This comes as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon opened a stormy, two-day debate in the Israeli parliament ahead of a crucial vote on his controversial disengagement plan.

Mr Sharon vowed to see the plan through, in the face of far-right threats to his coalition and warnings of civil strife.

He told MPs he is convinced a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip would strengthen the nation.

“I have decided to go right through to the end with this separation,” he said.

“I am convinced this separation will strengthen Israel. It will advance us on the road to peace with our neighbours the Palestinians,” he said.

MPs are to vote on the plan on Tuesday night. The plan would see all 8,000 Jewish settlers leave Gaza next year, along with the residents of four small Jewish enclaves in the northern West Bank.

The plan has been bitterly opposed by the right-wing leader’s former allies, who say Mr Sharon made no mention of it at the last general election.

“This is a fateful hour for Israel. We are facing an unprecedented decision,” said Mr Sharon, to loud heckling from ultra-nationalist lawmakers opposed to his plan.

“You are tearing the nation apart. Go home. You must not expel Jews,” Uri Ariel of the ultra-nationalist National Union party shouted at Mr Sharon before being ejected from the chamber.

Meanwhile violence has continued in the Gaza Strip, with more than 70 Palestinians injured and two Israeli soldiers badly wounded in the Khan Younis raid, which began late on Sunday.

The army said the operation is aimed at halting mortar fire at Jewish settlements and military positions.

The 16 victims, which include a young boy, died in either air strikes or from gunfire and tank shelling in Khan Younis.

The raid comes just 10 days after Israel wound up a major operation in the northern Gaza Strip that left 130 Palestinians dead.