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Violence Before Gaza Withdrawal Threatens Orderly Settlement Handoff

Long-simmering tensions between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are threatening to boil over into bloodshed that could kill off a truce key to the orderly handover of the Gaza Strip. After a Palestinian suicide bombing and rocket salvo claimed six lives in Israel last week, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon unleashed a counterterrorism campaign of a ferocity not seen in months.

By Sunday, nine Palestinian terrorists had been killed by air strikes and army sharpshooters. In a sign that Israel was prepared to escalate its actions into a full-blown ground offensive, tanks and troops massed on the Gaza boundary.

But with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice due to make a troubleshooting visit at week’s end, Jerusalem made clear that diplomatic prospects had not dimmed completely.

“We are interested in reaching a political accommodation, but it is clear that this is impossible when such terrorism is wreaked along our borders,” Sharon told his Cabinet. “I have therefore ordered the security apparatus to act without limitation to stop the strikes against Israeli communities.”

Israel has refrained from major counter-terrorist initiatives since terrorist groups promised Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in February that they would stem their attacks on Israel. Though the truce has been far from absolute — several attacks have succeeded and many more have been foiled by Israeli forces — they have slowed considerably since the height of the intifada.

The recent violence hasn’t forced a change in Israel’s planned pullout from Gaza and a corner of the West Bank next month, though officials have emphasized that post-withdrawal peace talks depend on a counterterrorism crackdown by Abbas, as required by the U.S.-led “road map” peace plan.

So far, Abbas has preferred to negotiate with the political leadership of Hamas and kindred factions, but over the weekend he also ordered security forces to crack down on Gaza mortar crews. Two Palestinians were killed in ensuing clashes between Hamas and P.A. security forces.

“We have not completely lost faith in Abu Mazen,” said a Sharon confidant, using Abbas’ nickname. “For now, we will keep our military operations to pinpoint actions and see what his efforts produce. An Israeli sweep of Gaza is always an option.”

But Israel has its own internal discord to attend to.

The army sealed off Gaza settlements to outsiders last week as a preamble to the pullout. Outraged settlers and hundreds of their supporters responded with demonstrations that spilled over into scuffles.

Nine religious conscripts ordered to reinforce the blockade refused, prompting the military chief of staff, Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz, to disband their platoon — an unprecedented move in efforts to head off a feared right-wing rebellion in the ranks.

In what could prove to be a further embarrassment to the military, Ha’aretz reported that two soldiers opposed to the pullout went into hiding in the main Gaza settlement bloc of Gush Katif. The army did not immediately comment.

According to the Web site of Ma’ariv, another Israeli newspaper, the prospect of resistance by settlers has influence Israel’s withdrawal plan.

Citing a leaked military document, the site said the army intends to evacuate the tiny, predominantly secular settlements in northern Gaza beginning Aug. 21, before tackling Gush Katif.

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