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OPT: Sharon says Gaza pullout meant to strengthen Jerusalem

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JERUSALEM, Jun 16, 2005 (Xinhua via COMTEX) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said on Thursday that the Gaza disengagement plan is meant to strengthen areas whose strategic importance is high, like Jerusalem, the Galilee and the Negev desert.

Sharon made the remarks at a conference on the development of the Galilee at the Ort Braude College of Engineering in Carmiel in northern part of Israel.

"I am not prepared to accept the claim that leaving Gaza is the trampling of Zionism but the strengthening of Zionism in areas that are much more important, and that's what must be done in the Galilee," Sharon told the conference.

He rejected reports that the plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and part of the northern West Bank could be delayed past mid- August.

Sharon pledged to "bring a temporary injunction before the cabinet Sunday to lower property prices in the Galilee."

Thursday's conference was controversial and boycotted by Arab mayors in the Galilee area for the absence of Arab speakers.

The chairman of the Israeli Arab Follow-up Committee Shuki Hatib published a statement, calling it a "racist conference which is the continuation of the policy to 'Judaize' the Galilee."

The absence of speakers representing the Galilee's Arab sector proves "that the development of the Galilee is done on an ethnic, national basis and serves the Jewish population only," slammed Hatib.

He warned that the conference might increase tension between Arabs and Jews in the area.

The conference was also boycotted by two Jewish mayors of Ma'alot and Upper Nazareth, Shlomo Buchbut and Menachem Ariav, who criticized that the organizer should consult the Arabs about the conference, which is agreed by Shmuel Abuab, director general of the Israeli Housing and Construction Ministry.

"It is important to make it clear to the Arabs that they are an inseparable part of the Galilee and that they will be represented at the conference," said Abuab.