'Contradictory reality' seen in Israeli incursion

Analysts debate whether Gaza invasion conflicts with plans for withdrawal

October 02, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Amid the chaos of a Gaza hospital ward overwhelmed with patients and bodies yesterday, Dr. Jamar Saaqa couldn't help but notice what seemed to be a contradiction: "If Israel is leaving here, why are they killing all of us?"

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wants to uproot Jewish settlements and settlers from Gaza by this time next year and leave the strip to the 1.3 million Palestinians who live in its cramped camps and cities.

Despite this, Sharon approved a major military incursion into Gaza on Thursday night. Israeli forces pushed deep into the Jabalya refugee camp, sparking battles that continued through yesterday.

The Palestinian Center for Human Rights reported that 39 Palestinians had been killed as of yesterday evening - among them are 19 civilians, 14 of whom were children. Three Israelis were killed in separate Gaza fighting Thursday: two soldiers and a female jogger.

Why, many Palestinians and some Israelis argue, doesn't Sharon just pull out of Gaza now and avoid another year of what seems to them to be pointless clashes and endless rounds of killing?

The simplest answer is that the army raid is to stop militant rocket fire at the Israeli town of Sederot, located just outside the Gaza border fence.

A more complicated answer has less to do with military tactics and more to do with a desire by Israel to leave Gaza without the withdrawal being viewed as a retreat under fire.

Israel also wants to purge Gaza of militants to avoid leaving behind an armed camp.

Palestinian officials argue that Israel could accomplish this by negotiating the pullout with them to ensure a smooth and peaceful transition. But Israeli leaders, feeling that no Palestinian leader is serious about confronting the powerful militias, say that the only solution available is force.

"There will not be a disengagement under fire," said Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon. "If there will be fire, it will be our fire on the terrorists. We will walk out, and they will be on the run."

Lessons learned

Gissin said Israelis "learned our lessons from Lebanon." Israel ended its occupation of southern Lebanon in May 2000, leaving behind the militant force Hezbollah. The group has become the de facto ruler of the area and continues to wage cross-border attacks.

Israeli leaders warn that leaving Gaza will not resolve the conflict. They point out that two Israeli children killed by rockets Wednesday did not live in Gaza settlements, but in the Israeli town of Sederot. It is proof, they say, that militant groups are not fighting to push Israelis out of Gaza, but are fighting to push Israelis out of Israel.

"The war against terror does not end with disengagement," Gissin said. "It will continue. The disengagement is the result of the failure of the Palestinian Authority to combat terror."

Jonathan Fighel, a senior researcher at the International Policy Institute for Counter Terrorism in Herzliya, outside Tel Aviv, said Palestinians successfully turned the crude Kassam rockets into a strategic weapon of deterrence, and Israel was slow to respond.

Earlier attempts to blow up workshops or track down launchers failed, and now the army has launched a broad campaign. He said the issues involved go to the heart of Israel's talk of withdrawal.

"On the one hand, we are talking about a unilateral pullout, and on the other hand, the army is going in," said Fighel, a former colonel in the army and former military governor of the Palestinian cities of Ramallah, Jenin and Tulkarm.

`Contradictory reality'

"Now, is this latest operation a temporary one or do we have to occupy in order to pull out?" he said. "It's part of the contradictory reality of this conflict. Until the pullout, Israel and any government cannot tolerate the reality that civilians are being killed by rockets or by any other means."

But Fighel said there is no doubt that the incursion now under way in Gaza is part of a broader, psychological plan by Israel's military. "The Palestinians want to show that Israel's pullout is the success of four years of bloody fighting," he said. "The challenge for us is how not do withdraw under their plans."

Hisham Ahmed, a professor of political science at Birzeit University in the West Bank city of Ramallah, said the military operation in Gaza reflects an internal Israeli crisis sparked by the debate over the removal of settlements.

"On one hand, Sharon has to assure settlers that he has the upper hand and can maintain security," Ahmed said. "But he also wants to pull out from Gaza to show his people that he is a man of peace."

The professor said militants have found in the Kassam rockets a tool "that Sharon has proven he is completely unable to contain." He said he doubted that Sharon would ever dismantle settlements in Gaza.

"What is happening on the ground defies the very essence of Sharon's plans," Ahmed said. "He is engaged in the all-out destruction of Gaza. The whole notion of a pullout is a mockery."

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