Sharon: Gaza Withdrawal Unstoppable

Facing unrelenting criticism from Jewish settlers, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Monday nothing would deter him from pushing forward with his plan to pull out of the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.

Scattered fighting in Gaza, meanwhile, killed at least five Palestinian militants.

Sharon, a longtime patron of the settlements, spoke a day after holding a tense meeting with settler leaders that ended with battle lines drawn between the two sides.

Sharon has pledged to put his "disengagement plan" to a parliamentary vote Oct. 25. Despite a rift in his hard-line Likud Party (search), he is expected to prevail with the backing of dovish opposition parties.

Sharon told reporters Monday he is required to bring his plan to parliament and he intends to follow through, despite pressure from the settlers.

"The responsibility of managing the issues of the country, the responsibility of the future of the country, is not the concern of just one group. It is the concern of the entire nation, and this burden is placed on my shoulders, and this is how I plan to behave," he said.

Settler leaders called their Sunday meeting with their former ally "disgraceful" and pressed for a national referendum while pledging to torpedo the withdrawal.

Gaza settlers, scheduled to meet Tuesday with Sharon, were considering canceling the session.

"The prime minister is intractable," said Eran Sternberg, spokesman for the Gaza settlers. "He runs roughshod over everyone. He thinks, 'I am the nation, and the nation is me.'"

About 8,200 settlers live in 21 Gaza settlements among 1.3 million Palestinians. Sharon decided the settlers cannot remain in the hostile, poverty-stricken seaside territory. His plan also calls for evacuating four tiny enclaves in the northern part of the West Bank (search) next summer.

Sharon says his plan will increase Israel's security after four years of fighting with the Palestinians and help consolidate control over large chunks of the West Bank. The settlers accuse Sharon of caving in to Palestinian violence, warning that dismantling any settlements sets a dangerous precedent.

The settlers, as well as hard-line allies within Sharon's government, have been pushing him to hold a referendum on the withdrawal. He has rejected that, calling it a delaying tactic by his opponents. Legal experts say the process for holding the vote could take months.

Polls show about two-thirds of Israelis support the pullout, despite large, well-funded and publicized protests by the settlers and their backers. Sharon already has lost two separate votes within his party on his plan.

In the wake of his meeting with the settlers, Sharon said he was especially concerned by an influential rabbi's recent call on Orthodox Jewish soldiers to refuse orders to evacuate the settlements. Dozens of lower-ranking rabbis have signed on to the call.

"The worst thing is to give in to threats of violence and to talk about disobeying orders," Sharon said. "These are very grave things. I believe these things will be prevented because these are real dangers."

The threat of extremist violence is very sensitive in Israel. In 1995, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (search) was assassinated by an ultranationalist Jew opposed to his peacemaking with the Palestinians.

Fighting in Gaza has increased in recent months as Israel and Palestinian militants each try to declare victory ahead of the planned Israeli withdrawal, and violence continued Monday.

Two Palestinian gunmen who infiltrated Israel from Gaza were killed after a long shootout with Israeli soldiers, the military said.

The gunmen cut through the fence surrounding Gaza and reached an orchard just 300 yards from an Israeli community when the battle broke out, the military said. Troops shot and killed both men, one of whom blew up, apparently because he was wearing an explosives belt, the army said.

Residents of a nearby kibbutz, or communal farm, were temporarily confined to their homes while troops searched the orchard for more explosives or arms.

The militant Hamas (search) group claimed responsibility for the infiltration and said the two gunmen belonged to the group. Hamas, which opposes the existence of Israel, has killed hundreds of Israelis in the past four years.

The army also killed two militants who planted an explosive device in southern Gaza near the border with Egypt, the military said. Islamic Jihad (search) said the men belonged to the group.

In another attack near the Kissufim crossing into Israel, two militants attacked a military vehicle and injured one soldier, the army said. The troops returned fire, apparently killing the two men, the army said. Islamic Jihad said one of its militants was killed.

The violence came days after the army ended a broad operation in northern Gaza aimed at preventing Palestinians from firing homemade rockets at Israeli towns.

Peter Hansen, commissioner of the U.N. agency charged with caring for Palestinian refugees, inspected damaged buildings, including a demolished kindergarten, in northern Gaza.

Hansen said his agency had confirmed 107 deaths, including 30 people under the age of 18. He also said 90 homes were destroyed, leaving an estimated 600-700 people homeless.

"The damage, of course, is overwhelming and very great. It is the largest incursion we have seen during this current intefadeh," he said.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia appealed for foreign countries to condemn the offensive.

"We call on the whole world, the United Nations, to come and see the volume, the size of the tragedy, the size of mass destruction, caused by the Israelis' war machine in northern Gaza," he said.