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Israel will ask the United States for $2.2 billion to pay for its planned withdrawal from the occupied Gaza Strip, one of the largest-ever aid requests by the Jewish state, Israeli political sources said on Monday.
They said the special funding would be used to pay for the pullout from Gaza and a corner of the West Bank slated to begin in the middle of next month, and to relocate some 9,000 evacuated Jewish settlers to underpopulated areas of Israel.
"This is our biggest aid request in my memory -- which is hardly surprising given the unprecedented scale of the Disengagement Plan," a senior Israeli political source said.
Israel's Haaretz daily, which first reported the request, said it would be formally submitted by top aides to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in a meeting with U.S. National Security Council official Elliot Abrams scheduled for Monday evening.
The Bush administration has agreed in principle to help fund the Gaza plan, Haaretz said. Washington wants the withdrawals to consolidate a five-month-old truce and spur talks on a U.S.-led "road map" for a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel. Israel is already among the largest recipients of U.S. aid, getting around $2.8 billion annually. Much of the funding comes in the form of grants that are spent on U.S. military exports.
The normally robust Israeli-U.S. defense ties have been shaken in recent months by Pentagon anger at Israel's sale of advanced weaponry to China. Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz is due to make a fence-mending visit to Washington next week.
The Bush administration has also voiced misgivings at Israel's construction of a vast barrier through the West Bank, fearing it could imperil future talks with the Palestinians.
GAZA TO GALILEE
Sharon casts the pullout as "disengagement" from 4 1/2 years of fighting with the Palestinians. He faces mounting hostility from rightists who condemn the move as a betrayal of Jewish claims on biblical land and a reward for a Palestinian revolt.
The cost of the Gaza withdrawal, the first time Israel will have uprooted settlements from occupied land Palestinians want for a state, is estimated at 8 billion shekels ($1.74 billion).
The Israelis evacuated from Gaza's 21 settlements and from another four West Bank settlements are eligible for relocation funds, and have been encouraged by the government to move to the underdeveloped Galilee and Negev regions. But Sharon has said this will require heavy investment in new infrastructure. Including the costs of withdrawal, Israel has set a budget deficit target of 3.4 percent of gross domestic product -- still above the 3 percent it had promised the United States in order to win $9 billion in local guarantees from 2003.
The government has allocated costs as an addition to the state budget and will spread them over three years to keep the deficit from rising significantly.
Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the United States should have no trouble with Israel exceeding its deficit target as the pullout is a one-time event with full U.S. support.
While welcoming any Israeli withdrawals, the Palestinians suspect Sharon plans to leave them tiny Gaza while cementing Israel's hold on swathes of settlements in the West Bank.
The West Bank barrier, which Israel calls a bullwark against Palestinian suicide bombers, has further fueled such fears.
Israel's cabinet on Sunday approved a section of the barrier that would separate 55,000 Palestinian residents of Jerusalem from the city center.
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