TEL AVIV (Oct. 17)
An Israeli army sergeant who commanded an Israel Defense Force checkpoint in the Gaza Strip on Sunday has been suspended from duty for abandoning military equipment when he withdrew his unit in the face of approaching Hamas demonstrators.
The incident began when a group of Hamas supporters from Gaza City’s Islamic University arrived aboard 20 buses at the Netzarim junction, and set out to cause a confrontation with Israeli troops and settlers from Netzarim.
The demonstration had been sparked by Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat’s roundup last week of members of the Islamic fundametalist Hamas in an effort to help locate kidnapped Israeli soldier Nachshon Waxman, who was abducted and subsequently killed by members of the militant movement last week.
After the demonstrators set tires on fire and began throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers, the IDF withdrew to avoid a confrontation, and to let the situation be handled by the Palestinian police.
While the IDF sergeant was not reprimanded for participating in the withdrawal, he was suspended for leaving behind equipment that included a classified map, binoculars and a number of smoke grenades.
The grenades were subsequently used by the demonstrators against the withdrawing Israeli soldiers.
The Palestinian police took some five hours to disperse the demonstrators, during which time Israeli soldiers and settlers remained within the perimeter of Netzarim, a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip that houses about 35 families.
When a pregnant settler went into labor during the confrontation, the IDF ordered in a helicopter to take her to a nearby hospital.
Zvi Hendel, leader of the 5,000 Jewish settlers living in the Gaza Strip, told Israel Army Radio that the Palestinian demonstrators were armed.
“This was not an ordinary demonstration where they block a road and sing songs. Here we are talking about weapons, ” he said.
Deputy Defense Minister Mordechai Gur, who was on a tour of the nearby Gush Katif settlement area at the time, later defended the IDF decision to withdraw from the confrontation.
“It is a serious question when to interfere and when not to,” he told Israel Radio.
“We have an interest in seeing how the Palestinian Authority takes control of the situation, because that is what they committed themselves to do” under the terms of the self-rule accord signed last year in Washington, said Gur.