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Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 October, 2004, 07:45 GMT 08:45 UK
Sharon resists Gaza referendum
Settlers react to vote
Settlers reacted with dismay to the Knesset vote
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said he will not bow to pressure from cabinet colleagues for a referendum on his Gaza disengagement plan.

Four ministers have threatened to leave Mr Sharon's cabinet unless he seeks popular approval for the plan, backed by parliament on Tuesday.

Mr Sharon has already sacked two ministers for voting against the plan.

This calls for the withdrawal of all Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and a small number from the West Bank.

My position on the referendum is unchanged - I am opposed because it will lead to terrible tensions
Ariel Sharon

The Knesset voted 67-45 in favour of the proposal, with seven abstentions. Mr Sharon had to rely on the support of the main opposition Labour party.

Tuesday's move marked the first time the Israeli government had voted on the principle of removing settlers from occupied Palestinian land.

The BBC's Barbara Plett in Jerusalem says the prime minister will now have to either heal the rifts within Likud or change his coalition government in order to carry out the plan.

The US hailed the vote as a step towards making peace with the Palestinians.

"This disengagement plan has the potential of being historic, and we see it as an important step in fulfilling President Bush's vision of two states living side by side in peace and security," White House spokesman Trent Duffy said.

Ultimatum rejected

The vote came at the end of a stormy, two-day debate.

DISENGAGEMENT PLAN
Israel will pull out all its 8,000 settlers from 21 fortified enclaves in Gaza, and the troops that protect them
Israel will maintain control of Gaza's borders, coastline and airspace
Four isolated West Bank settlements also to be evacuated

Four ministers from Mr Sharon's Likud party, including Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, voted for the plan but warned Mr Sharon they would resign if he did not agree within two weeks to hold a referendum.

Mr Sharon said he would not put up with threats.

"A person can change their mind from time to time but not give in to pressures and ultimatums," he told Haaretz newspaper.

"My position on the referendum is unchanged - I am opposed because it will lead to terrible tensions and a rupture in the public."

'Absent factor'

Mr Sharon carried out his threat to dismiss Likud ministers who voted against the plan, firing Cabinet Minister Uzi Landau and deputy Internal Security Minister Michael Ratzon.


He said the four ministers threatening to resign would "get an answer".

Under the disengagement plan, Israel will withdraw all its settlers - and the troops protecting them - but will maintain control of Gaza's borders, coastline and airspace.

Four West Bank settlements are also to be evacuated.

GAZA STATISTICS
Palestinian pop: 1.3m
Area: 360 sq km
In poverty: 75%
Unemployed: 37%
Under 15: 49%
Pop growth: >4% per year
Malnutrition: 13.3%
Israeli settlers: About 8,000
Sources: World Bank 2003 & 2004; Israel CBS, CIA World Factbook

The proposed evacuations are to be carried out in phases - and each phase will require approval with a cabinet vote.

But a leading Palestinian negotiator said the Israelis were "negotiating with themselves".

"We've been watching [them] discussing our future, the future of our children, the future of the Palestinians, with one factor - us - being absent," Saeb Erekat told Reuters news agency.

According to the latest opinion poll, 65% of Israelis are in favour of the pullout, but religious settlers are fiercely opposed to the move.

They believe the whole of the West Bank and Gaza Strip was given to the Jews by God.

Israel has occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip since capturing them in the 1967 war. It has settled about 400,000 Jewish citizens there, among a 3.5-million-strong Palestinian population.

The settlements are considered illegal under international law, although Israel does not accept this.




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FROM OTHER NEWS SITES:
Independent Sharon wins historic vote to withdraw from Gaza - 48 mins ago
CNN Knesset OKs Gaza pullout - 49 mins ago
Guardian Unlimited Into the storm - 57 mins ago
ABCNEWS.com Israeli Parliament Backs Sharon Gaza Pullout Plan - 2 hrs ago
TelegraphGaza plan survives revolt - 2 hrs ago
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