Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's career of more than half a century in the military and as a politician has been largely concerned with drawing and redrawing the borders of Israel. His grandest cartography project of recent years was rapidly implemented by Israeli soldiers and police in the Gaza Strip this week. The operation to remove the 8,000 settlers from the densely packed coastal enclave, which began on Wednesday, was a unilateral step towards setting Israel's permanent boundaries that will determine Mr Sharon's own political fate at home and reverberate on the shape of relations with the Palestinians for years to come. The Israeli government has described the pullout as a historic and painful move towards peace. 'This is a potential turning point in the history of the Middle East, the significance of which cannot be underestimated,' says Ehud Olmert, the vice-premier and a leading Sharon ally. For the first time, Mr Olmert said, the 1.3 million Palestinians in Gaza will have the chance to administer themselves without outside interference. He conceded, however, that Israel will retain all of Gaza's border passages, thus giving it a veto over who and what exits and enters the strip. Although the withdrawal plan is boosting Mr Sharon's status abroad, within Israel, it carries political risks, especially from his Likud party rival Benjamin Netanyahu, who has resigned as finance minister declaring that the pullout will transform Gaza into 'an Islamic terror base'. Whether he was guiding his forces across the Suez Canal during 1973 fighting with Egypt, directing Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, or spearheading its settlement drive in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip on and off for nearly three decades beginning in 1977, territory has always been at the centre of Mr Sharon's concerns. More than anyone else, it was Mr Sharon as agriculture minister, housing minister, defence minister and starting in 2001, prime minister, who sponsored the ideological settlers who moved to the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the name of biblical nationalism. The aim was simple: to take over as much land as possible, though the rationales varied from the historical to the strategic. Over the years, Mr Sharon described the Gaza settlements as being as integral to Israel as Tel Aviv, and essential for the country's defence. Now he says it is his disengagement plan that is the key to securing Israel's future and enhancing its international standing. And the self-styled warrior-farmer, who was for years treated as a pariah by much of the community for the 1982 Sabra and Shatilla massacre of Palestinians by Israeli-backed Lebanese militiamen during the Lebanon invasion, is being hailed by world leaders Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac and George W. Bush as a courageous visionary statesman. Gaza settlers don't view Mr Sharon that way. Many have personal anecdotes about his visits to open a school or community centre and to applaud them as being the true pioneers of the country. And because Mr Sharon disregarded the results of a party referendum that voted against his plans and refused to agree to a national referendum, they and their backers accuse him of being a dictator. This despite the plan's passage by parliament and overwhelming public support. They would never look at it this way, but the Gaza settlers have something in common with three million Palestinians in the occupied territories whose future state has been carved up into enclaves by Israeli settlements. They have become victims of Ariel Sharon's maps. Mr Sharon's new map of Greater Israel does not include the 21 Gaza colonies. Also absent from it are four isolated settlements in the northern West Bank. But why the apparent shrinking of Israeli borders from a man who has devoted most of his political career to expanding them? No one can say with certainty. To Mr Sharon's supporters, he is a visionary statesman who changed course at tremendous political risk and now favours territorial compromise to advance his country's best interests and strengthen prospects for peace in the region. To his critics, though, he is as intent as ever on territorial expansion at the Palestinians' expense. They say he is merely sacrificing the insignificant Gaza Strip settlements to pre-empt negotiations according to the international peace blueprint known as the roadmap and consolidate Israel's annexation of much of the West Bank, the heartland of any future Palestinian state. Significantly, the latter view is backed up by some of Mr Sharon's own statements and those of his advisers. The roadmap calls for the creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel. It calls on the Palestinians to dismantle militant groups and on Israel to freeze settlement construction. In Mr Olmert's view, by removing the Gaza settlements Mr Sharon is signalling readiness to make more concessions if only the Palestinians dismantle militant groups and set up effective administration. 'This is being done for one thing,' he says of the withdrawal. 'To lay the foundations for the beginning of a meaningful dialogue between us and the Palestinians. The pullout is in no way an attempt to trade off Gaza for the West Bank.' Other cabinet ministers have explained the pullout as a means to preserve Israel as both a Jewish state and democracy. The idea, they say, is to reduce the number of Palestinians, who have a higher birth rate than Jews, under Israeli control. According to Hebrew University demographer Sergio Della Pergola, the Gaza withdrawal ensures that there will be a Jewish majority for the next 20 years. Mr Olmert's disclaimers aside, Mr Sharon himself has said repeatedly, including during remarks this week, that Israel will retain the large settlement blocs in the West Bank under all circumstances - indeed, even expanding some - and he has depicted this as the US payoff for the Gaza withdrawal. Speaking last month just hours before the arrival of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Mr Sharon said during a visit to the Ariel settlement, deep inside the West Bank, that Israel would keep it forever and expand construction in its surrounding area. 'I have come here in order to see how it is possible to broaden the city and to strengthen the entire bloc, just as I am doing with other [settlement] blocs,' he said. 'This bloc will always be an inseparable part of Israel, territorially connected to it.' Mr Sharon added that while it had not been possible for Israel to 'achieve all of the dream' in terms of expanding its borders, 'what we have succeeded in doing is of great significance'. Last year a senior Sharon adviser, Dov Weisglass, said the Gaza withdrawal would apply 'formaldehyde' to the diplomatic process with the Palestinians for the foreseeable future, enabling Israel to keep 190,000 out of its 240,000 settlers in the West Bank. He repeated those figures - the total number of settlers in the large West Bank blocs - during remarks last week. But Uri Avnery, leader of the Gush Shalom peace group, predicts that Mr Sharon's Gaza withdrawal could have consequences he did not intend, including laying the groundwork for dismantling the settlement blocs in the West Bank by showing settlers to be an isolated minority. Whatever the real motives, Mr Sharon's Gaza withdrawal could have consequences some Israeli doves believe may be helpful to Middle East peace efforts in the long run. 'The settler movement has now shown itself to be the revolutionary movement of a messianic sect that does not enjoy the support of others,' says Mr Avnery, who is a left-wing former MP. He said: 'This movement is trying to create a trauma in Gaza so settlements are not removed in the West Bank. But it's possible the public will say, 'This is not so terrible. Let's finish the job'. If that is the case, Mr Sharon, the sponsor of the settlers, could go down in history as the prime minister who paved the way for their demise in Israeli politics and society.' Palestinian observers, however, are far more sceptical, doubting Mr Sharon's legacy will be that of an unlikely peacemaker. Palestinian analyst Hani Masri predicted that after the Gaza withdrawal, Mr Sharon would keep up the construction of the West Bank separation barrier inside occupied territory, and the expansion of West Bank settlements, while accusing the Palestinian Authority of failing to act against terrorism. That, said Mr Masri, would keep the peace roadmap at bay and enable Mr Sharon to thwart the emergence of a viable Palestinian state. Israel says the barrier is needed to prevent Palestinian attacks, but Palestinians view it as simply a way of annexing territory. 'Sharon does not want the roadmap,' says Mr Masri. 'He wants the Sharon map.'