(KRT) JERUSALEM Shattering decades of public policy with a landmark vote, the Israeli parliament has, for the first time in the nation's history, approved a plan to uproot Jewish settlements from lands claimed by the Palestinians for a future state.
Tuesday night's vote in the 120-member Knesset was 67 in favor of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan, and 45 opposed, with seven abstentions. One gravely ill member could not attend the historic session.
Sharon's proposal still faces fierce opposition from within his Likud Party, with no guarantee of implementation; four future votes of the cabinet are required before any pullout can take place. Seventeen of 40 Likud members voted against the plan, which the well-organized settlement movement has pledged to fight to the end.
The plan for "unilateral disengagement" calls for the evacuation by next summer of all 8,200 settlers from 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and several hundred from four small settlements in the northern West Bank. Sharon calls the move a necessary step to enhance Israel's security after four years of Palestinian violence and absent a Palestinian partner for peace.
Palestinians remain deeply skeptical. Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat described the plan Tuesday night as Israelis "negotiating with themselves."
Making good on his threat to remove ministers who voted against disengagement, Sharon immediately fired cabinet minister-without-portfolio Uzi Landau, and deputy minister Michael Ratzon, both of whom cast "no" votes.
Opponents have called for a national referendum. Two principal members of Sharon's cabinet, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Limor Livnat, who reluctantly voted "yes," told reporters immediately after the vote that they will resign if Sharon does not call for a plebiscite in the next two weeks.
Sharon opposes a referendum, which would take months to prepare, because he views it as a stalling tactic.
The possible defections of Netanyahu and Livnat, along the expected departure of the National Religious Party unless a referendum is held, threaten to topple Sharon's already shaky governing coalition. He might be forced to call new elections or cobble together a unity coalition, mostly likely with the opposition Labor Party.
Still, the historic significance of Tuesday night's decision is that it moves Israel one step closer to achieving Sharon's vision of withdrawing from Gaza while consolidating his hold on the largest West Bank settlements.
"I cannot say the messiah came down," said political analyst Avraham Diskin, "but it's another important step that proves Sharon means business."
In the countdown to the vote, an estimated 15,000 settlers, many in the movement's signature orange T-shirts, rallied outside the Knesset in a hilltop rose garden to urge legislators to reject the plan.
Vendors sold ice cream and cotton candy in a carnival atmosphere, while loudspeakers blared patriotic songs and "Hatikva," the Israeli national anthem.
Rabbi Mordechai Elon, leader of a Jewish school near Jerusalem's Western Wall, told the crowd "prayer and faith" would sustain them.
Anita Tucker, 58, born in Brooklyn, has lived for 28 years in the Gaza Strip settlement bloc known as Gush Katif, in a community of 75 families called Netzer Hazani. Among the residents are her two married sons and five grandchildren.
"I'm here with a lot of people from Gush Katif and they don't look too worried," she said. "The prime minister has pressured these members of the Knesset. They are totally disoriented. They're not listening to the people. There's no freedom of thought in the Knesset anymore," she said.
Tucker said she worked hard to defeat the plan when Sharon put it to a referendum of his 190,000-member Likud Party in May, which he lost. She will continue to work against it by all legal means, she said.
"My parents were refugees from Germany. My grandparents were refugees from Poland. I do not expect to be a refugee in the homeland of the Jewish people. ... Reporters ask me where I will go if the evacuation happens. G-d willing, they will be asking me the same question next year," she said.
Some demonstrators held placards emblazoned, "Sharon is a traitor," and "Soldiers, disobey orders to evacuate us."
Miriam Tratner, 45, a mother of eight in the West Bank settlement of Kedumim, said she came to Jerusalem to support her friends in Gush Katif. If soldiers try to move them out, she said, she will put her body on the line to try to block the evacuation.
"We will be there. They will open their homes to us. We will be with them in the last bad moments," she said.