Israeli army raids Gaza, Sharon to amend pullout plan
Israeli forces raided the Gaza town of Khan Younis early on Tuesday, after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he would amend his plan to withdraw from Gaza following a stinging defeat in a party referendum.
Helicopter gunships, backing up a column of tanks that thrust into Khan Younis shortly after midnight, launched a missile at gunmen firing at Israeli forces. One gunman and a 15-year-old bystander were killed and others wounded, medics said.
"If anyone thinks for a moment that these results mean deadlock, sitting around and waiting for what will come next, they are wrong," said Sharon, a 76-year-old former general and godfather of the settlement movement before a recent about-face.
Sharon's allies said that while the referendum result was a humiliating reverse, he would not retreat since his landmark plan for "disengagement" from conflict with Palestinians enjoyed the support of most Israelis.
He is also keen not to alienate Washington, which reversed decades of policy and incurred Arab anger by assuring Israel it would not have to cede the whole West Bank under any peace deal, if it unilaterally vacated Gaza.
"There is no doubt disengagement is inevitable and unstoppable," Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said of the plan to end Israel's 37-year occupation of the crowded Mediterranean territory, while keeping parts of the larger West Bank.
"In the end it will happen because the alternative is more murder, terrorism and attacks without us having any wise answer for what 7,500 Jewish (settlers) are doing among 1.2 million Palestinians (in Gaza)," Olmert told Israel Radio.
In Khan Younis in southern Gaza, at least two buildings were razed by bulldozers during the night raid and several civilians were injured in the helicopter missile strike, medics said.
The army said the operation was directed against militants operating in the area following Sunday's killing of a pregnant Jewish settler and her four children. The army said Palestinian gunmen had shot the children dead at point-blank range. The attack took place during voting in the Likud referendum, generating a tide of opposition to Sharon's pullout plan.
Sharon did not say what changes he had in mind. But Likud sources said one way of rallying the party behind him might be to vacate only those Gaza enclaves "most exposed" to violence.
Shimon Peres, the leader of the opposition Labour Party and a close friend of Sharon, advised the prime minister not to scale back the withdrawal plan in an effort to salvage it.
Sharon warned "difficult decisions will need to be made" in talks with his coalition cabinet and party factions. A Sharon confidant said he would make his first moves by Thursday.
His blueprint for "disengagement" is bitterly opposed by Palestinians because it entails holding on to larger settlement blocs in the West Bank, depriving Palestinians of swathes of land they want for an independent state.
The White House reaffirmed its backing for Sharon's plan after the Likud vote and said it would examine options with him.
It called the initiative "a courageous and important step toward peace." The "road map" peace plan for Palestinian statehood in Gaza and the West Bank is stymied by persistent violence, which Washington blames on Palestinian militant attacks.
The "quartet" responsible for the road map -- the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations -- meet in New York on Tuesday to discuss their next step in the face of further bloodshed, the U.S. policy shift and Likud vote.