Sharon seeks Likud Party vote on Gaza withdrawal

Saturday, April 10, 2004

JERUSALEM -- Israel's ruling Likud Party will hold its vote on a Gaza Strip withdrawal by late April, sooner than expected, officials said Friday, prompting complaints that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was rushing the referendum to stifle opposition. Israel TV reports said the vote on the plan would take place April 29. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, meanwhile, told the Yediot Ahronot daily that sending Israeli settlers to Gaza in the first place "was a strategic error," an unexpected acknowledgment that contradicts Likud's hardline ideology. About 7,500 Israelis live in 21 enclaves in Gaza, among 1.2 million Palestinians. Sharon, once a driving force behind Gaza settlement, has said there was no future for Israelis in the crowded, impoverished strip.

In Gaza, hundreds of Palestinians donated cash, jewellry, bullets and even hand grenades to Hamas in an unprecedented fund-raiser by the Islamic militant group.

Hamas announced in mosques Friday that it needs money to fight Israel. The group is also in the midst of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority over who will control Gaza after an Israeli withdrawal, and the collection drive was seen as a show of strength by the increasingly popular opposition group.

Sharon has said he is determined to go ahead with a pullback from Gaza and withdraw from four small West Bank settlements, but only after winning the approval of Likud.

Several Likud Cabinet minister and legislators oppose the withdrawal, and have begun campaigning among the 200,000 party members against the plan.

Sharon initially said he would not call for the referendum until he returns from an April 14 meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington. However, Sharon unexpectedly submitted a formal request late Thursday. Under the party's bylaw, the referendum must now take place within three weeks.

Sharon adviser Raanan Gissin said the prime minister wants "to do it (the referendum) as quickly as possible to get it out of the way."

Political sources said Sharon decided to speed up the timetable to leverage the momentum from his Washington trip and to make it harder for the opposition within Likud to organize.

Sharon has said he will honor the outcome of the referendum. A recent poll showed a slim majority of Likud members supporting his proposal.

Opponents complained that the vote was being rushed. "I think that what made the prime minister's advisers pull this political trick is their own fear of our (opposition) campaign," Likud legislator Gilad Erdan told Israel Radio.

The Gaza pullout is not expected for up to a year, but has led to a flurry of meetings between Palestinian factions and the Palestinian Authority.

In the past, Hamas has not sought to share power, arguing this would be seen as implicit recognition of interim peace agreements that led to the creation of the Palestinian autonomy government. Sharon's decision to move unilaterally, without coordinating with the Palestinian Authority, has removed Hamas' concerns.

Hamas is pledged to Israel's destruction and has killed more than 300 Israelis in suicide attacks in more than 3 1/2 years of fighting.

On Friday, Hamas launched an unprecedented fund-raising drive in 11 Gaza mosques, calling on thousands of worshippers to donate.

A Hamas gunman told worshippers leaving the Al Omari Mosque in Gaza City that "you can help build a strong Islamic army that can bring the glory back to our nation."

Dozens of worshippers heeded the call, donating small amounts of cash or jewelry. Fadwa Sawferi, a 46-year-old school teacher, handed over a gold ring. Cars equipped with loudspeakers drove through Gaza City, announcing the drive

In a mosque in the nearby Jebaliya refugee camp, hundreds of people waited to offer donations, including hand grenades, bullets, clothes and cash. The mosque loudspeaker announced that one man had given $15,000.

Hamas fund-raising abroad has been seriously hampered in recent months, with Israel and the United States trying to stop the transfer of funds. In February, Israeli troops raided several banks in the West Bank, seizing nearly US$7 million of what Israel said was money funneled to militants, including Hamas, from abroad.

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