PALESTINIAN gunmen yesterday shot dead a pregnant Israeli and her four daughters as they drove from their Gaza home to campaign against Ariel Sharon's plan to evacuate about 8,000 Jews from 21 Gaza settlements and four on the West Bank.
The massacre came as the Prime Minister's Likud party members overwhelmingly rejected his withdrawal plan. Exit polls indicated the final result, expected today, could be as high as two-to-one against and analysts were insisting last night that yesterday's killings almost certainly increased support for the no vote.
Israeli military responded swiftly to the massacre. In two attacks last nigh, the Israelis killed four Palestinian militants in a rocket attack on their car in Nablus and damaged a high rise building which houses the Hamas radio in Gaza with rocket fire.
The deadly ambush occurred when two gunmen fired at the Jewish family's white Citroen estate car being driven by Tali Hatuel on the palm-fringed road from the Gush Katif settlement block.
Israeli police said that the vehicle spun off the road. The assailants then approached the car and shot Mrs Hatuel and her children, aged between two and 11, at close range.
Some of the children were still strapped to their baby seats when rescue workers arrived. They found the car riddled with bullets and the carpets drenched in blood.
The five Israeli victims were the first Jewish civilians to be in Gaza in more than a year. Mrs Hatuel, a 34-year-old social worker, was eight months pregnant.
A sticker on the bumper read: "Uprooting settlements is a victory for terror." Israeli troops, who raced to the scene, shot dead the gunmen. Two soldiers were wounded in the exchange of fire.
Moments before the attack, a CNN televison crew came under fire from the same gunmen. After fleeing the terrorists, they attempted to warn and stop unsuspecting Israeli civilian vehicles, but could not stop Mrs Hatuel, who drove past them.
The killers struck just four hours after 193,000 members of the Prime Minister's Likud party had begun voting on the disengagement initiative.
Putting a brave face on his pending defeat as the day wore on yesterday, Mr Sharon projected the killings as an attempt to undermine his programme.
"The disengagement plan," he told Israel Radio, "is a harsh and painful blow to the Palestinians. They will do everything to prevent it being accepted. Today's terrible murder is the Palestinian way of rejecting and disrupting the plan." He vowed to "continue fighting terror until it is destroyed."
Commenting on yesterday's attack, Israeli Cabinet minister Gideon Ezra said the attack underscored the hopeless burden of staying in Gaza. "Our soldiers can't be in every car that moves in the Gaza Strip," he said.
Yesterday's killings brought to 3,958 the number of people killed since the Palestinian intifada broke out in September 2001, including 2,983 Palestinians and 905 Israelis.
A straw poll of Likud members taken as they left the main Jerusalem voting station found that almost all of them, on both sides, had made up their minds before the news of yesterday's attack broke.
David Cohen, a 50-year-old bus driver, said that the attack had reinforced his determination to vote for disengagement.
"The violence of the last few years has convinced me that we should get out of Gaza. We don't need to be there. We don't need more victims. Our soldiers should be elsewhere."
The Likud members, most of them secular nationalists living inside Israel, were more pragmatic than the dozens of religious settlers and their children accosting them as they approached the polling station.
Aviv Yeheskel, a 60-year-old leather worker who voted against, said: "If there were a proper, negotiated agreement, I might have voted in favour. But I'd still need persuading."
None of those we talked to believed that defeat in the Likud referendum would mean the end of Mr Sharon's reign.
"He is strong," said Zadok Badani, a 41-year-old postman. "He can get over it."
Israeli commentators disagreed. Shalom Yerushalmi, writing in the daily 'Ma'ariv', contended before the result became clear: "If he loses the referendum, that will be the end of his disengagement plan and he will be cast as a leader who has lost both his credibility and his power to lead."
Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees, an umbrella organisation of militant groups, claimed responsibility for yesterday's attack, which they said was revenge for the Israeli assassination of two Hamas leaders, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi. (© Independent News Service and agencies)