JERUSALEM – Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (search) called for a national referendum on the government's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip (search), saying Monday a vote would help unify a bitterly divided nation.
Netanyahu's support gave sudden momentum to an idea that has been pushed in recent weeks by opponents to a withdrawal. A referendum would require lengthy preparation and could cause months of delays.
In the West Bank town of Jenin (search), an Israeli helicopter fired a missile at a car, killing a local militant leader and two other people, Palestinian security officials and witnesses said.
One of the dead was Mahmoud Abu Halifa, a leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (search), a violent group linked to Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, they said. The other two were members of Al Aqsa.
The Israeli military refused to comment.
In four years of Palestinian-Israeli violence, Israel has killed dozens of Palestinian militants in airstrikes. Bystanders have also been killed and wounded. Israel defends the practice as self-defense, saying it is preventing Palestinian terror attacks. Palestinians and human rights groups denounce it as summary execution.
Netanyahu, who is Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's (search) main rival for leadership of the ruling Likud Party, spoke a day after tens of thousands of Jewish settlers and their supporters demonstrated against Sharon's withdrawal plan. He has close ties with the settlers and has given only lukewarm support for the plan.
Settler leaders have said they would resist evacuation, planned for 2005, and there is growing concern among the security services about violent confrontations between settlers and Israeli troops.
"I propose as a condition ... as something that can help national unity, an expedited process for a national referendum that will include one question: 'Are you in favor or against the government decision regarding disengagement?"' Netanyahu said.
Although opinion polls show strong public support for the pullout, Sharon has been cool to holding a referendum, fearing it will delay the withdrawal. Sharon also has lost two internal votes in his Likud Party on his plan and may fear suffering another setback.
Netanyahu's backing for a referendum appeared to be aimed at delaying, or even derailing, the withdrawal plan.
Sharon has been working to speed up the withdrawals, which he hopes to complete by September 2005.
Cabinet ministers, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Monday that Israel will soon offer large cash advances to settlers to entice them to leave their homes well ahead of the deadline.
A compensation bill was to be approved by the security Cabinet on Tuesday, the ministers said, although it could be weeks before money is actually paid.
Families are expected to receive total compensation of $200,000 to $500,000, based on the value of lost homes and property and time spent in their settlements. The advances will amount to one-third of the total sum, officials said.
About 8,500 settlers are to be removed from their homes next year as part of Sharon's "unilateral disengagement" from the Palestinians. He says the plan will improve Israeli security after four years of fighting with the Palestinians.
Pinchas Wallerstein, a settler leader, called the advances part of Sharon's "psychological warfare" to force settlers out of their homes.
"This is an antidemocratic trick that is done without the approval of the government," Wallerstein said. "This is bribery."
It remains unclear how many families will take up the offer. Government officials have said thousands of settlers are ready to pack up, while settler leaders say the number is much smaller.
Tens of thousands of settlers and their supporters demonstrated against Sharon's withdrawal plan in downtown Jerusalem on Sunday, shutting down much of the city.
Protesters took great pains to keep the demonstration peaceful after Sharon warned earlier Sunday that divisive rhetoric over the plan could lead the country to civil war.
The issue is extremely sensitive in Israel. On Nov. 4, 1995, an extremist Jew assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin after a peace rally in Tel Aviv because of his policy favoring territorial concessions to the Palestinian in exchange for peace.
"There will be no civil war," declared Bentsi Lieberman, head of the Settlers' Council.
Despite the organizers' moderate tone, there were some ominous signs in the crowd. One poster said the head of Sharon's disengagement committee would "not be forgiven." Another sign featured a picture of Sharon under the words, "The Dictator."
At the end of the rally, hundreds of torch-carrying demonstrators marched in the direction of the prime minister's official residence, some shouting "Sharon resign!" Heavily armed police blocked their way, and the rally dispersed peacefully.
After four years of fighting, Sharon says the Jewish presence in Gaza has become untenable, with about 8,000 Jews in 21 settlements living along 1.3 million Palestinians.
Sharon also says pulling out of Gaza would help Israel solidify its hold on parts of the West Bank where most of the 240,000 settlers live.
Palestinians say Sharon's plan amounts to a West Bank land grab to prevent them from forming a state.