"The government today is discussing deciding on the issue of evacuating settlements included in the disengagement plan," Sharon said. "It is not an easy day. It is not a happy day. The evacuation of settlements in Gaza and northern Samaria is a difficult step. It is a very difficult one. It is difficult for the residents. It is difficult for the citizens of Israel. It is difficult for me. And I am sure it also is difficult for members of the government. But it is a crucial step for the future of the state of Israel."
Sharon's withdrawal plan has been called a possible step toward peace by both Israelis and Palestinians. Today's approval of the plan by the Israeli cabinet comes amid cautious optimism after a truce agreement announced earlier in February in Egypt by Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
The cabinet vote means the closure of all Jewish settlements in Gaza -- along with the withdrawal of more than 8,000 Jewish settlers from those areas starting in July. Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has said the entire process is expected to take about eight weeks.
In addition, four of the 120 Jewish settlements in the West Bank also are to be closed by Israel.
Israeli Minister of Housing and Construction Itzhak Herzog said support from Israel's opposition Labor Party guaranteed passage of the disengagement plan.
"It means today that with the addition of the Labour Party in the government, the government is passing one of the most historical resolutions in the history of the state of Israel," Herzog said. "It's a painful resolution. But it will change the course of the region."
Sharon has tried for more than a year to get his withdrawal plan past conservative hardliners in Israel. The hard-liners oppose plans to cede land captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.
Opinion polls show most Israelis welcome the withdrawal. But many settlers think the land is a Biblical birthright.
The Israeli cabinet still must hold separate votes to set each phase of the evacuation into motion. Those decisions will determine exactly when each settlement will be closed down.
Analysts said the need for those additional votes could still thwart the process. That's because opponents of disengagement could use a pending budget vote to bring down Sharon's government before details are finalized. Sharon has been trying to win support from different political factions on the budget. If he fails by the end of March, new elections must be called.
If Sharon's government survives the budget vote and disengagement details are finalized, it is estimated that about 6,000 Israeli troops and police would be involved in removing each settlement.
Settler leaders have urged nonviolent resistance. But Israeli security officials say they fear there could still be bloody confrontations between their troops and settlers.
Concern that withdrawals might be hampered by attacks from Palestinian militants have receded somewhat since Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas agreed upon a ceasefire with Sharon earlier this month.
Palestinian factions have not formalized the agreement. But so far, they have maintained a de facto truce.