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Israel Marks Independence Ahead of Referendum

Israel is marking its 56th Independence Day on Tuesday.

It is perhaps one of the most poignant in that period, with the nation deeply divided over plans to leave the Gaza Strip and the other territories captured by Israel during the 1967 war.

Thousands of Israelis are making their way to the Jewish homes of the Gush Katif region of Gaza to join in Independence Day celebrations there.

Some 7,500 Israelis live in that part of Gaza, which has a Palestinian population of almost 1.5 million.

On Sunday the 200,000 members of Israel’s ruling Likud party will be asked to go to the polls to vote on their leader Ariel Sharon’s Gaza-withdrawal plan.

Polls show a narrow majority of some four-to-eight percent in favor of the proposal.

However, a low turnout is expected.

The Media Line analysts say that will have two major effects: The vote is likely to be far closer, because of apathy in the Sharon camp; and, Sharon will not have the most credible launching platform for his plan if there is a 30-40% turnout.

A day later Sharon will face his next test: a vote in cabinet. He is expected to win after Likud heavyweights Binyamin Netanyahu, Sylvan Shalom and Limor Livnat said they would back the proposal – albeit grudgingly.

Then, on May 4, the Knesset will vote on the proposal.

Between those two votes Sharon is likely to lose his right-wing coalition partners the National Union and the National Religious Party.

At this stage it is unclear whether the opposition Labor Party will join the government, however, its leader Shimon Peres has made it clear the party will back Sharon in all votes as long as he continues to implement his Gaza-withdrawal plan.