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Israeli Cabinet tempers flare over pullout plan

An Israeli Cabinet meeting turned into a shouting match Sunday between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and hard-line ministers who oppose his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A weekly Israeli Cabinet meeting turned into a shouting match Sunday between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and hard-line ministers who oppose his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, government officials said.

Sharon has said his “disengagement plan” is intended to separate Israelis from Palestinians after more than three years of fighting and reduce friction between the two peoples in the absence of any progress in peace efforts.

Hard-liners still opposed to plan
The plan has been gaining domestic support and Sharon plans to travel to Washington next week to secure the endorsement of President Bush. But some among Sharon’s hard-line coalition strongly oppose any withdrawal and have threatened to pull out of the government.

During the weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday, the hard-liners, led by Tourism Minister Benny Elon, demanded Sharon immediately bring his plan to a Cabinet vote so they could decide whether to pull out of the coalition, according to officials in the meeting.

An angry Sharon said the details of the plan had not been finalized, and if he brought it to the ministers they would leak it to the press, the officials said.

“There is no obligation to be in the Cabinet. It is very simple not to be here. Anyone who wants to can get up and leave,” Sharon reportedly told his ministers.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the Cabinet that a closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip will remain in effect until after Israel’s Independence Day, April 26, to prevent Palestinian militant attacks on Israelis. Mofaz also said the army had been instructed to continue its offensive against the militants.

The military also was putting in place a special plan to maintain security during the weeklong Passover holiday that begins Monday night, he said.

Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also told the Cabinet that Jewish settlements would be given the equivalent of $67 million to pay for extra security infrastructure.

Office closed
Meanwhile, police in east Jerusalem shut down the office of a foundation for Arab women that is accused of being affiliated with the militant group Hamas, officials said. Two workers were detained and authorities are applying for a warrant to freeze the group’s bank accounts, according to police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby.

The office will be closed for 15 days.

Police suspect the money is being used to support families and prisoners connected to terror attacks, he said.

Militant's home destroyed
On Saturday, Israeli forces demolished the house of a Hamas militant who killed an Israeli in a weekend attack at a Jewish settlement, the army said. Zohair Arda, 18, was shot dead during the attack.

Undercover Israeli troops entered the Tulkarem refugee camp Sunday and opened fire at a crowd preparing to demonstrate near the remains of Arda’s home. One member of Islamic Jihad was killed, and five other people, including a member of Hamas, were wounded, hospital officials said.

Israeli military sources told The Associated Press that forces in the area fired at a car full of armed Palestinians that approached the troops. They said there were no undercover forces in the area and had no information on casualties.

Arda — who was released last week from an Israeli prison — cut through the fence surrounding the settlement of Avnei Hefetz shortly after midnight Saturday and broke into a home, firing shots that lightly wounded a 14-year-old girl.

When her father appeared with a pistol, the attacker shot him to death, the army said.

Palestinian gunmen have repeatedly targeted isolated settlements, particularly during the Jewish Sabbath when more residents are at home.