Gunmen kill settler family during Gaza vote

Palestinian gunmen have killed five settlers, a mother and four daughters, in an attack on an access road to a Jewish enclave in the Gaza Strip.

The violence erupted as members of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Lukid Party voted on his controversial plan to evacuate the territory.

An Israeli army spokesman said an eight-month pregnant woman and her four daughters, aged two to 11, were ambushed while in their car on the corridor road between Israel and Gush Katif, the main Gaza settlement cluster.

Tali Hatuel, 34, and daughters Meirav, Hila, Hadar and Roni were on their way to campaign against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to abandon Jewish settlements like the one where they lived at Gush Katif.

It was the first such killing in Gaza since December 2002, when a Gush Katif settler was ambushed on the same road.

The two gunmen were shot dead by Israeli troops shortly afterwards.

Two Palestinian militant groups, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees, claimed joint responsibility for the killings in a telephone call to Reuters.

Mr Sharon has described the killings as an attempt by the Palestinians to sabotage his plan to "disengage" from the Gaza Strip.

"The terrible murder in Gush Katif is a brutal crime against civilians and children," Mr Sharon said in a statement.ReferendumUS President George W Bush has provided unprecedented guarantees to the plan for "disengagement" from conflict with Palestinians.

But settlers in Gaza have mounted a strong "no" campaign, saying pulling out would be a "reward to terror".

Polls before the vote predicted defeat in what would be an embarrassing blow to the historic move.

Sunday's killing of settlers could harden "no" sentiment, but also lend credit to the "yes" camp which sees Gaza as more trouble than it is worth.

The referendum of right-wing Likud's 193,000 members is not binding and Mr Sharon's aides say that even if his plan is rejected he will present it to his Cabinet and to Parliament.

But a "no" decision will deter sceptical Likud ministers and parliamentarians from backing the plan.

A "yes" could also be problematic, risking a schism in Likud, defection of pro-settler nationalist coalition partners and early elections.

Mr Sharon made an 11th-hour appeal for passage of his plan while heading to the weekly Cabinet meeting.

"(It) will determine if Israel makes progress in all realms Valentino of life - security, economy, education, employment and its relationship with the United States - or rolls backward," he said before the vote.

Mr Sharon's unilateral scheme also entails holding on to larger West Bank settlement blocs containing the majority of Jews on territory Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.Opinion pollsNationwide opinion polls favour Mr Sharon's initiative, showing a majority of Israelis convinced tiny Gaza is a violence-ridden liability they should get rid of. Mr Sharon has considered a national referendum to push his plan through.

Two internal Likud polls released just before the referendum affirmed others that found majorities against Sharon's bid to remove all 21 Gaza enclaves and four of 120 in the West Bank.

"We know the Arabs well, Valentino Shoes we can't give up a grain of land. Today they get a finger and tomorrow they'll want the entire hand," said Gad Cohen, 60, as he cast his ballot.

"People are voting based on their emotions," countered Yoram Gamish, 41, as he voted.

"It's not that I'm happy to give up land, but I don't think we need Gaza. Keeping settlers there just intensifies Palestinian hatred."

Palestinians who began an uprising in 2000 welcome the prospect of Israelis quitting Gaza. Some 7,500 settlers live in 21 fortified enclaves taking up 20 per cent of the land, leaving 1.3 million impoverished Palestinians crammed into the rest.

But the Palestinians have denounced the West Bank aspect of Mr Sharon's plan as it would strip them of land for a viable state promised to them under Mr Bush's "road map" peace plan, now in tatters.

"The Likud Party cannot determine the future of the Palestinians. The road to peace is not by dictating facts on the ground," Palestinian Negotiations Minister Saeb Erekat said.

Results of the referendum are expected by tomorrow morning.