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Israel pushes Gaza offensive, faces vote on pullout
Updated: 2004-10-11 09:18

An Israeli air strike killed a Palestinian militant in Gaza on Sunday, the 11th day of an offensive Prime Minister Ariel Sharon hopes will defuse internal resistance to his plan for withdrawing from some occupied land.

Israel's parliament reconvenes on Monday for what is likely to be a tempestuous winter session leading to critical votes on "disengagement" from Gaza and part of the West Bank that could decide Sharon's political fate.

If, as pundits predict, a key rightist ally bolts his coalition in response to parliamentary passage of his plan for evacuating more than 8,000 Jewish settlers in 2005, Sharon could be forced into early elections to salvage it.

Israeli forces have killed 90 Palestinians since storming into Gaza on Sept. 30 to crush Islamic militants who fire rockets into Israel -- Israel's biggest thrust inside the territory since the 2000 onset of a Palestinian uprising.

On Sunday, an Israeli aircraft missile hit militants planting a bomb in Gaza's Jabalya refugee camp, killing one of them and wounding two others, witnesses and the army said.

Hours earlier, witnesses said an Israeli air strike blew apart a Jabalya home and killed a man walking to his job as a schoolteacher. Military sources denied Israel was involved.

The house was next to the main mosque of local Hamas militants who have dispatched several suicide bombers from it, residents said. At the time, Israeli warplanes and pilotless drones were heard buzzing over Jabalya, a militant hotbed. "We were asleep and suddenly there was a loud explosion and the ground shook," a Jabalya resident said. "Three women neighbours were wounded and several other houses collapsed."

An Israel military source said Israeli forces had fired at militants in the area but only with light arms and several hours before the time Jabalya residents said the missile crashed down.

Palestinian medics and security sources have identified at least 51 of the dead as militants and the rest as civilians.

A senior Israeli official, in a briefing to reporters on Sunday, said all but nine Palestinian dead were combatants.

He said they included members of Qassam rocket squads, units of men with anti-tank weapons, units planting mines in Jabalya's narrow streets, and three lookouts.

"There are no plans to end this operation at the moment. Palestinians are still managing to fire off one Qassam per day," the official said.

Three Israelis have also died since the start of the raid.

Despite U.S. and international pleas for restraint, Sharon last week ordered the army to intensify the assault begun after militants killed two children in a cross-border rocket strike.

The fatal salvo into Sderot fanned the opposition of nationalist hawks in Sharon's camp to any pullback from lands Israel took in the 1967 Middle East war.

Militants have cranked up assaults in Gaza in hopes of portraying any withdrawal as retreat under fire. Sharon is determined to prevent any such impression strengthening his foes by hammering the militants into quiescence first.

He was to kick off parliament's new session on Monday with an address sketching out "disengagement", followed by what is sure to be fierce debate in a polarised chamber leading to a Nov. 3 vote on a bill for compensating evacuated settlers.

Commentators say the crucial bill is likely to pass with the help of the dovish Labour opposition, which favours pullouts.

But a pro-settler religious party in Sharon's coalition has indicated it will defect if the die is cast for withdrawals.

This would leave Sharon with just 55 seats in the 120-mandate parliament and pitch Israel into early elections, which would probably delay "disengagement" beyond next year.

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