Gunbattle
on Israeli
election day

Several casualties reported; Sharon defeats Netanyahu

MSNBC NEWS SERVICES

Israeli volunteers wipe up blood with towels Thursday for a proper Jewish burial at the scene of a shooting attack in a Likud party voting station, background, in the northern Israeli town of Beit Shean.
    JERUSALEM, Nov. 28 —  In an election day attack, gunmen opened fire Thursday at a Likud party office and at passengers in a nearby bus terminal in a northern Israeli town. At least six Israelis and two attackers were killed, rescue workers said. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon defeated hawkish Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the election for the leadership of the ruling party, according to television exit polls.
        DOZENS WERE wounded in the attack on the town of Beit Shean, rescue workers said, at least eight critically. The town is located in the Jordan River valley close to the borders with both the West Bank and Jordan.
       A gunbattle erupted on the street, with police and armed bystanders firing at the attackers.
       One of the attackers carried an explosives belt that did not go off, and the assailants reportedly threw grenades at the Israelis.  The Al-Aqsa Brigades claimed responsibility for the attack. Police also found a stolen car near the bus station and were checking it for explosives, radio reports said.
       “There are many bodies here.  The shooting has stopped,” fireman Ori Aharoni told Channel Two television.
       Two gunmen were killed. Initial witness reports said a third gunmen was holed up in a building near the Likud office, but searches did not turn up anything.  The two apparently shot at civilians who were voting at the Likud center.  Shooting continued at a bus station near the polling place where Israeli soldiers shot back and killed the men.
       Police initially feared a third might be at large. All children in the town were being held in schools and public buildings to keep them safe as police scoured the area.
       
VOTING DAY INTERRUPTED
       The latest violence came as Sharon and Netanyahu faced off in the polls for the right to lead Israel’s ruling Likud party into a general election.
       A Channel One exit poll gave Sharon 61 percent of the votes to 37 percent support for Netanyahu among the 305,000 Likud members.  Channel Two put the figures at 58 percent for Sharon and 40.5 percent for Netanyahu. Soon after the polls closed, Netanyahu conceded defeat.
       Victory is the first step for Sharon on the path to retaining the prime minister’s post, which he has held for almost two years, despite failing to quell a Palestinian uprising for independence or halt Israel’s slide into economic crisis.
       Battered by a wave of suicide bombings, Israelis shocked by the violence have moved to the right since the uprising began.
       This has strengthened Likud and forced the center-left Labor Party into an uphill struggle to make an impact in the Jan. 28 general election.  It also ensures the winner in Thursday’s vote will be the front-runner to be premier after the election.
       “I believe that I will be elected on Thursday and then again in two months,” Sharon, 74, said in an interview published by the Ma’ariv newspaper on Wednesday.
       Support remained strong for Sharon despite his 53-year-old rival’s attempts to portray the prime minister’s leadership as disastrous for national morale.
       “Despair is eating away at every segment of society,” Netanyahu, who was prime minister from 1996-99, told the mass circulation Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. The Palestinians are unlikely to welcome either leader’s victory because they regard both as hard-liners who stand in the way of peace. They have also made clear they would prefer to have Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna as Israel’s prime minister.
       Sharon and Netanyahu have both blamed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for the violence of the last two years. Sharon has refused to meet Arafat for talks, and Netanyahu says he wants the Palestinian leader exiled from the region.
       Sharon was expected to easily win the vote, largely because the veteran ex-general is more trusted by Israelis than his rival to bring the security they crave.
       He has sought to look tough against the Palestinians, but he also hopes to avoid an escalation in the conflict that could harm U.S. efforts to win Arab support for possible war on Iraq.
       Commentators say Netanyahu miscalculated when he sought to outflank Sharon by opposing the eventual creation of a Palestinian state. Polls indicate that a majority of Likud voters accept eventual Palestinian statehood.
       Netanyahu accepted Sharon’s offer to become foreign minister in the caretaker government that has ruled Israel since Labor dropped out of the coalition government late last month, but he has sniped at him frequently since then.
       
RISING TENSION
       The leadership battle has been fought against a background of rising tension and violence, including a Palestinian suicide bombing that killed 11 Israelis on a Jerusalem bus last week and Israeli military raids in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
       At least 1,682 Palestinians and 662 Israelis have been killed since the Palestinian uprising began.
       Palestinian militant groups vowed Wednesday to avenge the deaths of two of their commanders who they said were killed in an Israeli missile strike in the West Bank on Tuesday, although Israeli military sources denied the army had attacked them.
       A Palestinian was killed in an explosion when he attempted to ram a car loaded with a bomb into an Israeli army post in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, and Israeli troops shot dead two Palestinians in the West Bank, witnesses said.
       At the same time, there were leadership struggles afoot among top Palestinians.
       Mahmoud Abbas, a Palestinian leader who is otherwise known as Abu Mazen and is widely seen as a potential successor to Arafat, reiterated earlier this week that he believed it had been a mistake to take up arms during the uprising against the Israeli and that the policy had destroyed the economy and prompted a return of Israeli troops to West Bank towns.
       Abbas called on officials of Arafat’s Fatah movement at a closed-door meeting last month to rein in gunmen and militia groups.
       The comments, which implicitly criticize Arafat for inaction, are contained in a 20-page transcript that was obtained by The Associated Press Wednesday and confirmed by Abbas’ office after excerpts were published in two Arabic papers.
       
       The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.