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Knesset approves gaza pullout plan

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Knesset approves Gaza pullout plan

JERUSALEM (AP) -- The Israeli parliament -- in a historic decision -- voted Tuesday to back Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to pull Israeli troops and settlements out of Gaza and a tiny portion of the West Bank.

The vote was 67 for, 45 against and seven abstentions.

Approval of the plan had been expected, but just minutes before the vote, a key party in the coalition said it would quit the government within two weeks if Sharon did not agree to hold a national referendum in the coming months.

Sharon rejected the referendum idea, which has been pushed by the settlers, as a stalling tactic.

The National Religious Party had been expected to oppose the plan anyway, but the announcement could have emboldened some members of Sharon's Likud Party to buck the prime minister and vote against the plan.

Several Likud Cabinet ministers who had been expected to reluctantly support the plan held last-minute talks, presumably seeking key concessions from Sharon in exchange for a vote in favor.

Despite the backroom maneuvering, Sharon took his seat in the Knesset and appeared confident.

The vote in favor of the plan marks the first time the parliament has agreed to the uprooting of Jewish settlements in lands claimed by the Palestinians for a state.

Sharon entered parliament Tuesday afternoon, surrounded by 16 bodyguards, an unprecedented number. Outside, police cordoned off the building, restricting entry, as thousands of settlers gathered in a nearby park to protest the plan.

Protection for Sharon has been beefed up in recent weeks amid growing concern he could by attacked by right-wing extremists.

The withdrawal plan has bitterly divided the nation, and solidified Sharon's transformation from long-time patron of the Jewish settlers to their No. 1 nemesis.

In other developments, a weakened Yasser Arafat broke his Ramadan fast at the urging of his doctors Tuesday and was undergoing more medical tests, aides said. A Palestinian hospital official said an X-ray and ultrasound revealed that Arafat had a large gallstone.

Arafat's aides have insisted that the 75-year-old Palestinian leader is recovering from the flu. But Israeli officials speculated the Palestinian leader is suffering from a serious illness. Teams of Egyptian and Tunisian doctors have examined him in recent days.

In southern Gaza, Israeli troops withdrew from the Khan Younis refugee camp, ending a two-day operation aimed at halting Palestinian mortar fire. Seventeen Palestinians were killed by army fire.

Tuesday's vote was the climax of a monthslong confrontation over Sharon's "unilateral disengagement" plan, which has torn apart the ruling Likud Party and weakened his coalition government.

The vote also came on the nine-year anniversary, using the Jewish calendar, of the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by an extremist Jew opposed to his peace efforts.

Sharon opened the parliament debate Monday, defending his plan as the only way to secure Israel's future.

"This is a fateful moment for Israel," he declared in a speech that was repeatedly interrupted by hecklers.

Sharon told lawmakers that supporting the withdrawal, which will uproot 8,800 settlers from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements, was the most difficult decision of his long career.

However, he said Israel does not want to rule over millions of Palestinians and suggested the settlers were unreasonable in their opposition.

Sharon even made some conciliatory remarks toward the Palestinians, expressing regret for the plight of refugees displaced by fighting with Israel.

"This is the way of war. However, war is not inevitable and predestined," he said. "Even today, we regret the loss of innocent lives in your midst. Our way is not one of intentional killing."

Israeli commentators said Sharon's speech was remarkable, both for his gestures toward the Palestinians and his unprecedented criticism of settlers, whom he accused of suffering from a "messianic" complex.

"Even if tomorrow morning Ariel Sharon resigns from his position, or is deposed, or recants, this earthquake has already occurred. The rift has taken place. Nothing will ever be the same," columnist Ben Caspit wrote in the Maariv daily.

Sharon was counting on a victory Tuesday, but only with the help of dovish opposition parties. Nearly half of Likud's 40 lawmakers said they would vote against him, and two religious parties that Sharon has courted -- Shas and United Torah Judaism -- also have come out against the plan.

Sharon had hoped for at least 65 "yes" votes in the 120-member Knesset, with at least 48 lawmakers expected to vote against the plan.

Tuesday's vote is only the first of several required before the plan can be implemented next year. Sharon's shaky government remains in danger of falling over other issues, including the budget.

Opinion polls show a solid majority of the public supports Sharon.

The plan marks a dramatic transformation for the man who spent decades leading the effort to build up the settlements. As recently as early 2003, Sharon said that the Gaza settlements are an essential part of Israel.

But after four years of devastating violence in the region, Sharon believes the continued occupation of Gaza -- where 8,200 Jewish settlers live amid 1.3 million Palestinians -- is untenable.

Sharon says his plan will boost Israel's security. He also believes it will blunt international criticism of Israel and strengthen its hold over large parts of the West Bank and east Jerusalem -- lands the Palestinians claim for a state.

Jewish settlers and hard-line lawmakers accuse Sharon of caving in to Palestinian violence and fear the withdrawal will be the first step in a larger pullback.

Sharon "is the architect and the originator of the settlement enterprise. So to talk like this to the people he sent, there's a name for it. It's a kind of treason," said Effie Eitam of the National Religious Party.

On Tuesday, several thousand settlers and their supporters demonstrated against Sharon in a park outside the Knesset, vowing to fight the withdrawal plan with a mixture of faith and defiance.

Most of the protesters were children from settlements, which canceled school Tuesday for the event.

Thousands of supporters of the plan demonstrated outside the Knesset on Monday night, singing songs, waving Israeli flags and holding signs reading "leave Gaza immediately."

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press.

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