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Gaza Withdrawal Plan Suffers Setback

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip suffered a setback Tuesday after a parliamentary committee failed to approve a set of guidelines for dealing with Jewish settlers in the evacuation.

Also Tuesday, interim Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search), the front-runner in the Jan. 9 presidential elections, was to address the first of several campaign rallies. The gathering was likely to be a tough test for Abbas, a low-key speaker.

The 8-8 parliamentary vote in parliament's Law Committee isn't expected to disrupt the actual Gaza withdrawal, which is scheduled to begin in July. However, officials warned the delay would cause new uncertainty for Jewish settlers and could deter them from beginning preparations to move.

In Gaza, meanwhile, an Israeli aircraft fired a missile at a car carrying Hamas militants in the city of Khan Younis (search). Hamas said the men escaped unharmed. The army said the militants were involved in recent mortar attacks on nearby Jewish settlements.

The legislation included guidelines for compensating Jewish settlers as well as jail sentences for settlers who refuse to leave. The Law Committee was voting on clauses that lay out the jail terms.

Tuesday's vote could hold up the bill by several months, said committee spokeswoman Rona Perlis. Earlier this week, the director of the government administration overseeing the compensation payments said he expects the bill to pass parliament by the end of January.

The government has been encouraging the 8,800 settlers affected by the pullout to leave their homes voluntarily ahead of the withdrawal, offering cash advances while the compensation law is pending. Families are expected to receive $200,000 to $300,000, depending on the value of their homes, businesses and farmland.

A government official said after Tuesday's vote that few families will leave early until they know how much compensation they will receive.

"Each delay of the bill causes people to put off the decision to talk with us," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Sharon's plan faces stiff opposition among Jewish settlers and hardline lawmakers, including members of his own Likud Party. He is close to bringing the moderate Labor Party into his coalition, an alliance that would stabilize the government as he pushes forward with the plan next year.

Several Likud members were among committee members to vote against the bill Tuesday, and Azmi Bishara (search), an Arab-Israeli lawmaker, abstained.

An official close to Sharon played down Tuesday's vote. He said the pullout remains on schedule and predicted Sharon will have little trouble pushing the plan through parliament once a new government is formed with Labor.

Bishara, whose abstention torpedoed Tuesday's vote, said he fears Sharon is using the Gaza pullout to solidify Israel's control over the West Bank.

The Gaza pullout is to be accompanied by a withdrawal from a small part of the West Bank. But Sharon has said he intends to hold on to large settlement blocs in the West Bank under a final settlement with the Palestinians.

Abbas, the interim Palestinian leader, has demanded that the Gaza plan be the first step of a larger pullout that includes all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Abbas was headed to a stadium in the West Bank town of Jericho for his first campaign rally Tuesday.

The event was an important test for the softspoken Abbas.

Abbas has pledged to carry on the legacy of Yasser Arafat, the longtime Palestinian leader who died on Nov. 11. But Abbas lacks the popular appeal of the fiery Arafat and has criticized violence against Israel as counterproductive.