13 Palestinians killed in Israeli army raid
Associated Press Writer
JERUSALEM (AP) – Israeli troops raided a Gaza Strip refugee camp to halt Palestinian mortar fire, killing 13 Palestinians and wounding 66 Monday, as Israel’s parliament set up for a historic debate on a withdrawal from the coastal strip.
In Jerusalem, thousands of police were being deployed, particularly around parliament, and helicopters were kept on standby to fly legislators to the building in case demonstrators try to block access roads. Thousands of marchers were expected to surround parliament at the start of the debate Monday afternoon.
The session was to begin with a speech by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, followed by brief remarks by nearly all the 120 legislators. A vote was expected Tuesday evening, and Sharon’s aides said he is counting on a comfortable victory.
“The train has left the station, the implementation is under way,” government spokesman Raanan Gissin said of Sharon’s plan. “After the Knesset vote on Tuesday we will be in an irreversible process.”
However, nearly half of the 40 legislators in Sharon’s Likud Party were to vote “no,” making it increasingly difficult for Sharon to govern. Immediately after the vote, Sharon was to renew efforts to stabilize his coalition by bringing in the moderate Labor Party, the Haaretz daily quoted his aides as saying.
On Sunday, Israel’s Cabinet voted 13-6 for a key element of Sharon’s plan, a bill detailing compensation for the 8,800 settlers in Gaza and four West Bank communities who would be removed from their homes.
Settler families would be paid between $200,000 to $350,000 in compensation. Sharon hopes settlers will accept cash advances – which could total up to one-third of the final compensation payout – to leave well ahead of the official evacuation, heading off confrontations between settlers and troops.
The Cabinet also approved penalties, including prison terms, for those resisting. The guidelines will be turned into a bill and sent to parliament.
Violence in Gaza has increased in the months since Sharon announced his plan, with Palestinian militants trying to prove they are forcing Israel out, and Israel trying to crush the militants to show it is not withdrawing under fire.
Early Monday, scores of Israeli armored vehicles moved into the Khan Younis refugee camp in southern Gaza in an operation the army said was sparked by recent mortar attacks on nearby Israeli settlements.
The raid, punctuated by repeated airstrikes and the firing of tank shells, killed 13 Palestinians and wounded 66, doctors said. Among the dead were several members of the Palestinian security forces and an 11-year-old boy.
Two Israelis soldiers were wounded when Palestinians fired an anti-tank missile at their armored personnel carrier, the army said.
The army said it demolished the home of a local Hamas leader who was responsible for attacks that killed eight Israelis.
Monday’s debate is the first time parliament will have a chance to discuss the “unilateral disengagement” plan since Sharon unveiled it earlier this year.
Sharon says his plan is necessary to boost Israel’s security after four years of fighting with the Palestinians. He says the pullout, combined with a West Bank barrier under construction, also would enable Israel to strengthen its hold on large settlement blocs in the West Bank, where most settlers live.
Jewish settlers accuse Sharon of caving in to Palestinian violence and fear the withdrawal will be the first step in a larger pullback.
The disengagement plan, which would mark the first time Israel pulled down Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza since capturing those territories in 1967, has led to bitter divisions in Likud.
A victory Tuesday does not ensure that Sharon’s plan will be adopted. Parliament and the Cabinet will have to vote at least once more – and perhaps several more times – to approve actual evacuations, and Sharon’s government could fall on other issues, including the budget, before the plan is implemented.
Also Sunday, a team of five Tunisian doctors briefly examined Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who had been ailing with the flu, and said he was “OK.” The group was expected to finish tests on the 75-year-old Palestinian leader Monday and give a full report on his health.
Palestinian officials said Arafat was recovering and presided over a lively 1 1/2 hour meeting of his national security council Sunday. He was later seen laughing and appeared healthy at the start of a second meeting with Palestinian officials that photographers were briefly allowed to observe.
Arafat’s health has been the subject of intense speculation, in part because of the tremor in his lips and hands, considered a possible symptom of Parkinson’s disease.