Sharon plan for pullout from Gaza approved

Israeli parliament votes 67-45 to remove Jewish settlements

October 27, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Israel's parliament approved a plan last night to evacuate all Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and several in the West Bank, the first time Israeli lawmakers have voted to relinquish land that Palestinians want for an independent state.

The vote, 67-45 in favor of the withdrawal proposed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, came after 17 hours of often-harsh debate as thousands of protesters, pro and con, rallied outside the parliament building, ringed by heavily armed police. Seven of parliament's 120 lawmakers abstained, and one was absent because of serious illness.

It was a significant victory for Sharon, who described his unilateral disengagement plan as the most vexing decision of his life, but it came at considerable political cost. Seventeen of the 40 lawmakers in Sharon's Likud Party voted against his plan, splitting the country's dominant party.

Sharon prevailed with help from the opposition Labor Party, which supports disengagement as a first step toward ending the settlement enterprise in the West Bank and Gaza and forging a final peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Sharon's victory in parliament does not guarantee that the withdrawal will take place. His Cabinet must approve each of the four phases of the withdrawal before the first of some 8,100 Jewish settlers in Gaza can be moved; the first vote could come in March, with the 12-week evacuation process starting in June.

Sharon's chief rival within the Likud Party, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and three other Cabinet members have threatened to resign unless Sharon agrees within two weeks to hold a nationwide referendum on the plan. Each of the four voted in favor of the plan.

The National Religious Party, part of Sharon's coalition, voted against the withdrawal and threatened to leave the government unless a referendum is held. If the party bolted, Sharon would almost certainly have to call new elections or persuade Labor to join his government.

Labor Party leader Shimon Peres defended Sharon last night, describing demands for a referendum as a tactic of delay.

"What is this referendum?" Peres said in parliament. "It's like people in a boat who need a lifesaver and someone says, `Instead of a lifesaver, take a torpedo and you can all blow up.' In a democracy we don't rule with ultimatums, rifles and pistols, only with words."

Less than an hour after the vote, Sharon fired two Likud members of the Cabinet - Uzi Landau, a minister without portfolio, and Deputy Minister Michael Ratzan - who had voted against his plan.

The vote included a sense of theater. Aides pushed a Sharon supporter who had suffered a minor stroke into the chamber in a wheelchair. Even before the roll call was over, supporters of withdrawal stood in the aisles, shouted and even danced, prompting a stern admonition by Speaker Reuvin Rivlin that they had just voted to evict citizens from their homes.

`A gateway' for Israel

The outcome marked a striking transformation for Sharon, one of the figures largely responsible for the Jewish settlement movement. He opened the debate Monday by calling the Gaza withdrawal "a gateway to a different reality," one that would "strengthen Israel's grip over the land."

He acknowledged the suffering of Palestinians and expressed sorrow for the innocent lives lost in fighting. "We did not seek to build our lives in this homeland on your ruins," Sharon said.

Israeli newspapers ran banner headlines yesterday that reflected the lack of a middle ground. Yediot Ahronot hailed Sharon's "historic speech." Hatzofe, the voice of the settlers, called his remarks "a miserable speech by a liar."

A poll by the Dahaf Polling Institute, published yesterday by Yediot Ahronot, indicates that 65 percent of Israelis support the disengagement plan and 26 percent oppose it.

"The public has grown weary of slogans, of false messiahs, of the unholy sanctification of soil," columnist Sever Plotzker wrote, noting disenchantment with the settler movement.

Yediot Ahronot's veteran political reporter, Nahum Barnea, wrote that the vote ends "the relationship between Israel and the territories. Settlements will lose their sanctity, their immunity, the veto power that they have held over every thought of evacuation since 1967."

Fears for safety

There was considerable tension in the past two days over Sharon's safety, and police acknowledged concern about possible attempts on his life. Graffiti on a downtown building warned: "We assassinated Rabin, we'll assassinate Sharon."

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was gunned down in 1995 by an Israeli angered by his overtures to the Palestinians.

Last night, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said, "We don't know if another gun is loaded and ready to strike at Israeli democracy."

Rally in Jerusalem

Thousands of police surrounded the government complex in Jerusalem and blocked traffic around parliament. More than 15,000 settlers and their supporters rallied in a park next to the building.

Over the objections of the Education Ministry, schools in Gaza and the West Bank were closed and the students bused to Jerusalem, where settlement leaders said they would participate in a real-life civics lesson.

"We had to skip school to save our school," said Yigal Meoded, 12, who came with her father and younger sister from Neve Dekalim, a settlement in the Gaza Strip.

Alex Lavon, 45, a Jewish settler from the West Bank, said he brought his children, ages 5, 7 and 10, to witness Israeli democracy.

"Children are part of this fight," said Lavon, a high school history teacher who skipped work. "We are fighting for our homes, and our children also live there, so why should they not come?"

Lavon bought his children a gift - a mock Monopoly game in which players, instead of accumulating railroads and Boardwalk and Park Place, try to expand settlements and gather supporters.

"The future of the land of Israel is in your hands," the game says on its package.

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