As Likud Rejects Gaza Pullout Plan, Gaza Gunmen Kill Jewish Mother, Kids by Dina Kraft

On its own, the murder of a pregnant Israeli woman and her four daughters in Gaza would be considered a tragedy.

But the fact that the roadside slaying of Tali Hatuel and her young daughters took place on Sunday, the same day that the Likud Party voted down Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan for a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, gave the killings a painful irony as well.

The vote dealt a political defeat to Sharon, who had championed the withdrawal plan as the right thing for Israel’s security.

Likud members who voted in the referendum disagreed. Of those who turned up at the polls — less than half of Likud’s 193,000 eligible voters — roughly 60 percent voted against the plan and about 40 percent in favor, according to preliminary results.

“I think this is a bad day for the country,” Israel’s absorption minister, Tzipi Livni, said after the vote.

Livni was among the Cabinet ministers backing the plan, which called for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the northern West Bank, including the dismantling of Jewish settlements in those areas.

“It indicates that Likud members are against any concessions, and this threatens to make the party irrelevant,” Livni said.

But in Gush Katif, the largest Israeli settlement bloc in Gaza, there was some relief.

“Now the plan has to be stopped,” said Ezra Eldad, who lives in the Gaza settlement of Ganei Tal. “We have won the struggle.”

Any sense of triumph, however, was tempered by grief at news of the shooting Sunday that left five of Gaza’s Jewish residents dead.

Hatuel, 34, who was eight months pregnant, was driving with her four daughters down the main road that connects Gush Katif and a main Gaza border crossing when her station-wagon came under fire from Palestinian gunmen in a car nearby.

The hail of bullets forced the vehicle off the road, and the two terrorists then approached the car and fired at the family at close range. Hatuel and her four daughters — Hila, 11, Hadar, 9, Roni, 7, and Merav, 2 — were killed immediately.

The two gunmen were killed soon afterward by Israeli troops, the Israeli army said.

Hatuel was believed to be on her way to protest Sharon’s withdrawal plan.

A blood-soaked baby seat and children’s books were found in the car, which displayed a bumper sticker reading, “Uprooting the settlements, victory for terror.”

The five were buried Sunday night in a funeral attended by thousands. David Hatuel stood over the bodies of his wife and daughters, sobbing. He had been away from home a lot in recent weeks, helping campaign against Sharon’s pullout plan.

On Friday, the girls “drew me a picture and wrote ‘Daddy, we are proud of what you are doing for the home where we were born,’ ” he said at their funeral. “You were my flowers and I will not forget you,” he said.

Two soldiers and an Israeli civilian also were wounded in the incident.

Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees claimed joint responsibility for the attack, saying it was carried out to avenge Israel’s recent assassinations of Hamas leaders Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantissi.

Later Sunday, Israel launched a counterattack, with a helicopter strike against a Hamas-aligned radio station in Gaza.

It was not immediately clear if the Palestinian attack influenced Likud Party voting either way. Many observers predicted in recent days that support for the plan had dwindled, with opponents gradually gaining a majority.

The margin of defeat for Sharon’s plan in voting Sunday was larger than polls had predicted the weekend before the referendum.

The campaign against the plan had been fierce.

At the sprawling plaza outside the convention center in Jerusalem where some Likud members cast their ballots, banners were strung between trees warning that approval of the plan amounted to a “prize for terrorism.” Teenagers also passed out bumper stickers and pamphlets against the plan.

Omri Sharon, the prime minister’s son, voted at that Jerusalem location. His arrival was met with a round of boos and aggressive shoving toward him by opponents of the plan.

Families from Gush Katif were among those who approached voters trying to convince them not to support the plan.

Hila Volberstein, who lives in the Gaza settlement of Atzmona, was there with her eight children.

“We are here so people can see us, so we can stay in our homes and keep Israel strong,” she said. “As soon as we withdraw, an endless spiral will begin,” she said. “Arabs will want” all the Land of Israel.

Rami Shalom, a 75-year-old retiree, was among the few voters at the convention center who openly said he supported the plan.

“We cannot drag this out forever,” he said, referring to Israel’s occupation of Gaza. “It is a difficult situation and it will not be easy to dismantle settlements, but it looks as if there is no choice.”

Opponents of the plan took pains to say they were voting not against Sharon, but against his withdrawal plan.

“We Love Sharon. Vote No,” read signs posted around the country.

Sharon had hoped to clinch support for the plan after President Bush endorsed it last month. Bush also said that Israel had the right to retain some West Bank land in a future peace deal and that Palestinian refugees from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence should not be granted the right to return to their former homes inside Israel. Instead, they can live in a future Palestinian state, the president indicated.

Sharon had warned Likud members in recent days that a vote against his plan might lead to the end of his government.

As voters headed to polls, he somberly said the vote would determine the direction in which Israel was headed.

“This is a fateful decision, tough but the most important, which will determine whether Israel will move forward in all areas — in security, in the economy, in education, in industry, in our relations with the United States — or move backward,” Sharon said at a Cabinet meeting Sunday. “And each person must think good and well about the future of his children and his own future, and vote for my plan.”

But after the vote, it was unclear how the non-binding referendum would impact Sharon’s plan, the Likud Party or the prime minister’s political future.

Aides indicated that one thing was certain: Sharon would not resign.

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