Sharon Sets Oct. 25 Vote on Gaza Plan

Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Beset by angry hecklers in Israel's parliament, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vowed today to push ahead with his plan to withdraw settlers from the Gaza Strip.

Speaking as lawmakers reconvened for their autumn session, the beleaguered prime minister acknowledged that "this house will be required to make very difficult decisions over the coming weeks."

Sharon set Oct. 25 for the Knesset, or parliament, to vote on whether to move ahead with the plan under which he hopes to withdraw the 7,500 Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip next year. The settlers live among about 1.3 million Palestinians in the seaside territory, which Israel seized from Egypt in the 1967 Middle East War.

The Israeli leader's appearance before lawmakers followed a nearly month-long hiatus in the country's political life during holidays that began with the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana.

In what is likely to be a recurring pattern in coming weeks, Sharon faced two no-confidence motions staged by opponents of the Gaza withdrawal plan, and survived both. But his political foes scored a victory by staging a symbolic vote on whether to approve the contents of his half-hour address to lawmakers, which the prime minister lost, 53-44.

In his speech to the Knesset, Sharon sought to invoke the sense of national solidarity that is traditionally felt in Israel in the wake of any major terror attack. The country is still reeling from bombings last week at a luxury hotel catering to Israelis in Taba, just over Egyptian border, and at two campgrounds.

In recent days, the Israeli leader has made several moves that were read by Israeli analysts as an attempt to shore up support among his sagging right-wing constituency.

A confidant of the prime minister, Dov Weisglass, suggested in an interview with a leading Israeli newspaper last week that any Israeli pullout from Gaza would be aimed at helping deflect pressure from the international community for the creation of a Palestinian state.

Israeli media reported that Sharon had overruled his top generals by ordering that Israeli forces press ahead with the occupation of a swath of the northern Gaza Strip, including the densely populated Palestinian refugee camp of Jabaliya.

More than 100 Palestinians have died since the Israeli military push into northern Gaza began Sept. 29. The offensive was triggered when Palestinian militants, using crude homemade Kassam rockets, killed two Israeli children in the town of Sderot two weeks ago.

The media reports said army commanders had informed Sharon that they had already done as much as they could for the moment to disable the Kassam-firing cells, mainly dispatched by the militant group Hamas, and that the continuing presence of troops was likely to cause heavy noncombatant casualties without significantly advancing Israel's military goals. Dozens of Palestinian civilians are reported to have died during the operation.

Today, Israel's judge advocate general ordered the investigation of an Israeli company commander who, according to the men serving under him, discharged a full ammunition magazine last week into the body of a 13-year-old Palestinian girl who had already been cut down by army fire in the southern Gaza town of Rafah.

The girl had strayed into what the army said was a no-go zone; family and friends said she was on her way to school. Her book bag, which soldiers said they suspected was an explosive device, was riddled with bullets as well.

While a new public opinion poll released today indicated that a majority of Israelis wants to get out of Gaza, Sharon was heading into the Knesset autumn session in daily danger of having his government toppled.

The left-leaning Labor Party has promised to help defeat no-confidence motions against the prime minister in coming weeks, but only those relating to the Gaza pullout. Laborites in general hate the economic austerity plan being advanced by the Likud government.

Veteran statesman Shimon Peres, the Labor leader, bluntly informed Sharon at today's session that his party was willing to provide the prime minister with a "safety net" in terms of votes needed to proceed with the Gaza pullout, but not a "camouflage net" for a pullout meant to obscure another agenda.

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