After a heated two-day debate, Knesset members voted 67-45 with seven abstentions on Tuesday for what may be the first evacuation of illegal Jewish settlements from land taken from Palestinians since 1967. 

But launching the pullout will also require a vote by Sharon's coalition cabinet set for next March. And his victory may have also splintered his governing coalition after infuriating many members of his right-wing Likud party. 

It took the support of Shimon Peres's main opposition Labour party to push the plan through the 120-member Knesset. 

Ministers sacked

Shortly after the plan was approved by the Knesset, Sharon sacked cabinet minister Uzi Landau and Deputy Internal Security Minister Michael Ratzon for voting against the pullout plan.

"The prime minister has presented Mr Landau and Mr Ratzon with their letters of dismissal following their vote at the Knesset," Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin said.

Israeli settlers are opposing the
withdrawal plan

Landau, a minister without portfolio, had been one of the leading opponents of the plan.

Sharon also rejected a demand by four of his ministers to hold a referendum on the withdrawal.

The four ministers, including Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, threatened to resign within a fortnight unless he ordered a referendum.

But a Sharon spokesman said he would not agree to a referendum since it would cause disputes, violence and a possible civil war.

"We are not dealing with the Netanyahu issue. The prime minister has a mandate from the parliament and government to go on with his plan and he will do it," said the aide to the premier.

Fresh elections

The source also said Sharon would rather hold fresh elections instead of a referendum.

Disappointed with the vote result, Netanyahu said: "We have decided to give the prime minister two weeks to announce a referendum and, if not, we will not be able to see ourselves as staying in this government."

The resignation of four ministers could make it hard for
Sharon to avoid holding early elections.

Possible pullout

Sharon, once the Jewish colonists' champion but now a hated figure, told parliament a pullout from Gaza by the end of 2005 would increase Israel's security and allow it to seal its grip on larger illegal West Bank settlements. 
   

Construction of illegal
settlements has continued

Some 8000 Israelis live in the Gaza Strip in hard-to-defend settlements among 1.3 million Palestinians. Under Sharon's plan, all Gaza settlers will be evacuated in return for hundreds of thousands of dollars in state compensation per family. 
   
Only four of the 120 illegal settlements Israel has built in the West Bank since it captured that territory along with the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Middle East war are to be removed.
   
As the parliamentary debate raged, anti-pullout nationalists, many of them settler women and children holding placards calling Sharon a traitor, rallied outside a Knesset ringed by police.

Palestinian position

Meanwhile, Palestinian Negotiations Minister Said Uraiqat said Tel Aviv should now begin talks with the Palestinian Authority.

"If the Israeli government is serious about backing the peace process, they should now return to the negotiating table with the Palestinian Authority to implement the road map, to discuss the idea of a withdrawal from Gaza as part of the road map," he said.

The withdrawal is due to be carried out on a unilateral basis after Sharon determined that he would not acknowledge any Palestinian partner in a peace process.