JERUSALEM -- Members of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud party rejected yesterday his plan to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, dealing an embarrassing political setback to Sharon, who had put his prestige on the line and won the Bush administration's support for his proposal.
Sharon said before the party's referendum that new elections were likely if his party voted no. Exit polls conducted by three Israeli television stations indicated that about 60 percent voted against the plan, with about 40 percent in favor. Official results were expected early today.
During the day, two Palestinian gunmen opened fire on a station wagon in the southern Gaza Strip, killing a pregnant Israeli and her four children. The woman was on her way to Israel to campaign against the Sharon plan.
The prime minister had vowed to carry out his plan to abandon all Jewish settlements and withdraw all Israeli troops in the Gaza Strip, as well as to close four isolated settlements in the West Bank. Sharon could still present the plan to his Cabinet and to Israel's parliament, where the outcome is uncertain.
Before the polls closed, he raised the possibility of conducting a national referendum on his plan to unilaterally disengage Israelis from Palestinians.
Sharon said in a statement last night that he would study the results of yesterday's vote and meet in the coming days with Cabinet ministers, Likud officials and representatives of the other parties in his coalition government.
"The people of Israel didn't elect me to sit four years with my hands folded," he said in the statement. "I was elected in order to find a way to bring the people peace, security and quiet. I intend to lead the state of Israel according to the best of my conscience."
Over the weekend, Sharon sought to turn the referendum into a personal vote of confidence, saying: "You can't be for me and against my plan."
Yesterday, Sharon called the killing of five Israelis in Gaza the Palestinian "way of rejecting and complicating the plan."
Israeli authorities said two Palestinian gunmen ambushed a station wagon driven by Tali Hatuel, 34, who was eight months' pregnant, and her four children, ages 2 to 11, and shot everyone inside as they drove on Kissufim Road, which links the Gush Katif settlement to Israel.
The gunmen were identified as members of the Popular Resistance Committee, an umbrella group representing several Palestinian militant groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The Israeli army said that since September 2000, 10 civilians and five soldiers have been killed on the road.
Israeli helicopters retaliated by firing missiles at a 14-story apartment building in Gaza that housed a Hamas radio station. Israeli gunships later fired missiles at a car in the West Bank city of Nablus, killing four Palestinians that the Israeli army identified as "senior terrorists" of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.
Asher Mivtzary, a resident of the Kfar Darom settlement in Gaza, said the killing of the Hatuel family proves that Sharon's plan is tantamount to a surrender to Palestinian violence.
"The tragedy shows that Arabs think that this plan meant that they had won the war," he said. "The vote shows that people in Israel understand that the way to peace is not to retreat in the middle of a war."
Mivtzary, who has lived in the settlement for 12 years and raised his eight children there, said the vote by Likud members reaffirms Israel's commitment to the settlements as a part of the vision for a Greater Israel.
"We love Sharon, but we don't want to leave our homes," he said.
Palestinian officials said they hope the defeat of Sharon's plan will force the Israelis back to the negotiating table. While they support an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, Palestinian officials object strongly to Israel taking unilateral actions and to the Bush administration's endorsement of the Sharon approach.
Supporters of Sharon's plan complained that those voting in yesterday's referendum were not representative of Israelis at large. About 40 percent of Likud's 193,190 members cast ballots. And the party's members represent only a small fraction of the overall population, which according to opinion polls overwhelmingly supports a withdrawal from Gaza.
"It's not possible that a small group of people make decisions for the rest of the country," Shimon Peres, the leader of the opposition left-of-center Labor Party, told Israel's Channel 1 television last night. He proposed dissolving parliament and calling for new elections.
Tommy Lapid, leader of the centrist Shinui Party and one of Sharon's coalition partners, told reporters that the plan should be put before parliament regardless of the vote.
"Likud is not the one that will determine the fate of the state," Lapid said.
Cabinet Minister Ehud Olmert, a champion of Sharon's plan, said: "We cannot continue with the status quo. The reality in Gaza cannot continue, and we must change it."
He said that Sharon had "moved with courage and without hesitancy. I don't believe he is going to stop."
Sharon introduced his plan in December, which entails ending negotiations with the Palestinians and deciding provisional borders between the West Bank and Israel and other arrangements on Israel's terms.
Under Sharon's plan, Israel would evacuate 21 settlements in Gaza and four isolated settlements in the West Bank. Most of the 220,000 settlers in the West Bank would remain there.
The vote against his plan undermined Sharon's standing in his party, and could embolden his chief Likud rival, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
When the polls opened, Sharon called the vote "a fateful decision" for the nation, one that "will determine whether Israel will move forward in all arenas -- in security, in economy, in education, in industry, in our relations with the United States -- or move backward."
Winning U.S. support had seemed a significant victory in itself. Sharon persuaded the Bush administration to abandon the United States' long-held opposition to Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the principle that Israel and the Palestinians should negotiate the borders of a future Palestinian state in direct talks.
'Sharon has to change'
Jewish settlers conducted a well-coordinated campaign against the withdrawal plan, knocking on doors and telephoning Likud members to urge them to vote no in the referendum.
Last week, on Israeli Independence Day, 70,000 people rallied in favor of the settlers in Gush Katif, blocking roads and prompting delighted supporters to proclaim it the "traffic jam that saved Gaza."
Mivtzary of Kfar Darom said he hopes that Sharon will continue as prime minister.
"He asked the people, and the people told him that they want to continue living in Gaza," he said. "Now, Sharon has to change."
At Jerusalem's convention center, the city's polling station, Likud voters walked yesterday through a gantlet of activists handing out leaflets, singing nationalistic songs and shouting through bullhorns in opposition to Sharon's plan.
"Israel has lost its way," said Yehudit Ben-Tzion, a retired Hebrew University professor who was among the demonstrators. "I'm for the redemption of the Jewish people. This plan proves that we have forgotten who we are and why we are here."
Only a handful of Likud members admitted voting in favor of the withdrawal plan, and only a small number of Sharon's Cabinet ministers campaigned on its behalf. The prime minister granted a series of television and newspaper interviews but failed to persuade members of his party to support his proposal.
"We are giving up land for nothing," said Tzaddak Oved, 55, who had been undecided until yesterday. "If I knew there was going to be real peace, I would vote for it. I wouldn't mind giving up Gaza.
"But look around, you don't seen anyone for it," he said. "These opponents worked day and night, and went house to house. They did it from their hearts. Nobody came to me and talked about the other side. Maybe it was a bad idea for him to have this referendum. But now that he has had it, he should listen to the results."