TEL AVIV (May. 11)
It was a loss that brought back the darkest days of Israel’s war on Palestinian terrorism and the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon.
Six elite soldiers of the Givati Brigade, on their way home from a mission to destroy arms factories in Gaza City, died in a huge fireball Tuesday when their ordnance-laden armored personnel carrier went over a land mine.
It was the worst single-incident Israeli death toll in Gaza since 2002 and it could not have come at a worse time for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has been struggling to promote his beleaguered plan for an Israeli withdraw from the crowded coastal strip.
Faced with televised images of masked Hamas and Islamic Jihad gunmen exulting over bagfuls of the Israeli soldiers’ body parts, retrieved from the gutted military vehicle, Sharon talked tough.
“We are fighting a cruel, inhuman enemy and we will not cease fighting it and striking it, no matter where it may hide,” Sharon said at the Knesset.
In a bid to recover the soldiers’ remains for burial, Israeli forces scoured Zeitun, a Gaza neighborhood known as a Hamas stronghold, killing at least six Palestinian gunmen in battles with local militias. Another Palestinian died in an Israeli airstrike on a car elsewhere in Gaza.
Despite Israel’s show of force, pundits were quick to draw parallels with the lead-up to Israel’s evacuation of its southern Lebanese “security zone” in 2000, which followed years of public outcry over soldiers killed there by Hezbollah guerrillas.
“The waves of worry and rumors that engulfed Israel today as reports emerged about the operation in Gaza reminded many of the uncertainty, even impotence, of the final months of the IDF’s presence in Lebanon,” military analyst Amos Harel wrote in Ha’aretz.
“The catastrophe in Gaza is a blow that will speed disengagement,” he said, referring to Sharon’s plan to disengage Israel from the Palestinians by pulling out of Gaza and parts of the West Bank.
Complicating matters is that Sharon’s own Likud Party rejected the plan in a party referendum May 2. Naysayers in the party said any unilateral withdrawal will reward terrorism and the Palestinian Authority’s failure to do anything to stop it.
The day of the Likud vote, a pregnant Israeli woman and her four daughters were killed by Palestinian terrorists while traveling in Gaza. Opponents of Sharon’s plan said the attack was yet another sign that a pullout would encourage Palestinian terrorists to step up their campaign of violence.
A week after the referendum, Sharon announced Sunday that he would replace the original plan with a new, modified version by the end of the month.
“It will take me another three weeks, and then I will present” a new plan to the government, political sources quoted Sharon as telling his Cabinet.
Government officials were silent on whether the new plan would expand or reduce the scope of Sharon’s original proposal to dismantle all settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the West Bank. Nor was it clear to what extent Sharon would retain key U.S. support for his plans.
Sharon’s office called off a planned trip to Washington next week. Sharon had been scheduled to address the annual convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and political sources said they had expected the prime minister to meet with President Bush to follow up on the leaders’ landmark White House summit last month.
Industry and Trade Minister Ehud Olmert is expected to take Sharon’s place at the AIPAC event.
After this week’s deadly incident in Gaza, some Israeli experts said the soldiers’ exposure to the hazards of Gaza fighting could prompt a groundswell of public support for a pullout. Already, polls have found Sharon’s popularity paradoxically boosted by his loss in the referendum.
“Israelis prefer a weak premier,” read one Israeli newspaper headline this week.
“Those Likud members who rejected the disengagement plan because they said they did not have the heart to evict settlers should do some soul-searching,” Ami Ayalon, a former chief of Israel’s Shin Bet security service turned grass-roots peacemaker, told JTA. “Do they have the heart to look an average Israeli parent in the eyes and say: ‘We all know Gaza eventually will be evacuated, but it’s OK for your son to go on risking his life there?’ “