Sharon issues warnings to Palestinians, protesters

Militants on both sides hope to upset Gaza pullout

July 18, 2005|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon found himself battling on two fronts yesterday, issuing stern warnings to Palestinian militants who have launched attacks on Israelis and to Jewish protesters opposed to his plan to evacuate settlements in the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank.

The warnings came amid a recent surge in violence that has effectively ended a cease-fire initiated five months ago by Israel and the Palestinian Authority. This time, the fighting is not only between Palestinian militants and Israel, but also among Palestinian factions and between the Israeli army and supporters of the settler movement.

Thousand of Israeli troops with tanks and armored vehicles assembled on the edge of Gaza yesterday, poised to launch an offensive against militant groups that have fired dozens of rockets and mortar rounds at nearby Israeli communities since Thursday, killing one Israeli and wounding several more.

Speaking at a Cabinet meeting, Sharon said: "I instructed the security establishment to take all measures, without restrictions, in order to stop the wave of terrorism and to strike at the terrorist organizations and the terrorists."

But Israel's homegrown threats were not far from his mind. Sharon ordered Israeli troops to use force if need be to stop thousands of Israelis who plan to begin a march today to Jewish settlements in Gaza in hopes of disrupting the withdrawal. Israeli police declared a ban on the march, but protesters say they will not change their plans.

Israeli demonstrators attempting to enter the Gaza settlements, now officially closed to nonresidents, clashed during the weekend with Israeli troops guarding a Gaza checkpoint. Two Israeli soldiers were injured and more than a dozen protesters arrested.

Sharon also received a reminder that the military is not immune to the rifts within Israeli society over the withdrawal plan. Nine Israeli soldiers refused to carry out orders to block Israelis from entered the Gaza settlements, prompting the army to disband their unit. Two of the soldiers deserted, fleeing into the Gaza settlements, according to Israeli news reports.

The external and internal threats facing Sharon come a month before Israel is to begin uprooting all 8,500 Jewish settlers in Gaza and four settlements in the West Bank.

Mediators are scrambling to repair the damage. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has changed her travel plans in order to stop here this week to urge Israeli and Palestinian leaders to recommit to the cease-fire. An Egyptian envoy arrived in Gaza yesterday to meet with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and leaders of the militant group Hamas.

It remained uncertain whether Sharon would carry through his threat to send troops back into Gaza, which could trigger further violence and disrupt the pullout.

Though domestic opposition continues to be a significant issue, Raanan Gissin, the prime minister's spokesman, insisted that the protesters would not alter Sharon's plans for the withdrawal.

"It was expected that we would have this internal opposition," Gissin said. "The question is whether it will be possible to moderate this extremist element.

"I think that the fact that there is an external threat will sober up those who are launching these attacks, because eventually we have to come to terms with the fact that the real threat is not from the settlers but from the terrorist organizations."

Like Sharon, Abbas is facing intense pressure at home, making his promises difficult to fulfill.

Abbas has tried to prevent Palestinian militants from attacking Israel by drawing them into the political process instead of confronting them with force, as Israel would like him to do.

But Abbas appeared to stray from his policy on Friday, when Palestinian police clashed with Hamas militants in an effort to stop the rocket and mortar attacks. Two Palestinians were killed and at least nine wounded in some of the most intense fighting among Palestinians in years.

Though Hamas supported the cease-fire and has largely observed it, its leaders have been at odds with Abbas over future control of Gaza. Members of Hamas have been angry with Abbas for delaying Palestinian legislative elections, originally scheduled to take place yesterday, until early next year. Looking to shore up support for its political ambitions, Hamas wants to show Palestinians that its violent campaign of the past five years is responsible for Israel's withdrawal from Gaza.

The Palestinian Authority has been training its security forces for the pullout, promising Israel that they would prevent attacks. But the dozens of mortar shells and rockets falling on Israeli settlements and towns in recent days have shown how unprepared the Palestinians are to deliver on that pledge.

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