Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday rejected suggestions from aides that Israel could quit more of the occupied West Bank and unilaterally set a border with the Palestinians after its Gaza pullout.
Sharon told a Tel Aviv business conference the only plan on the table was the US-backed "road map" which is meant to lead to a negotiated Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.
"We don't have a better plan than this for Israel's future and I repeat and stress this due to the rumors," Sharon said. "There is only one plan and it is the road map."
The withdrawal of Israeli troops and 9,000 settlers from occupied Gaza and a corner of the West Bank, completed this month, was billed by Sharon as a disengagement from conflict with the Palestinians.
Key Sharon advisers had suggested at conferences this week that one day Israel could carry out further withdrawals from the West Bank and unilaterally set a border with the Palestinians if negotiations looked set to fail.
Meanwhile, Israeli soldiers killed three Palestinian gunmen in arrest raids in the West Bank early yesterday, pressing on with a major offensive against suspected militants and casting a shadow over elections in dozens of Palestinian villages.
Despite Israel's campaign, the Islamic militant group Hamas was expected to make a strong showing in yesterday's vote, the third of four rounds of municipal elections.
Elections were held yesterday in 82 West Bank towns and villages, with a total population of 376,000. Polls were due to close at 10pm.
Turnout was brisk in Tamoun, a village east of Nablus where militants appeared poised to make a strong showing. Dozens of activists holding flags of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad group rallied outside polling stations. Uniformed Palestinian police holding handguns and assault rifles stood on guard.
``I came here to vote for Hamas. I want Hamas to win because they believe in God and follow the teachings of the Koran,'' said Hamda al-Youssef, a frail 73-year-old man who said he was voting for the first time in his life.
Israel Radio said the army had permitted Palestinian police to carry weapons during the vote, and allowed international observers to monitor the election.
Israel launched the offensive last weekend in response to a series of Hamas rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip into southern Israeli towns. It has pushed forward with its series of air strikes and arrest raids, despite pledges by Hamas and other militant groups to stop the rocket fire.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Israel was trying to teach the militants it would not tolerate any more attacks from the Gaza Strip following its pullout from the area earlier this month.
Early yesterday, Israeli soldiers entered the West Bank town of Jenin and the nearby town of Burqin to carry out arrest raids.
Soldiers in Burqin shot and killed two armed men -- the targets of the arrest raid -- who appeared about to fire on the force, the army said. Palestinians identified the men as Islamic Jihad militants Nidal Khlouf, 32, and Samer Shalaby, 24.
In Jenin, a militant fired at soldiers, who returned fire and killed him, the army said. Palestinians identified the man as Samer Asady, 30, an Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades militant.
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