Knesset rejects call for vote on Gaza Strip pull-out

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The Independent Online

Ariel Sharon, Israel's Prime Minister, has easily cleared what may prove the last political hurdle to his determined drive to dismantle and evacuate all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip this summer.

Ariel Sharon, Israel's Prime Minister, has easily cleared what may prove the last political hurdle to his determined drive to dismantle and evacuate all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip this summer.

The extent to which Mr Sharon has seen off far-right opponents of the disengagement plan was underlined when the Knesset rejected a proposal for a referendum by a hefty 72 to 39 majority.

With Mr Sharon's allies now confident of winning a budget vote later this week - the defeat of which would have seriously threatened the plan by triggering a general election - opponents of withdrawing Gaza's 7,500 settlers are rapidly running out of political options.

The main comfort for the largely outmanoeuvred dissidents inside and outside the deeply divided ruling party was a decision by Israel's Supreme Court to hear three petitions against the law governing compensation for settlers. A panel of 11 judges will hear the case next Monday.

Although three prominent Cabinet ministers, led by Mr Sharon's Likud leadership rival Benjamin Netanyahu, voted for a referendum, dissident hopes that the ultra-orthodox party Shas might join them evaporated during the day.

Meanwhile the Palestinian Prime Minister, Ahmad Qureia, strongly criticised the US for its "completely incomprehensible" support for Israel to keep large West Bank settlement blocks in any final peace deal. The US appears to have muted earlier criticism of Israeli plans to add 3,500 homes to the biggest block, Ma'ale Adumim, in a step that will further isolate east Jerusalem from the West Bank.

* Israeli troops arrested eight supporters of the militant Islamic Jihad group in the West Bank on suspicion of trying to build rockets. One soldier was slightly injured by an explosive device during the raid in the town of Jenin.

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