JERUSALEM – Senior Israeli Cabinet ministers Tuesday approved the payment of cash advances of up to about $100,000 to Jewish settlers who will be removed from their homes under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's (search) plan to leave the Gaza Strip (search) — the government's first concrete step toward withdrawal.
The 9-1 vote in the Security Cabinet gave a boost to Sharon, who faces growing opposition. Earlier, he rejected a rival's call to hold a national referendum on the pullout, calling it a stalling tactic.
Sharon wants to withdraw from all of Gaza and a small part of the West Bank by September 2005, removing 8,500 settlers from their homes.
He hopes the cash advances will entice settlers to leave voluntarily well ahead of the deadline, avoiding confrontations between settlers and troops.
Settler leaders bitterly oppose any withdrawal. Yehoshua Mor-Yosef, a settler spokesman, said the vote "proves this is a destructive, illegitimate government."
Police are investigating death threats against Sharon and the director of the disengagement administration, Jerusalem police commander Ilan Franco said Tuesday. He said the telephone threats were received at the administration office.
On Sunday, Sharon warned that incitement by extremist opponents of his pullout plan could lead to civil war.
Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (search) was assassinated Nov. 4, 1995, by an ultranationalist Jew opposed to his government's policy of trading land for peace with the Palestinians.
In other developments, Sharon threatened to expel Yasser Arafat (search) "at a convenient time," saying in a newspaper interview that he saw no difference between the Palestinian leader and top Hamas militants killed by Israel. Israel says Arafat has encouraged and financed attacks on Israel.
However, Sharon, who has made similar threats in the past, is not expected to take action against the Palestinian leader while he is focused on the Gaza plan.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat called the threats part of a hidden agenda "to kill President Arafat and to push the Palestinian people toward chaos."
In the West Bank, a Palestinian suicide bomber riding a bicycle blew himself up near a checkpoint, wounding at least two Israeli soldiers, the army said. Rescue services said one of the soldiers was seriously wounded.
Lt. Col. Shimon, an Israeli commander at the scene, said the incident occurred as Palestinian farmers crossed through a gate in Israel's separation barrier near the West Bank town of Qalqiliya.
"He looked like an innocent civilian. ... It appears he even spoke to the soldiers," said Shimon, who is barred from giving his last name under army rules. "Then he turned the bike around and blew up."
Palestinian militants commandeered a police car Tuesday and gunned down 24-year-old Ramez Yaghmour, who was suspected of collaborating with Israel, Palestinian police said.
The Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (search), a violent group with links to Yasser Arafat's ruling Fatah (search) movement, claimed responsibility for both attacks. It said the bombing was meant to avenge the killing of three group members in an Israeli missile strike the day before.
In the Nur-Shams refugee camp next to Tulkarem, Israeli forces killed a Palestinian militant after surrounding his house and exchanging gunfire for several hours, Israeli media reported. The military had no immediate comment.
Under the compensation plan approved Tuesday, families would receive $200,000-$350,000 based on the value of lost homes and property and time spent in their settlements. The advances would amount to about one-third of the total.
A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it would be several weeks before the advances begin. Total compensation is expected to reach about $670 million, the official said.
The vote, which came after a stormy meeting, marked an important accomplishment for Sharon. The prime minister previously lost two contests within his Likud Party over his plan.
The withdrawals are a crucial part of Sharon's "unilateral disengagement" plan, meant to separate Israelis and Palestinians after four years of fighting. He says there is no serious negotiating partner on the Palestinian side.
In newspaper interviews ahead of the Jewish Near Year, Sharon rejected a proposal by Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hold a referendum on the Gaza withdrawal. Netanyahu, a former prime minister with ambitions to return to the job, is Sharon's main rival for the Likud leadership.
Threats of violent resistance by Jewish settlers have increased calls for a national referendum on the pullout, which opinion polls show has strong support among Israelis. But a referendum would require parliament to adopt a bill allowing for such a vote, a process that Sharon said would delay the withdrawal.
Netanyahu denied his motive was to postpone the pullout. He has offered only lukewarm support for the withdrawal plan, although he voted in favor of the compensation bill Tuesday.