JERUSALEM (AP) — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won a
historic victory yesterday when parliament voted to approve his
plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank
— the first time lawmakers have authorized the removal of
Jewish settlements from lands the Palestinians claim for a
state.

Beth Dykstra
A Palestinian man prays over bodies of 12 men, killed in an Israeli army operation, during their funeral yesterday in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip. Israeli troops withdrew from the refugee camp yesterday. (AP PHOTO)

The 67 to 45 vote, with seven abstentions, gave strong backing
to Sharon’s plan to evacuate 21 settlements in the Gaza
Strip, where 8,200 Jewish settlers live amid 1.3 million
Palestinians, and four in the West Bank.

“I think that the prime minister of Israel had a great
victory tonight,” Vice Premier Ehud Olmert told CNN.

Sharon won with the help of dovish opposition parties. Many
members of his center-right coalition, as well as religious
opposition parties, voted against him.

Sharon had hoped a strong victory such as the one he secured
yesterday would allow him to fend off settlers’ calls for a
national referendum on the plan — something the prime
minister has denounced as a delaying tactic by his opponents.

However, immediately after the vote four key Likud ministers who
had voted in favor demanded Sharon call a referendum or said they
would resign from the government.

Sharon’s victory came a day after he surprised both
detractors and supporters by giving a speech accusing settlers of
suffering from a “messianic complex” and telling
Palestinians that Israel has no desire to rule over them.

Thousands of Jewish settlers demonstrated outside the Knesset,
or parliament, in a boisterous show of force yesterday, denouncing
Sharon as a traitor.

“I came here to tell the people of Israel that this is our
land and my home,” said David Pinipnta, 31, of the Gaza
settlement of Neve Dekalim. “No power on earth can move me
from it.”

Sharon entered the parliament building surrounded by an
unprecedented 16 bodyguards — reflecting security
officials’ fears of an attack by right-wing extremists who
believe the prime minister is forsaking God’s will by giving
up parts of the biblical Land of Israel.

Posters outside the Knesset declared that “Sharon has
disengaged from reality” and “the evacuation of
settlements is a victory for terror.”

The parliament vote took place on the anniversary of two events
that embodied the Jewish state’s history of bloodshed and
yearning: the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin nine
years ago on the Jewish calendar and the Israel-Jordan peace
treaty, signed on Oct. 26, 1994.

Notably absent from Israel’s debate on withdrawing from
Palestinian territories are the Palestinians themselves, whom
Israel accuses of being unreliable negotiating partners.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said Israel should not
be making unilateral decisions about the Palestinians’
future. “Now the seriousness of the Israeli government will
depend on resuming negotiations with the Palestinian
Authority,” he said.

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