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Arafat expels 20 militants from compound
Updated: 2004-04-23 08:59

Yasser Arafat expelled 20 wanted militants from his compound Thursday in an apparent bid to forestall an Israeli raid, a further sign the Palestinian leader fears he might become a target himself.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, meanwhile, backed away from a promise to honor an upcoming vote by his Likud party on a proposal to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, senior government officials said. A new poll showed shrinking support for the plan.

Violence persisted Thursday, with Israeli soldiers killing a 9-year-old Palestinian girl and a 16-year-old boy in clashes in the Gaza town of Beit Lahiya. A 4-year-old Palestinian girl died of tear gas inhalation, doctors said. Three Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank town of Tulkarem were also killed.

Two Israeli soldiers were seriously wounded in the Gaza settlement of Kfar Darom when Palestinians fired an anti-tank missile, the military said.

Israel retaliated hours later as tanks ripped up farmland near that settlement and ordered a family out of a house, residents said. The military said the missile was fired from the house, and soldiers were tearing down the structure.

Israel has stepped up attacks on Gaza militants in advance of the proposed withdrawal, killing Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin last month and new leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi on Saturday.

Arafat has become increasingly worried he would be next, Palestinian officials said. The Israeli Cabinet decided last year to "remove" Arafat, who it accuses of fomenting terror during 3 1/2 years of violence, though it has never acted on the decision.

Arafat has remained holed up in his Ramallah compound for nearly two years, since Israel launched an operation to rout Palestinian militant groups. He fears Israel might not let him return or could kill him if he leaves.

During the operation, about 40 fugitives from the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a militia affiliated with Arafat's Fatah movement, sought refuge in Arafat's compound.

Arafat threw the men out under Israeli pressure last summer, but 26 came back in recent months, occupying a filthy, half- demolished back room where a blanket covers a collapsed wall.

About a week ago, five of the most-wanted militants were thrown out after Israel threatened to raid the compound and get them, a Palestinian security official said on condition of anonymity.

Apparently spurred by Israeli troop movements in Ramallah, Arafat visited the 20 remaining militants at about 3 a.m. Thursday and demanded they leave immediately, according to one of them, Ali Barghouti.

"We became fugitives to defend (Arafat) and now that we have become a burden, he is throwing us away," Barghouti said angrily.

The only fugitive allowed to stay was a militant paralyzed in fighting with Israel, Arafat said.

Israeli security sources said they were not targeting Arafat, had not given him a specific warning about the fugitives and had no plans to raid his compound. The military activity nearby was routine, the sources said.

Also Thursday, Israeli officials said Sharon viewed a May 2 Likud Party vote on his plan to pull out of Gaza and four West Bank settlements as an "advisory referendum."

Even if the plan is voted down by the party's 200,000 registered voters, Sharon will still present it to the Cabinet and parliament for approval, one senior official said.

Sharon proposed the Likud referendum last month and promised to honor its outcome.

Sharon spokesman Asaf Shariv insisted that if the plan "dies in the Likud, it dies completely." But in a speech to parliament Thursday, Sharon hinted he was not bound by the referendum. He called it "a public and moral duty, not a legal or binding duty."

Sharon's plan, which also includes completion of a West Bank barrier and the expansion of five West Bank settlement blocs, appeared to gain momentum after the prime minister got the backing of U.S. sident Bush and several key Likud ministers.

Recent surveys showed Likud would approve the referendum, and one poll Thursday gave the plan 51 percent support and 39 percent opposition. That survey, conducted for Israel Radio, had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

But another poll, published in the Haaretz newspaper, showed only 44 percent of Likud members support the plan and 40 percent oppose it. The poll had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.

Vice Premier Ehud Olmert, a Sharon confidant and proponent of the plan, said a withdrawal is inevitable. "The train has left the station and it won't stop until the last stop," he said.

Ignoring the referendum could further divide Sharon's hard-line party, which has led efforts to settle the West Bank and Gaza since Israel captured them in 1967.

However, the party would have little recourse to punish him. He can only be removed from power by a parliamentary no-confidence vote, which is unlikely to pass. Likud party spokesman Shmuel Dahan said the Likud constitution makes no reference to referendums, so party members could not discipline a leader for ignoring one.

"He is cheating the voters," settler spokesman Yehoshua Mor-Yosef said. "We understand that the prime minister is under pressure due to the latest polls, but we expect him to honor his previous statements."

In the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya, Israeli troops fired toward young stone-throwers from tank-mounted machine guns and also used tear gas. The army said Palestinians attacked troops with grenades, an anti-tank missile and firebombs. A 9-year-old Palestinian girl and a 16-year-old boy were killed, and a 4-year-old girl died of tear gas inhalation

Israel began its raid in the area Tuesday after militants launched rockets and mortars at nearby settlements. In all, 16 Palestinians in the area were killed in the past three days. At least six were civilians.

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