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Israel: Knesset Resumes Gaza Pullout Debate Ahead Of Vote

Debate has resumed in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, ahead of a vote this evening on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw Jewish settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. Yesterday's deliberations on the issue were contentious, and several members of the Knesset were thrown out after heckling Sharon. The 120-member parliament is expected to pass the pullout plan, which foresees all of Gaza's 8,000 Jewish settlers and several hundred West Bank residents leaving next year. The move, which is officially aimed at improving relations with Palestinians, has angered many Israelis and leaves Sharon facing a sharply divided government.

26 October 2004 -- It has been 37 years since Israel captured the Gaza Strip and West Bank during the Arab-Israeli war.

That represents an entire generation for the many Jewish settlers born and raised in the occupied territories. There are now some 250,000 Israelis living in Gaza and the West Bank -- land also inhabited by some 3.5 million Palestinians.

As agriculture minister in the late 1970s, Sharon earned the nickname "Bulldozer" for his support of Jewish expansion into the occupied territories.
The left-wing Labor and Yahad parties, which usually oppose Likud, have indicated they will back the pullout measure.

Now, many settlers and politicians alike say Sharon's proposal to withdraw from Gaza and parts of the West Bank is a betrayal.

Speaking before the Knesset in a heated session yesterday, Sharon admitted the pullout will be difficult: "I know what the meaning of a Knesset decision [to pull Israeli settlements out of the Gaza Strip] is for thousands of Israelis who have lived for many years in the Gaza Strip and were sent there by Israeli governments. But I am convinced from the bottom of my heart that this disengagement will strengthen Israel and its hold on the territory vital to our existence."

Sharon argues the withdrawal will improve security conditions after four years of violence between Palestinians and Israelis.

He also says the partial pullout will help Israel strengthen control over its largest settlements in the West Bank.

The measure will go to a vote tonight (after 2000 Prague time).

Sharon is expected to win the vote, but by a small margin (eds: at least 66 of the 120 votes). He faces stiff opposition from tens of religious lawmakers, as well as members of his own Likud party.

Hundreds of Israelis gathered outside the Knesset during yesterday's debate to voice support for the pullout plan. Polls show a substantial majority of Israelis support withdrawal.

The left-wing Labor and Yahad parties, which usually oppose Likud, have indicated they will back the pullout measure.

Palestinians themselves are skeptical about the pullout plan. They say Sharon is using the limited withdrawal to pacify the international community. They also say he is trying to strengthen Israel's hold on large parts of the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim for a state.

Violence in the occupied territories increased as the pullout debate continued.

Israeli troops today withdrew from the southern Gaza refugee camp of Khan Younis, after a two-day incursion to halt Palestinian mortar attacks on Jewish settlements nearby.

Speaking in Ramallah yesterday, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said the world community must assume a more critical role in the Mideast debate: "We don't know. Is this a scorched-earth withdrawal, a scorched-earth policy? Is it destroying Gaza before evacuating it? We appeal to the whole world, to the Quartet committee (eds: the UN, U.S., Russia, and the EU), and especially to the United States, and say to them that statements [of condemnation] have become futile."

Sixteen Palestinians were killed in the Khan Younis incursion.

(international agencies)