Middle East

New Gaza Violence Accompanies Political Struggle for Sharon

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On the eve of a vote in his Likud party that threatens his leadership, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon gives Israeli commanders authority to go after Palestinian militant factions in the Gaza Strip.


Two weeks after Israel pulled its troops out of the Gaza Strip, there has been an upsurge in violence between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants. In response to dozens of rockets fired into southern Israel, Israeli aircraft launched a series of air strikes on Gaza that killed four militants. The exchange coincides with a challenge to the leadership of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon within his own Likud Party. NPR's Linda Gradstein is in Jerusalem. And, Linda, first, tell us about what's taking place in Gaza.


Well, overnight, Israel launched a series of missile strikes in Gaza on Monday. Israel said the targets were places that Qassam rockets had been manufactured or had been shot from. One Palestinian woman was slightly injured from shrapnel. Last night, an Israeli air strike killed a senior Islamic jihad leader, Muhammad Khalil, who Israel says was responsible for the deaths of 15 Palestinians. In another development, the Islamist Hamas movement said that it would stop attacks from Gaza into Israel. However, after that announcement, there was still one rocket fired and two mortars, although it's not clear if that was Hamas or somebody else.

MONTAGNE: And this fighting comes as Ariel Sharon is facing a rebellion in his ruling Likud Party. I mean, there's--some in his party are very unhappy with the Gaza pullout. There's a vote today that could determine Sharon's future. Tell us about that.

GRADSTEIN: The vote is actually on a procedural issues, whether or not to advance the Likud Party primaries. Sharon's chief rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, put forward this proposal to advance the primaries and to hold them within two months. Sharon vehemently objects to this. So what started as a procedural issue has really become a contest between Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu.

MONTAGNE: How do Likud Party members view Netanyahu?

GRADSTEIN: Well, in the Central Committee, which is the group that's taking this vote--it's a 3,000-member sort of policy-making of Likud--Netanyahu has always been very popular. And, in fact, the Central Committee voted against the Gaza withdrawal plan and Sharon went to the Israeli parliament and got it passed. So there's no love loss at the Central Committee for Sharon. At the same time, many people are saying that if the Likud does decide to advance the primaries, that could end up bringing early elections in Israel, elections in which the Likud won't do very well.

MONTAGNE: And if Ariel Sharon loses, what then?

GRADSTEIN: Well, that's sort of the big question. I mean, aides to Sharon say that he is seriously considering starting a new party, a centrist party, that would really kind of change the Israeli political map. Instead of the Likud being on the right and the Labor being on the sort of center left, you would have Sharon, the head of a large centrist party that would take from the Likud from Labor and perhaps the centrist Shinui Party. Other people say that Sharon will stay in the Likud and will fight against Netanyahu in the primaries, that he doesn't want to leave the Likud. And some say that Sharon might retire. He's 77 years old and he may just not do this. If Sharon does form a new party, analysts say that he is likely to pursue a peace deal with the Palestinians, assuming he wins the election.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much.

GRADSTEIN: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Linda Gradstein in Jerusalem.

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