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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 September 2005, 03:17 GMT 04:17 UK
Sharon fends off leadership poll
PM Ariel Sharon voting
Ariel Sharon will now need to shore up Likud backing
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has narrowly defeated an attempt to force him into a snap contest for the leadership of the Likud party.

A motion to bring forward a poll from April 2006, demanded by his rival Binyamin Netanyahu, was defeated in the 3,000-strong Likud Central Committee.

The vote was seen as a referendum on Mr Sharon's leadership after the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Mr Netanyahu accuses Mr Sharon of handing over Gaza to militant groups.

Israeli aircraft fired missiles at targets in northern Gaza a few hours after the vote.

The Israeli military said it had attacked bridges which, it said, were used by militants to reach an area used for staging rocket attacks on Israeli territory.

A second Israeli air strike hit a building used by money-changers in the southern town of Khan Younis.

It is unclear whether anyone was injured in the raids.

Over the weekend, Israel launched air strikes against militants in Gaza to retaliate against several rocket attacks on Israeli towns.

Popular politician

Many in the Likud party see the Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip as a reward for Palestinian violence - and they have tried to get rid of Mr Sharon, says the BBC's James Reynolds in Tel Aviv.

There is a very large camp that went against the flow
Binyamin Netanyahu

But he adds that others believe that the pullout will make Israel safer in the long run, and now the party has made up its mind for the time being.

They realise that Mr Sharon is an incredibly popular leader among ordinary Israelis and their best chance to win a general election next year, our correspondent says.

Mr Sharon may also have been buoyed by a recent declaration from militant group Hamas, which said it would end rocket strikes into Israel and pledged to stick to the terms of an informal March ceasefire.

Likud members voted 1,433 to 1,329 against the proposal - a majority of 104.

The decision means the leadership challenge will be held on schedule next spring.

Shortly after the vote was announced, Mr Sharon called on the party to unite behind him.

Mr Netanyahu acknowledged the defeat and vowed to press on with his bid.

"We lost by a very few votes. There is a very large camp that went against the flow, against the wind, against the pressure, against the leadership and against the temptations," he said.

See Ariel Sharon's supporters celebrate his win

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