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Sharon wins cabinet vote on Gaza, new raid mounted
Updated: 2004-10-25 09:43

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won cabinet backing on Sunday for a bill on the nuts and bolts of a Gaza pullout, and hours later Israel launched a new raid in the Palestinian territory, killing three and wounding 16.

The plan would for the first time uproot Jewish settlements from land captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war and which Palestinians want for a state. It has triggered Israeli political turmoil and stirred warnings of civil strife.

In a sign of opposition to Sharon close to home, six coalition cabinet members -- five from his right-wing Likud party -- opposed the bill for compensating Jewish settlers who leave and punishing those who resist. Thirteen voted for it.

The Gaza plan, which polls show most Israelis support, will be debated by parliament on Monday and is widely expected to pass with 67 votes in the 120-member Knesset only because Sharon would have left-wing opposition parties behind him.

Violence in the coastal territory of 8,000 Jews and 1.3 million Palestinians has soared in anticipation of a withdrawal.

Israel is determined to smash militant groups before quitting the area, while militants launch rocket and mortar attacks in a bid to claim the pullout as a victory.

Israeli forces killed five Palestinians, among them two militants and two policemen, in as many missile strikes in southern Gaza on Sunday, medics and witnesses said.

Four missile strikes were launched after dark as more than two dozen Israeli armored vehicles took up positions round the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis in a new crackdown against attacks on Jewish settlements.

Israeli tanks went into the western part of the Khan Younis refugee camp, bulldozing some farmland.

An Israeli military spokesman said the action was in response to at least 28 mortar bombs fired at the weekend. No casualties were reported from the mortar attacks.

Once the settlers' champion, Sharon has become the target of their ire. They stake a biblical claim to the land and say that leaving it will reward and encourage Palestinian attacks in a four-year-old uprising against Israeli occupation.

The former general says his plan for "disengagement" from years of conflict with the Palestinians will make Israel easier to defend while strengthening its hold on West Bank settlements far bigger than those in Gaza -- all with Washington's support.

Settlers are expected to get up to $500,000 per family for quitting the 21 Gaza settlements and four of 120 in the West Bank next year. Any who clash with the soldiers evicting them face up to five years in jail.

"The law will make things as easy as possible for the settlers who will be evacuated and I am certain that even those who oppose the disengagement plan will not want to make things difficult for the settlers," Sharon said at the cabinet meeting.

A cabinet law committee later added a measure to the 90-page bill that would permit jailing settlers aged 12 to 18 alongside adults who violently resist evacuation, political sources said.

An internal report by government lawyers, leaked on Sunday, said Israel's withdrawal from Gaza would not end the Jewish state's occupation of the territory.

The report said Israel's plan to retain control of Gaza's airspace, coast, borders and a security zone would leave it with some responsibility for the coastal strip even after removing Jewish settlements and soldiers from the area.

Most Palestinians suspect the plan will spell an end to any peace negotiations and leave them only with impoverished Gaza and without a viable state.

If the Knesset's vote -- expected on Tuesday -- were to go against Sharon, it could spell the end of the withdrawal plan and his government.

Abandoning settlements would require another vote in March.

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