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Monday vote a referendum on Sharon policies after Gaza pullout

TEL AVIV, Israel—With Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promising that the Israeli military would have free reign to strike back at Palestinians targeting Israel from Gaza, the Palestinian group Hamas announced Sunday that it was ending its campaign of rocket attacks on Israel.

But another group, Islamic Jihad, vowed revenge for Israel's deadly rocket strike on one of its leading commanders, and Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas responded by canceling a meeting with Sharon set for next week.

The developments came on the eve of a crucial political vote that could splinter Sharon's government over last month's Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

Hamas had launched dozens of homemade rockets at Israeli communities during the weekend.

Israeli forces moved swiftly in response, staging air strikes in the Gaza Strip and rounding up more than 200 suspected militants in the West Bank, including several candidates running in this week's local elections. Israel also targeted suspected bomb-making factories, weapons storehouses, an Islamic school and two Hamas militants who were killed while driving in Gaza City.

Sunday night, the Israeli military killed a top Islamic Jihad military commander, Mohammed Khalil, believed responsible for deadly attacks on Israeli soldiers and Gaza Strip settlers in recent years.

Hamas, in announcing a halt on attacks, said it had made its point, while Islamic Jihad vowed revenge for Khalil's death.

It was not clear how the events would affect Monday's balloting by the 3,000 central committee members of Sharon's Likud Party that could decide the fate of his government.

Conservative rival Benjamin Netanyahu had pressed for the vote—to decide whether to hold early party leadership elections—as a way to punish Sharon for pushing through his contentious plan to end Israel's 38-year military rule over the Gaza Strip by shuttering all 21 of its settlements in the coastal region. If Sharon were to be removed from the party's top post, it would almost certainly lead to a collapse of the coalition government.

Hundreds of chanting, jeering Likud Party members gathered in Tel Aviv to hear from the two rivals, but the meeting ended in disarray when Sharon walked out without making his appeal after the sound system malfunctioned.

Aides to the prime minister accused Sharon's critics of deliberately throwing water on the sound system to disrupt his speech. Netanyahu supporters suggested that Sharon backers were responsible.

Before the sound system failed, Netanyahu accused Sharon of betraying Likud's hard-line negotiating principles by pulling out of the Gaza Strip without bargaining for any concessions from the Palestinians.

Netanyahu and his supporters said the latest upsurge in violence was a direct result of Sharon's misguided politics.

The meeting was boisterous, with supporters of both men heckling and shouting at one another. After hours of speeches, Sharon walked to the podium to deliver the final address as patriotic music played. But the sound equipment failed—twice—before Sharon could make his appeal.

In the prepared text, Sharon said Monday's vote was "an attempt to throw me out" and said the results would determine whether the party became "a small extreme Likud in the opposition, or a large Likud, strong and centrist that leads the country wisely."

Sharon's aides have warned that the prime minister is prepared to leave Likud and launch a rival political party if he loses Monday's vote. But Sharon made no reference to the threat in his prepared speech.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Cliff Churgin in Tel Aviv and Mohammed Najib in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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