updated 4/12/2004 5:15:12 AM ET 2004-04-12T09:15:12

Israeli troops exchanged fire with Palestinian gunmen near an Israeli settlement in the Northern Gaza Strip early Monday, killing at least three of the assailants, the army said.

The militant Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades — a violent group linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement — claimed responsibility for the botched attack in a phone call to the Associated Press.

In the West Bank, army jeeps briefly entered the towns of Jenin and Tulkarem, but soldiers made no arrests, Palestinian security officials said.

Gamble for Sharon
The fighting came a day after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Likud Party set April 29 as the date for a vote on the hotly contested plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. The referendum among 200,000 Likud members is to be followed within days by votes in the Cabinet and in parliament.

Sharon is taking a gamble since approval is far from assured. If he loses the referendum, there would be growing pressure on him to resign.

The prime minister was leaving Monday for the United States where he will meet with President Bush to seek backing for the Gaza plan.

Sharon said Sunday that his plan would help Israel’s security, improve its standing in the international community, boost the economy and lift peace efforts. “There is no doubt that this plan opens a way in the future for a process of peace,” he said.

Palestinian militants claim their attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers in Gaza are driving Israel out.

Exchange of fire
Early Monday, several armed Palestinians opened fire on Israeli troops near the Israeli settlement of Netzarim in Gaza, the army said. The army confirmed at least three Palestinian gunmen were killed after drawing return fire from Israeli soldiers guarding the settlement.

The army said troops are searching the area for a possible fourth gunmen.

U.S. support unclear
With criticism of the Gaza plan mounting in Likud, Sharon appears determined to win approval as quickly as possible. On May 2, within three days of the referendum, the Cabinet is to vote on the plan, and Israeli media said parliament could hold its vote the following day.

The extent of U.S. support for the plan remains unclear. Sharon sent several senior aides to Washington over the weekend to work out final details on the agenda of the meeting.

Israeli officials, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said they hope to win a U.S. promise that Israel would not have to withdraw fully from the West Bank under a permanent settlement with the Palestinians. Israel also wants assurances that millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants will be barred from returning to Israel.

But a senior Israeli official, speaking to The AP on condition of anonymity, said the United States is resisting such assurances. Instead, he said, the Americans will say a final settlement has to be reached through negotiations.

The two teams are working on letters of understanding to be signed during the meeting, Israeli officials said.

On Sunday, Israel’s Channel 10 TV reported that considerable gaps existed between the assurances the Israelis are seeking from the White House and the commitments the United States is willing to provide.

U.S. still presses ‘road map’
The United States has said it supports the idea of a Gaza pullout, but only as part of the internationally backed “road map” peace plan.

The road map calls for an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, with the final borders to be negotiated between the two sides. The plan, however, has been stalled for months amid Israeli and Palestinian violations.

The U.S. administration wants to show progress to its Arab allies in the face of mounting criticism of its handling of the crisis in Iraq. On Monday, Bush is to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Later this month, Jordanian and Palestinian leaders are to meet with White House officials.

The Palestinians also demand that a Gaza pullout be part of the road map. They want a much larger withdrawal from the West Bank.

Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian Cabinet minister, said the Palestinians have relayed their concerns to American mediators. He said he had been assured that the United States will not take any steps that prejudice a final settlement.

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

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