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Israeli parliament OKs Sharon's withdrawal plan

Israel to pull settlers from Gaza, parts of West Bank


JERUSALEM (CNN) -- The Israeli parliament has backed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to pull troops and settlements out of Gaza and part of the West Bank.

The vote was 67 for, 45 against and seven abstentions.

The vote puts in motion a plan that would remove 21 settlements from Gaza as well as four small and remote settlements in the northern West Bank. Before any settlers are moved, the government must vote again on the plan "taking into account the circumstances at the time."

Sharon has said he wants the settlements evacuated by the end of 2005.

Gaza, a 140-square-mile area of coastal land between Israel and the Mediterranean, is home to about 1.3 million Palestinians and a few thousand Jewish settlers.

It has been at the center of bloody clashes between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers.

The Cabinet has voted for a plan that would provide settler families with $350,000 in compensation. That law will be presented to the Knesset for a vote November 2.

In a speech at the beginning of debate, Sharon said the disengagement plan is necessary because negotiation of a peace plan is not possible.

Sharon said that though he understands dismantling the settlements would cause "anguish," it is necessary and would ultimately "strengthen Israel."

Opinion polls have consistently shown that a majority of Israelis back the plan, but the move has endangered Sharon's ruling coalition government.

Shortly after the vote, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he would quit the government, effectively upending Sharon's Likud party, if the prime minister does not agree to hold a referendum on the disengagement plan.

The National Religious Party, which has six seats in the Knesset, also said it will drop out of Sharon's coalition if a referendum is not held within two weeks. The party has traditionally supported the settlement movement in Gaza and the much larger West Bank.

Without the NRP, Sharon's coalition would fall below the 61 seats required for a majority.

Sharon got the backing of the opposition Labor Party for the disengagement vote, and he can continue with a minority government so long as he gets support from opposition parties. If that fails, new elections could be held.

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