Sharon to offer new Gaza proposal

Israeli leader makes vow a day after original lost

violence erupts in strip

May 04, 2004|By Laura King | Laura King,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM - Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared himself unbowed yesterday by his party's crushing rebuff of a U.S.-endorsed plan to withdraw Israeli soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip as new violence erupted there today.

An Israeli attack helicopter fired a missile early yesterday at a group of armed Palestinians in a Gaza refugee camp, according to the Associated Press, killing one and wounding at least 14, residents and doctors said.

Also, Israeli troops took up positions around Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's office building in the West Bank city of Ramallah early today, witnesses said.

Witnesses to the Khan Yunis refugee camp violence said the group targeted by the helicopter included gunmen. The attack came during an Israeli military operation in the camp. Tanks and bulldozers leveled land and tore down buildings across from a Jewish settlement.

In the move on Arafat's offices, witnesses said Israeli military vehicles surrounded the complex and soldiers took over buildings across from the compound. There were no reports of gunfire.

Arresting suspects

Israeli military officials said soldiers were arresting suspects, but the operation was not linked to Arafat's office.

Sharon said he would come up with another plan after his conservative Likud Party rejected his Gaza pullout initiative by a 3-2 margin.

The prime minister also said he would bring his new proposal, the outlines of which were not disclosed, to his divided Cabinet and to the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, for approval.

Jewish settlers and their supporters mounted a highly effective grass-roots campaign against Sharon's plan, defeating it by a much larger than forecast margin.

The vote was overshadowed - and perhaps influenced - by the death of a pregnant Gaza settler and her four young children in a shooting attack by Palestinian gunmen while the polling was taking place.

Sharon and his allies said the success or failure of his initiative to withdraw from Gaza could not rest only with registered Likud members, only half of whom - fewer than 100,000 people - turned out for the vote.

Sixty percent of those voting rejected Sharon's plan; about 40 percent were in favor. Those voting in the referendum made up only about 1 percent of the Israeli public.

As heavily as the vote went against the initiative, few appeared to regard it as a personal snub of a popular leader. Underscoring that, the prime minister easily survived a parliamentary vote of confidence yesterday.

Palestinians, somewhat bemused to find themselves in Sharon's corner during the campaign - albeit quietly - described the Likud balloting as an internal Israeli affair. Some officials, though, were dismayed to see the withdrawal initiative voted down.

Palestinians had said that any Israeli pullout from Palestinian territory would be a positive development, although many were worried that Sharon intended to use the Gaza withdrawal as a pretext for seizing large swaths of the West Bank.

"It is very strange when ... so few people decide the fate of Israel, the peace process and relations between Israelis and Palestinians," said Palestinian lawmaker Ziyyad Abu Ziyyad. "I believe the right step should be to return to the negotiating table."

Sharon must weigh his next move carefully. If he seeks support for his revamped plan from his Cabinet, he might face overt opposition this time from Likud members such as Benjamin Netanyahu, who has a strong following within the party.

The prime minister's office said he did not intend to fire Netanyahu, the finance minister, although political sources described Sharon as furious over his longtime rival's perceived undermining of the Gaza plan.

The Gaza settlers were careful yesterday not to gloat over the results, saying they were in mourning over the deaths of Tali Hatuel, 34, and her four daughters ranging in age from 11 to 2.

The family's car came under fire by two Palestinian gunmen - killed in turn by Israeli troops - as Hatuel was on her way to lobby against Sharon's plan at Likud polling places in Israel.

Israeli troops moved yesterday to clear structures they said provided cover to potential assailants along the settlers-only road in the central Gaza Strip where Hatuel and her children were killed. Soldiers demolished 22 homes near the shooting site, Palestinian witnesses said.

In a token of their determination to remain in place, settlers in the Gaza community of Neve Deqalim, in the Gush Katif settlement cluster, broke ground yesterday for a new neighborhood.

Feelings on Gaza

Polls have suggested that most Israelis are prepared to relinquish Gaza, where about 7,500 settlers live among more than 1.2 million Palestinians. Large numbers of Israeli troops secure the settlement enclaves.

Quarreling over Sharon's plan, which estranged him from the settlers who once lionized him, has produced some strange political bedfellows.

One of the most staunch defenders of the prime minister's Gaza initiative is Shimon Peres, leader of the left-leaning Labor Party, who urged yesterday that a new election be held and expressed hopes that it would culminate in a decision to move ahead with such a pullout.

"We are at a crossroads," Peres told Labor lawmakers. "Either the process to free us from the burden of occupation is dying or being born. ... I propose that we make a clear move to rescue the process the majority of Israelis desire."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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