Sharon asks parliament to OK removing settlers

Proposal to withdraw from Gaza Strip sets off screaming lawmakers

October 26, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Calling it the most difficult decision of a career that has spanned the history of Israel and all its wars, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon asked parliament yesterday to approve his plan to withdraw settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank.

Lawmakers repeatedly interrupted the prime minister, turning the opening of a two-day debate into a screaming match that prompted the ejection of four members and reflecting the divisions of the country over ceding land that some view as a religious entitlement.

"This is a fateful hour for Israel," Sharon began, immediately drawing loud jeers. "We are on the threshold of a difficult decision, the likes of which we have seldom faced."

The prime minister, an early champion of settlements, said of settlers, "I am well aware of the fact that I sent them and took part in this enterprise. ... I am well aware of their pain, rage and despair." But, "I am determined to complete this mission."

Sharon wants to evacuate 8,100 settlers from Gaza, also home to 1.3 million Palestinians, and from four isolated settlements in the West Bank next year. It would end the formal Israeli occupation of Gaza that has lasted 37 years, but without there being a formal agreement with the Palestinians over who will exercise authority there.

Violence, meanwhile, continued in Gaza. After a barrage of mortar fire hit nearby settlements yesterday, the Israeli army raided the outskirts of the Khan Younis refugee camp, killing 16 Palestinians - four said to be civilians, the rest gunmen.

Sharon is expected to prevail in a vote scheduled for tonight, but he lacks support from some members of his own rightist Likud party and might have to rely on the opposition Labor party to muster a majority.

Call for referendum

Of the 40 Likud ministers in parliament, 17 are threatening to vote against disengagement from Gaza unless Sharon agrees to a national referendum on the issue. Although polls show that Sharon would win, he opposes the vote, calling it a stall tactic.

Sharon said this week that he would seek to expand his coalition by inviting Labor into the government to preserve his majority. If that fails, Sharon said, he would call for new elections.

Opposition lawmakers are warning that a slim victory in parliament will not give Sharon the mandate he needs to carry out a proposal deemed a stunning reversal of Israeli policy.

"Numerically he can get a majority, but only on the fingers of the opposition," Effi Eitan, the chairman of the right-wing National Religious party, said after he was ejected for repeatedly interrupting the prime minister. "It means he is not a legitimate prime minister anymore. It is time for new elections."

The intensity of debate can be seen in the thousands of protesters who gathered outside parliament yesterday, with more expected today, and by the public relations efforts being waged by both sides.

Settlers are distributing video clips of a 12-year-old girl from a Gaza settlement who lost her legs to a Palestinian bomb. The girl, showing her prosthetic limbs to the camera, says, "I don't understand what kind of soldier will be willing to drag me from my home and ruin my life for a second time."

Supporters of the pullout plan countered with an impassioned letter from a mother of two soldiers serving in Gaza: "The Gaza Strip is a murky swamp turned into a death camp, and my children are there. Neither they nor I know why."

The debate inside parliament was no less intense, with those lining up for and against Sharon an odd mix of characters. Arab lawmakers are split, with some supporting the disengagement plan as a first step toward ending the Israeli occupation of Gaza and others calling it sham to preserve settlements in the West Bank.

Unexpected allies

Some of Sharon's past allies oppose withdrawal, while some of his longtime critics have offered him support. In a scene that most Israelis would never believe had it not unfolded on television, Ehud Olmert, the right-wing former mayor of Jerusalem and avid Sharon supporter, addressed a leftist Peace Now rally outside parliament and was cheered.

Inside parliament, opponents complained that Sharon was giving up land to the Palestinians without getting anything in return.

"If we give it all back today, when we have someone to talk to tomorrow, what will we talk about?" said Eliyahu Yishai, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

Another Shas lawmaker, Nissim Dahan, said it is permissible to surrender territory only within the framework of a "real peace treaty that would end bloodshed. With a reliable partner there is room for disengagement, but to abandon the area to murderers?"

Sharon appeared to be at ease, although he described his decision as "unbearably difficult." He did not raise his voice throughout his half-hour speech and ignored the lengthy interruptions by opponents, who for the most part shouted, "Go home."

He merely paused and stared down as Speaker Reuvin Rivlin yelled and banged his gavel to regain order.

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