updated 4/22/2004 2:20:35 PM ET 2004-04-22T18:20:35

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will push ahead with a plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip even if members of his divided Likud Party reject the proposal in a coming referendum, senior Israeli officials said Thursday.

In the West Bank, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat expelled 20 wanted militants from his headquarters Thursday to forestall an Israeli raid, a sign of his increasing jitters about becoming a target after Israel assassinated two leaders of the militant Islamist group Hamas in the past month.

Israel has long demanded that the militants leave, but security sources said there were no immediate plans to raid Arafat’s compound.

In introducing the idea of a Likud referendum last month, Sharon said he would be bound by the vote May 2 among 200,000 party members. “The referendum will obligate all leaders of the Likud, and me among them,” he said in a speech March 30.

But an Israeli official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity that the vote would be only an “advisory referendum.” A poll published Thursday showed that Likud voters were closely divided and raised the possibility Sharon might lose.

“If worse comes to worse and the referendum is not approved, he will still try to push his plan through,” the official said.

In a speech to the parliament earlier Thursday, Sharon had hinted that he would not be bound by a loss in the referendum. He called the vote “a public and moral duty, not a legal or binding duty,” Sharon said.

Asaf Shariv, a spokesman for Sharon, insisted, however, that “if it dies in the Likud, it dies completely.”

But Vice Premier Ehud Olmert, a confidant of Sharon and a strong proponent of the plan, said a withdrawal was inevitable. “The train has left the station, and it won’t stop until the last stop,” Olmert said, further fueling speculation that Sharon might ignore a “no” vote.

Threat to party unity
Ignoring the referendum would threaten to further divide Sharon’s party, which has led the efforts to settle the West Bank and Gaza since Israel captured the areas in 1967. Many members oppose ceding any land to the Palestinians.

“He is cheating the voters. We understand that the prime minister is under pressure due to the latest polls, but we expect him to honor his previous statements,” said Yoshua Mor-Yosef, a spokesman for settlers.

Sharon has pledged to take the proposal to his Cabinet and to the parliament, where he is expected to win approval.

Sharon’s “disengagement” plan would also include withdrawal from four small West Bank settlements, completion of a West Bank separation barrier and expansion of five large blocs of West Bank settlements. The plan is to be carried out by the end of 2005.

Sharon’s momentum stalls
Sharon had appeared to be gaining support for his plan in recent days, including backing from President Bush and several key Israeli Cabinet ministers. Israel’s assassination last weekend of Hamas’ leader in Gaza, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, seemed to deliver an additional boost.

But the new poll, published Thursday in the newspaper Haaretz, showed that the race may be too close to call. According to the survey, 44 percent of Likud members said they would vote in favor and 40 percent said they would vote against. The poll, conducted by the Dialog agency, reported a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points. Previous polls gave Sharon a wider majority.

“It’s frankly quite remarkable that he’s not getting more support,” said Gadi Wolfsfeld, a political scientist at Hebrew University. He said some Likud leaders may be working against the plan behind the scenes and cited a well-organized opposition campaign by settlers.

A second poll, however, showed Sharon with a wider lead, with 51 percent in favor and 39 percent opposed. That survey, conducted for Israel Radio, reported a 4-point margin of error.

Arafat takes steps
In the West Bank, Arafat was clearly unnerved by an Israeli raid on the town of Ramallah on Wednesday night into Thursday morning.

Arafat, concerned that troops were preparing to enter his compound, ordered 20 fugitives living in his compound to leave at 3 a.m. Thursday to forestall an Israeli raid, said Ali Barghouti, one of the militants.

The fugitives, who are members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, an armed group linked to Arafat’s Fatah faction, have been hiding from the Israeli army in the compound for months.

Arafat said only one fugitive, a militant paralyzed in fighting with Israel two years ago, remained inside. “There is nobody but one who was injured since the tremendous attack on us, and he’s paralyzed,” he said.

Also Thursday, a 16-year-old Palestinian boy was killed and 25 other people were wounded by army fire in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya, scene of deadly clashes for the last three days. Among those who were wounded was a 9-year-old girl who was shot in the stomach, Palestinian health officials said.

Tanks and bulldozers were clearing areas from which the army says Palestinian militants fired rockets at nearby Israeli settlements. Troops fired from tank-mounted machine guns toward groups of young stone-throwers.

The army said troops were attacked by grenades, an anti-tank missile and firebombs. In all, 14 Palestinians were killed in Beit Lahiya in the last three days, at least four of them civilians.

The army also killed three Palestinian gunmen Thursday in the West Bank town of Tulkarem.

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

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