, with the Kadima Party he inherited from Sharon holding a solid lead in the polls.

"We will disengage from most of the Palestinian population that lives in Judea and Samaria," Olmert said, using the biblical names for the West Bank. "That will obligate us to leave territories under Israeli control today."

Olmert indicated Israel might set its own borders if no agreement can be reached with the Palestinians.

Olmert told Channel 2 that Israel would retain "united Jerusalem," a term understood as encompassing the eastern section claimed by the Palestinians for the capital of the state they hope to create. On Tuesday, Olmert toured construction sites of the separation barrier Israel is building in the Jerusalem area and said its completion is "the highest priority."

The barrier is to extend along the length of the West Bank, dipping into the territory to encircle the settlements Olmert listed and others. Israel says the barrier is necessary to keep suicide bombers out, but Palestinians denounce it as a land grab.

About three-fourths of Israel's 244,000 West Bank settlers live in the areas Olmert delineated in the TV interview, according to government figures and estimates by the Peace Now settlement watchdog group.

The bloc of settlements around Ariel is about 17 kilometers (10 miles) inside the West Bank, the farthest from the line. Gush Etzion and Maaleh Adumim are near Jerusalem.

While stating specifically that the three blocs would remain in Israel, he used a different formula for the Jordan River valley: "It is impossible to abandon control of the eastern border of Israel," he said, without referring to Israeli sovereignty or the string of small settlements there. He refused to give more details.

Olmert also hinted that Israel might carry out further unilateral withdrawals from lands the Palestinians want for a state, like its summer pullout from the Gaza Strip _ especially now that Hamas militants sworn to Israel's destruction have swept Palestinian elections.

"We are going toward separation from the Palestinians," he said. "We are going toward determining a permanent border for the state of Israel."

Olmert said he is "not giving up" on the internationally backed "road map" peace plan, which calls for negotiations toward a Palestinian state. Pressed about whether he would move unilaterally if there are no talks, Olmert said, "Let's not talk hypotheticals."

Negotiations aimed at a peace treaty and a permanent border between Israel and the West Bank have been frozen for years. The Palestinians claim the whole territory, but Israel says the border is defined only by a cease-fire line and is negotiable.

Sharon created Kadima as a centrist alternative to the hard-line Likud Party he quit and parties on Israel's left that advocate leaving all or most of the West Bank and the part of Jerusalem the Palestinians claim.

Israel left Gaza in the summer, but violence continued there on Tuesday. Two Palestinian militants were killed in an Israeli airstrike.

The Israeli military said it targeted a car in Gaza City carrying Al Aqsa Martyears' Brigades militants involved in producing rockets to be fired at Israel. Earlier Israeli artillery and aircraft pounded northern Gaza, where militants have been launching rockets. Four landed in Israel on Tuesday, causing some damage.

Al Aqsa identified the dead as senior commanders and threatened revenge. Since Thursday, Israel has killed nine Gaza militants in airstrikes.

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