Khalil Hamra  /  AP
Masked Palestinian militants run to take cover during clashes with raiding Israeli forces in Khan Younis refugee camp, in the southern Gaza Strip, on Sunday.
updated 3/21/2004 8:01:19 PM ET 2004-03-22T01:01:19

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon presented his proposal for a Gaza Strip withdrawal to Cabinet ministers from his Likud Party on Sunday, which met significant opposition but apparently not enough to sink the plan, participants said.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, meanwhile, told a Cabinet meeting he has prepared a plan to strike hard at Hamas ahead of any pullout, branding the Islamic militant group a strategic threat. The plan includes intensifying targeted killings of militants and stepping up army raids.

In new fighting, seven Palestinians were killed Sunday, the sixth day of a new Israeli offensive triggered by a double suicide bombing last week at an Israeli seaport.

Four Hamas militants and a Palestinian woman were killed in an army raid in Gaza. Late Sunday, Israeli forces killed two armed Palestinians near the Kissufim crossing point between Gaza and Israel, the military said.

Sharon pledges vote on pullout
Since Sharon said last month he is considering withdrawing from much of Gaza if peace efforts remain frozen, fighting has intensified in the strip, with both sides trying to claim victory.

Sharon presented his withdrawal proposal to 13 Likud ministers on Sunday and promised to hold a vote on it in the full 24-member Cabinet once he has received U.S. backing.

For now, the Bush administration has withheld judgment, saying it is still studying the idea, but that it will not back any unilateral actions that could disrupt the U.S.-led “road map” peace plan. Sharon aides have met frequently in recent weeks with Bush advisers to discuss the plan.

In Sunday’s meeting, it became apparent that seven or eight Likud ministers oppose the plan or will support it only if certain conditions are met, said Uzi Landau, a minister without portfolio and one of the opponents.

However, the full Cabinet, which also has ministers from both moderate and ultra-nationalist coalition parties, would likely approve the plan by one or two votes, political analysts said.

Netanyahu agrees
Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seen as the leader of the hawkish wing of Likud, gave his qualified support, and this suggested other opponents might eventually fall in line.

“I wouldn’t necessarily have initiated this process, but it is already on the table,” Netanyahu said of the withdrawal plan. He said Israel should now try to minimize the security risks involved.

Some Likud ministers said their support depends on U.S. guarantees to Israel. Sharon reportedly seeks Washington’s backing for annexing large Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank in a final peace deal, in exchange for a Gaza withdrawal.

“At the moment, it doesn’t look like there is anything close to this [such a promise], and therefore we will examine it based on the American guarantees,” Education Minister Limor Livnat, another opponent, told The Associated Press.

Netanyahu said the United States must clearly state its opposition to the return of Palestinian refugees to homes in what is now Israel.

Other ministers said a Gaza pullout would increase the motivation of militants to attack Israelis.

Sharon may have an easier time passing the plan in parliament than in his Cabinet.

Shimon Peres, who heads the moderate opposition Labor Party, said Sunday that Labor would support any proposal to dismantle settlements.

“If this government ... leaves Gaza, we will vote in favor in the parliament. If this government wants to dismantle settlements, we will vote in favor,” Peres told reporters.

Battle in Abassan
In fighting Sunday, troops entered the town of Abassan in southern Gaza and surrounded a compound where Hamas members were hiding, the army said.

The army said one of the militants, Bassem Kadeeh, carrying a bag of explosives, tried to flee with his wife. Troops fired at him and he exploded. Palestinian doctors said they received the man’s legless body, and his wife was killed by the shrapnel. Three other Hamas members died during a gunbattle with the Israelis, the doctors said.

Soldiers also destroyed three structures in the compound, including Kadeeh’s house and a workshop where militants made rockets, mortars and missiles, the military said. Militants attacked the troops with rockets and gunfire, according to an army statement.

Residents said troops in tanks and helicopters fired machine guns during the raid. They also accused the military of damaging sewage and water pipes.

“At a time when everyone is concentrating on disengagement from Gaza, the Israeli army is actually re-engaging and reoccupying Gaza,” Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said.

Mofaz told the weekly Cabinet session that the military would keep “continuous, constant pressure” on Hamas, the Israeli daily Haaretz said, calling it a “counter-wave” to increased efforts by Hamas to carry out attacks. Many in the defense establishment favor a full-scale attack on Hamas before any Israeli pullout from Gaza.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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