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Sharon preparing new plan for Gaza pullout

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told a Cabinet meeting Sunday that he is preparing a new plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, officials said.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Sunday canceled a planned trip to the United States next week, saying he intended to focus his energies on patching together a new blueprint for withdrawing from the Gaza Strip after his party rejected his original plan.

Sharon told his Cabinet ministers during a stormy meeting that he will present them with a revised version of his “disengagement plan” in the next three weeks. He did not reveal what changes he is contemplating or how he would satisfy his deeply divided coalition.

The announcement was the latest sign of Sharon’s determination to push ahead with his plan after its overwhelming defeat in a May 2 referendum of Likud Party members. That vote, though nonbinding, would make it difficult for many Likud Cabinet ministers to support the plan.

Sharon told his Cabinet he was canceling his trip to Washington, scheduled for next week, during which he was to have addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group. He also had been expected to meet with President Bush, who had endorsed Sharon’s plan as a valuable step to reviving peace efforts.

The original plan called for a full pullout of Gaza, where 7,500 Israeli settlers and 1.3 million Palestinians live, and a withdrawal from four small West Bank settlements. Sharon said the plan to disentangle the Israeli and Palestinian populations would boost Israel’s security in the absence of a peace deal.

Vice Premier Ehud Olmert said Friday that Sharon still intends to evacuate all Gaza settlements.

Hard-liners in the government oppose any territorial concessions and some Likud ministers, who gave the plan only tepid support in the first place, have said they will not go against the party’s decision.

At the same time, Justice Minister Yosef Lapid of the moderate Shinui Party has threatened to quit the government if Sharon does not push forward with the Gaza withdrawal. He dismissed the Likud referendum, saying that 1 percent of the population should not be allowed to decide policy for the country.

As Lapid addressed the Cabinet meeting, two hard-line ministers, Avigdor Lieberman and Benny Elon, walked out, participants said.

Lapid also got into a shouting match with minister Uzi Landau, a Likud hard-liner. Landau and his allies said it was undemocratic to ignore the referendum, and he said there was no chance the Cabinet would pass a new plan.

Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sharon’s biggest rival and a reluctant supporter of the plan before the referendum, said three weeks was not enough time to come up with a proper alternative and urged Sharon to honor the party’s decision.

“A diplomatic program isn’t a pair of socks that can be changed every day,” Netanyahu said, according to participants in the meeting.

In considering a new plan, Sharon asked the ministers to decide how Israel can best fight terror and how it can combat the demographic problem that Palestinians will soon outnumber Jews in the combined area of the West Bank, Gaza and Israel.

Attack on settlers
Later Sunday, Palestinian militants fired on a group of settlers holding a memorial ceremony at the spot along a road in the Gaza Strip where a pregnant woman and her four young daughters were killed by militants last week.

Scores of settlers, some carrying babies, jumped behind concrete barriers and scrambled to hide behind cars, according to television footage shown on Israel’s Channel 10. One woman ran, carrying a baby carriage, for the safety of a nearby bus. Settlers armed with assault rifles returned fire. None of the mourners were injured.

Soldiers shot the two gunmen, who had been firing from buildings about 300 yards away, the army said. The military confirmed killing one of the attackers, but said it did not know if the other was killed or injured.

Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the shooting.

The army said Sunday it had discovered a weapons-smuggling tunnel in the Gaza town of Rafah, along the Egyptian border, in an overnight raid. The army said it had arrested a number of Palestinians in the tunnel.

The army, which frequently conducts raids in the area, said it had discovered 11 weapons-smuggling tunnels in Rafah this year.