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Likud argues over Gaza pullout plan

Parliament members eye referendum

JERUSALEM -- Supporters and opponents of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon argued heatedly yesterday over the need for a national referendum on the government's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

In a twist even for serpentine Israeli politics, Sharon is resisting a referendum although he would almost certainly win it, after having lost two internal votes within his Likud party over the plan.

Tensions flared during a meeting of Likud's members of parliament called to discuss the referendum idea.

''I can't let him do this to the Land of Israel," said lawmaker Yehiel Hazan, who opposes the pullout, referring to the biblical term for the land promised to the Jews.

''Gaza is not the Land of Israel!" Sharon backer Doron Attias retorted, reflecting a rabbinical disagreement over the biblical boundaries.

Sharon was for decades the patron of settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, building and expanding the enclaves while serving in successive Israeli governments. But he changed his policy last December and declared Israel must evacuate all 21 Gaza settlements because the 8,200 Jews living there had no future among 1.3 million Palestinians.

Sharon's own party balked, and its members are leading the drive demanding a national referendum. The prime minister plans to put the pullout plan to a vote in parliament next week and opposes a referendum, calling it a stalling tactic that would delay the withdrawal for up to a year.

Opposition to the Gaza pullout already cost Sharon his parliamentary majority, leaving his governing coalition vulnerable to no-confidence motions, but the opposition so far has been unable to muster an absolute majority in parliament to move up elections now set for 2006.

A day after rejecting settler leaders' demands for a referendum in a stormy meeting Sunday, Sharon was slightly more open to his own party rebels yesterday. Coalition chairman Gideon Saar said Sharon still opposed a referendum, but agreed to appoint a task force to study the issue.

About half Likud's parliament members oppose evacuating the Gaza settlements and four small ones in the West Bank, joining the settlers in warning that would lead to increased international pressure to give up the remaining enclaves. About 236,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank.

Critics of withdrawal say Israeli voters should decide such a weighty issue -- the first time Israel would remove an authorized settlement from the West Bank and Gaza.

Polls say about two-thirds of Israelis back the proposal, and the plan is expected to sail through the parliament with the backing of dovish opposition parties. That leads some Sharon supporters to argue that the opponents' real goal is to stall the withdrawal in hopes a delay will kill the initiative.

Violence has increased in the Gaza Strip in recent months as Israel and Palestinian militants each try to declare victory ahead of the planned withdrawal.

Yesterday, two Palestinian gunmen who slipped into Israel from Gaza were killed after a lengthy gunbattle with Israeli soldiers, the military said. The Islamic militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for the infiltration.

The army also killed two Palestinians who planted a bomb in southern Gaza, near the border with Egypt, the military said. The extremist group Islamic Jihad said the men were its members.

In an attack near the Kissufim crossing between Gaza and Israel, two gunmen fired at a military vehicle and wounded one soldier, the army said. The troops returned fire and apparently killed the two men, the army said. Islamic Jihad said one of its militants was killed.

Late yesterday, armed members of two Palestinian intelligence services exchanged fire in Gaza City.

Six people were wounded, hospital officials said. It was not clear what set off the gunfight, but some said it might have been a clan feud.

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