Isolated in his heartland, Sharon fights lonely battle for removal of Gaza settlers

In a speech continually interrupted by extreme right-wing hecklers, Ariel Sharon said yesterday that as a minister and a soldier who had fought in every Israeli war he had never taken a more difficult decision.

A former leader of the opposition, Amram Mitzna, claims the step the Israeli Prime Minister urged the Knesset to take this evening was the most important since the foundation of the state. His present-day successor, the veteran Labour leader Shimon Peres, says it will be a catastrophe if the parliament does not approve the removal of 8,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza strip.

Even allowing for the hyperbole that comes naturally to politicians, the international community, long preoccupied with the ceaseless carnage and anarchy in Iraq, is on tenterhooks to see whether the Knesset will approve the Sharon plan to "disengage" from Gaza, or defy predictions by bowing yet again to the "messianic" - Mr Sharon's own word yesterday - element of Israel's settler minority for whom even the most modest territorial gesture to the Palestinians is a betrayal of the Zionist dream.

Amid the tightest of security, three Knesset members on the national religious right yesterday contrived to get themselves expelled from the chamber for repeatedly shouting taunts at Mr Sharon, the man they once trusted as a principal architect and champion of Jewish settlement within the Palestinian territory seized in the Six-Day War of 1967, a role to which Mr Sharon unashamedly owned up in his Knesset speech yesterday.

And if it was a day of high drama in the Knesset, it was also a day of fresh Palestinian bloodshed in Gaza, as Israeli forces killed at least 12 people, including an 11-year-old boy, in a ground incursion and air assault on the southern town of Khan Yunis, with the stated aim of halting mortar attacks on Neve Dekalim, the biggest of the Gaza settlements Mr Sharon insists he is determined to evacuate by the end of next year.

Witnesses said the boy, Hisham Ashour, had been struck in the chest by shrapnel. A 17-year-old, Muhammad Khader Abu Sultan, also died. He was shot in the head after the pair joined a crowd of boys and youths watching the battle from a vantage point too close to be safe from Israeli tank shells.

Two Israeli Defence Force soldiers, one an officer, were seriously wounded yesterday morning when an anti-tank missile was fired at their tank during an operation in which Palestinians said Israel had used unmanned drones as well as helicopters to target militants. The dead were said to have included at least seven militants as well as two armed Palestinian policemen.

Witnesses said hundreds of people had evacuated the multi-storey residential "Austrian" neighbourhood of Khan Yunis, where dozens of homes were destroyed in an earlier operation this month. Yasser Abdel Ghafour, a local human-rights activist, said yesterday of the Gaza disengagement plan: "We believe Israel will withdraw but after destroying the infrastructure of the Palestinian resistance and destroying the societal infrastructure."

But Mr Sharon, in his Knesset speech, insisted the disengagement would "help us further along the path to peace with the Palestinians".

Mr Sharon said the plan would "strengthen Israel's hold over territory which is essential to our existence" - words which may fuel Palestinian and international fears that he means to preserve the status of almost 200,000 settlers in the West Bank in return for withdrawal from Gaza. But obliquely addressing critics who believe he is trying to ditch the internationally agreed "road-map" to peace he said: "The disengagement plan does not come in place of negotiations. All is open when terror - this murderous terror - stops."

The possibility of a far-reaching realignment of Israeli politics as a result of the deep split in Mr Sharon's ruling Likud party over the plan were underlined last night when many thousands of noisy and good-humoured demonstrators marched on the Knesset in a show of solidarity with the Sharon plan, organised by-among others, the veteran campaign group, Peace Now and the left-wing Yahad party led by Yossi Beilin.

The marchers sang and chanted slogans such as, "Leave the settlements; choose peace". As remarkably, the anonymous death threats reportedly made against Mr Sharon by right-wing fanatics, along with rabbinical calls on soldiers to disobey orders to remove settlers, have invited comparisons with the period leading to the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, whose peace accords with the Palestinians were fiercely opposed at the time by right-wing politicians, Mr Sharon included.

The tentative sense of a new fluidity in the politics of the conflict was heightened last night by unconfirmed reports that Israel had given when Israel gave permission for the reportedly ailing Yasser Arafat, vigorously attacked by Mr Sharon in his speech yesterday, to move from his quarters in Ramallah for hospital treatment in the city Although 19 of the 40 Likud Knesset members are opposed to disengagement, Sharon supporters were still expecting that the support of the centre and left - apart from a majority of the divided Israeli Arab MPs - would guarantee a majority of about 65 to 48 votes this evening.

Mr Peres derided in the Knesset the settlers' claim to Gaza: "To be rid of isolation is to be rid of an asset. To be rid of war is to be rid of an asset. It's dangers we're getting rid of."

As thousands of angry settlers were expected to converge on the Knesset today to protest, Israeli commentators depicted tonight's watershed vote as a historic test of whether the Israeli majority will prevail over the ultra-religious and far-right minority which has exercised disproportionate influence on Israeli strategy for more than 30 years.

In a newspaper article yesterday, the leading Israeli novelist AB Yehoshua castigated the frantic rabbis" who believed the "real land of Israel" lay on territory which "the settlers of [the main settlement bloc of] Gush Katif stole from the meagre reserves left to the million and a half Palestinians of the Gaza Strip".

Mr Yehoshua compared the opponents of withdrawal from Gaza to those who had resisted withdrawal from Lebanon four years ago. "Then too they cried, 'Treason', 'Defeat', 'Capitulation', 'Flight', and threatened us with Katyusha rockets that would begin to fall on Haifa.

"Had we heeded their warnings we would have far more soldiers in graves today, and hundreds more injured. The god that governs these people's hearts and guides their action is a god of 'quantity of soil'; a tragic and absurd degeneration of the Jewish spirituality of yore."

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