Sharon wins historic vote to withdraw from Gaza

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The Independent Online

Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, last night secured a historic decision to withdraw 8,000 Jewish residents from Gaza in the first reverse of the relentless growth of settlements in occupied Palestinian territory for 37 years.

The Knesset passed by 67 votes to 45 the Gaza disengagement plan, which is passionately opposed by the far right in Israeli politics, including half of Mr Sharon's party, but which the Prime Minister declared would "advance us along the path of peace with the Palestinians and our other neighbours".

The parliament backed the plan to dismantle all 21 settlements from the Gaza Strip and four in the northern West Bank after a day of intense political drama in which four of Mr Sharon's ministers had threatened to withhold their support unless the Prime Minister agreed to a referendum. Sharon lieutenants described the attempt as a "putsch".

The dissident ministers, including Benjamin Netanyahu, the Finance Minister and main rival to Mr Sharon, and Limor Livnat, the Education Minister, voted for the plan and then warned they would resign unless a referendum was called within 14 days. The move deepens the split in the Likud Party and increases the likelihood that Mr Sharon will have to form a coalition with Labour.

But Mr Sharon will continue to resist a referendum ­ although polls show a large majority of the Israeli public favour the plan ­ on the ground that it is a delaying tactic. Meir Shetreet, the minister he has appointed to oversee the evacuation of settlers, said after last night's debate: "Read my lips. There will be no referendum."

After the decision to abandon the settlements ­ declared illegal under international law ­ Ehud Olmert, the Deputy Prime Minister, declared: "This process is stronger than all attempts at opposition and trying to stab the Prime Minister in the back. The Knesset made its decision, the nation of Israel decided to leave Gaza immediately and the nation of Israel will leave Gaza immediately."

Mr Sharon sacked two ministers for voting against the plan: Uzi Landau, the leader of the Likud rebels, and his junior colleague Michael Ratzon.

Shortly before the vote, Shimon Peres, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, launched a devastating personal attack on Mr Netanyahu. "How did you stoop so low. How did you bring us such shame?" he asked. Deriding Mr Netanyahu's call for a referendum, he declared: "If he is against the plan, let him stand down from the government." In the high-wire politicking which preceded the vote, Sharon supporters made a frantic effort to maximise their majority. Eli Aflallo, a member of the Likud Party who supports the plan, was brought into the chamber in a wheelchair to vote after suffering a stroke brought on by what he said had been threats by opponents of the plan.

The Knesset, ironically, was emptier than usual because of unprecedented security measures after a series of death threats against Mr Sharon and supporters of disengagement. Members were banned from bringing in more than two guests.Outside, thousands of settlers and their supporters ringed the building in protest.

A taste of the backlash Mr Sharon will face within his own party was given by one demonstrator, Yaron Olani, 28, a member of the powerful 3,000-member Likud Central Committee. Mr Olani said of the three cabinet ministers Mr Netanyahu, Mr Shalom and Ms Livnat: "They say they are against [disengagement] but they vote for it because they are frightened of Ariel Sharon, so we don't have a lot of respect for them at the moment."

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