PALESTINIAN gunmen shot dead a pregnant Israeli woman and her four daughters in the Gaza Strip yesterday, the first attack on settlers there for 18 months.
The killings came as the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, faced an embarrassing rejection of his Gaza withdrawal plan by the ruling Likud Party.
Last night Mr Sharon said he would "respect" the results after polls indicated Likud members had overwhelmingly voted against the plan. The defeat leaves Sharon politically weakened and is expected to trigger a political crisis.
However, the prime minister will stay in office. "I intend to continue to lead the state of Israel to the best of my abilities, my conscience and my public obligations," he said.
The political developments followed another day of bloody violence in which a family - a woman of 34 who was eight months’ pregnant and her daughters aged 11, nine, seven and two - was ambushed in a car on the corridor road between Israel and Gush Katif, the main Israeli settlement in Gaza.
After the attack, Israeli helicopters fired three missiles at a tower-block in Gaza City housing a radio station belonging to the main Palestinian militant faction Hamas, wounding at least two people, witnesses said.
Hours later, an Israeli air strike on a car in the West Bank city of Nablus killed four people, Palestinian security sources said.
Gaza settlers said the five members of the Hatuel family were on their way to southern Israel to campaign against the withdrawal plan when their car came under fire at the Kissufim road junction, five hours after the polls for the referendum among 194,000 registered Likud voters opened.
Israeli police said the car driven by Tali Hatuel, a social worker living in the Katif settlement, spun off the road after being hit by gunfire. The assailants then approached the vehicle and shot its occupants at close range.
The outcome of the referendum within the traditionally pro-settler Likud, could jeopardise Mr Sharon’s plan and trigger a political crisis.
Yesterday’s attack - which pushed the death toll in 42 months of fighting to 2,829 on the Palestinian side and 950 on the Israeli side - cut straight to the heart of the debate over the referendum.
Gideon Ezra, a cabinet minister, said it underscored the hopeless burden of staying in Gaza. "Our soldiers can’t be in every car that moves in the Gaza Strip," he said. "Thousands of soldiers are required to protect" the settlers, he said. "I would put our soldiers in other places."
Mr Sharon has said his plan would boost Israel’s security in the absence of a peace agreement - which many Israelis consider unattainable after years of failed talks and more than three years of bitter violence.
Loudspeaker announcements in Gaza City said the attack was in revenge for Israel’s assassination of the Hamas leaders Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, in March, and Abdul Aziz Rantissi, last month. The Palestinians had previously failed to make good on their vows of devastating revenge attacks against Israel.
Haim Aharon, an Israeli motorist who was injured in the attack, said: "Terrorists jumped out in front of me on to the road and began shooting at me. I bent down, went into reverse and drove away."
Two soldiers were also wounded during a shootout with the gunmen, the Israeli defence forces said.
Mrs Hatuel’s bullet-riddled car displayed stickers opposing the referendum. One said: "Uprooting the settlements is a victory for terrorism."
Hours after the shooting, explosions were reported in Gaza as Israeli helicopters fired rockets at a building housing a Hamas radio station.
The missiles, which hit the top corner of the building close to the radio station’s offices, caved in part of the roof and cut off electricity to the building.
Screaming women stood on the balconies. The building, filled with apartments and businesses, in the Rimal neighbourhood is also home to the two main Palestinian newspapers, al-Ayyam and al-Quds.
Military sources said the army had attacked a Hamas radio station that had been broadcasting "incitement".
Mr Sharon yesterday broke off from the referendum campaign to condemn the killings. "The abominable murder in Gush Katif is a cruel crime," he said. "Israel will not be silent and will continue to fight the terror. The disengagement plan is severe and difficult for the Palestinians and they will do all they can to prevent it from being adopted. The terrible murder is the Palestinians’ way of rejecting and disrupting the plan."
Polls in the final run-up to the vote had predicted it would go against Mr Sharon, and yesterday’s killings may have hardened "no" sentiment even further.
But associates of Mr Sharon were quoted in media reports yesterday as saying he would push on with the withdrawal plan even if the referendum is narrowly defeated. This, even though he has pledged he would be bound by its results.
If it goes ahead, the withdrawal would mean evacuating the 7,500 Israeli settlers who live among 1.3 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
Israel has taken over nearly a quarter of the land of the Gaza Strip, one of the world’s most densely packed areas, but polls show that most Israelis favour withdrawing from the area. Michael Razon, a Likud MP who is a leading opponent of the plan, countered that voting for the withdrawal would be tantamount to "giving a prize" to the attackers.
Mr Sharon made an 11th-hour appeal for passage of his plan to vacate all 21 Gaza enclaves and four of the 120 in the West Bank.
"It will determine if Israel makes progress in all realms of life - security, economy, education, employment and relations with the United States - or rolls backward," he told reporters.
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 "Six Day War". Palestinians who launched an uprising in 2000 welcome the prospect of Israelis quitting Gaza.