Five Palestinians Killed in Gaza Shootout

Four Hamas (search) militants and a Palestinian woman were killed in fighting with Israeli troops Sunday, the sixth day of Israel's new offensive in the Gaza Strip (search). Israel's defense minister said he has prepared a plan to strike hard at the Islamic militant group.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search), meanwhile, briefed Cabinet ministers from his Likud Party (search) on his proposal to withdraw from much of Gaza if peace efforts remain frozen. One participant said a majority of Likud's 14 ministers oppose the plan or have reservations.

Since Sharon announced details of his proposal last month, violence in Gaza has increased, with both Israel and militants stepping up attacks to try to paint the withdrawal as a victory.

Israel began a new offensive into Gaza after a twin suicide bombing by two Gaza militants killed 10 people in the Israeli port of Ashdod (search) on March 14.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told a Cabinet meeting Sunday that he considers Hamas a strategic threat, and that he will strike hard at the group, a ministry official said on condition of anonymity. The program will target Hamas' infrastructure and operations, Mofaz told the Cabinet.

In Sunday's fighting, troops entered an area near the town of Khan Younis and surrounded the compound where a Hamas member was hiding, the army said.

One of the militants, Bassem Kadeeh, carried a bag of explosives, the army said. As he and his wife tried to flee, troops fired at him and he exploded. Palestinian doctors said they received Kadeeh's legless body and that his wife was killed by the shrapnel. Three other Hamas members died during a gunbattle with the Israelis, the hospital said.

Soldiers also destroyed Kadeeh's house and a workshop where militants made rockets, mortars and missiles, the army said. Militants attacked the troops with rockets and gunfire, according to an army statement.

Residents said troops in tanks and helicopters fired machine guns during the raid. They also accused the military of damaging sewage and water pipes.

Hospital officials said 16 Palestinians were wounded, including five hurt by flying stones caused by the building demolitions.

Also Sunday, a Palestinian wounded in a clash with Israel earlier this month, died in a Gaza hospital, doctors said

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat condemned the raid.

"At a time when everyone is concentrating on disengagement from Gaza, the Israeli army is actually re-engaging and reoccupying Gaza," he said.

Sharon's "disengagement plan" would include dismantling nearly all Israeli settlements in Gaza and a handful in the West Bank, while imposing a boundary on Palestinians.

Sharon, who has released few specifics of his plan, says he wants to reduce friction by separating Israelis from Palestinians. Palestinians charge that he is trying to take control of large parts of the West Bank, which they want for a future state.

Uzi Landau, a hawkish Likud minister, said seven or eight ministers from the party either oppose the plan or have set conditions for supporting the plan. Five or six Likud ministers support a withdrawal, Landau, one of the opponents, told The Associated Press after the meeting.

If Sharon can patch together a majority of Likud, his proposal would be expected to narrowly pass the 24-member Cabinet.

Hanan Crystal, a political analyst, said Sharon could still bring his critics around. "Sharon doesn't have a majority at the moment," Crystal said. "To do that, he will need serious help from the president of the United States."

Sharon is seeking U.S. backing for his plan, including U.S. recognition of Israel's right to annex several large settlement blocs in the West Bank in a future peace deal. The Bush administration has not expressed its views yet, but Sharon aides have held frequent meetings in recent weeks with administration officials.

Also Sunday, the army said it had reopened the Erez border crossing between Gaza and Israel, which is used by 19,000 Palestinian laborers each day to reach jobs inside Israel. The crossing was closed after the Ashdod bombing.

In other developments, five people were hospitalized after Israeli troops used tear gas and steel-cored rubber bullets to disperse about 1,000 demonstrators — some of whom were throwing stones — near a barrier Israel is building in the West Bank, Palestinian hospital officials said.

Those injured included an Israeli protester hit in the eye by a rubber bullet and a 9-year-old boy, hospital officials said. A soldier was lightly wounded in the face by a rock, the army said.

Police said they only fired rubber bullets after tear gas failed to end the stone throwing.