As Gaza Withdrawal Approaches, Worries Mount for Israel’s Sharon

With the planned Israeli withdrawal from Gaza less than three weeks away, right-wing leaders say they haven’t yet given up hope of preventing it. According to the Israeli Defense Forces, about 2,000 right-wingers have managed to pass through the army cordon around Gaza and are planning to join up with radical settlers there to resist the evacuation by force.

But that’s not Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s only worry.

Palestinians continue to launch terrorist attacks in and around Gaza, and they will almost certainly try to step up their activities during the evacuation.

Sharon promises firm action on both fronts. Over 60,000 soldiers and police have been assigned to respond to recalcitrant settlers or rogue Palestinian terror attacks.

Should the Palestinians attack, Sharon has warned that Israel will employ harsher retaliatory measures than in the past. Some pundits speculate that this could even mean shelling civilian areas in retaliation for Palestinian attacks on Israeli population centers.

As difficult as carrying out the withdrawal may prove to be, an even larger question looms: What happens after Sharon pulls out of Gaza and the northern West Bank? He will be under enormous pressure from the United States, the international community and the Palestinians to make further withdrawals from the West Bank — and under equally strong pressure from the Israeli right wing and his own Likud Party to stay put.

And there’s another taxing issue that is critical for Israel’s future: How will religious Zionists at the forefront of the settler movement redefine their relationship to the secular state they have been defying so bitterly for so long on the withdrawal issue?

The settler leaders say that they’re planning more large-scale anti-withdrawal protests in advance of the pullout, which is scheduled to begin Aug. 15. They say they were heartened by the huge turnout for last week’s demonstration at Kfar Maimon, a national religious movement community about 8 miles east of the Gaza Strip.

The demonstration took place at Kfar Maimon only because police and army units prevented the protesters from marching to the Gaza Strip itself. This exercise of control by the Israeli security forces and the fact that there was no serious violence in the two-day standoff between the security forces and the demonstrators led several pundits to conclude that the withdrawal will go through more peacefully than expected.

Still, some pundits fear that the 2,000 right-wingers who have slipped into Gaza could turn the withdrawal into a violent showdown.

In an editorial, the Ha’aretz newspaper urged the government to act now to head off the potential threat: The Gaza settlements, the paper wrote, “must be combed to locate the infiltrators, and they should be arrested and tried.” Otherwise, Ha’aretz argued, the government would be projecting weakness and inviting more infiltration.

On the Palestinian side, the Palestinian Authority has promised to deploy 5,000 policemen as a “shield” against rogue terrorists. The P.A. also has reached an agreement with Hamas not to launch attacks on the withdrawing Israelis.

But rogue organizations like Islamic Jihad and some groups associated with the Palestinians’ ruling Fatah movement aren’t part of the cease-fire deal. Both groups claimed responsibility for Saturday night’s shooting of an Israeli couple near the Gush Katif junction in the Gaza Strip.

In addition, a new report by a Washington think-tank prepared in close coordination with Lt. Gen. William Ward, the American-appointed coordinator of the effort to overhaul the P.A. security apparatus, found P.A. security forces in disarray and unable to function effectively, suggesting that they will be hard-pressed to maintain security once Israel withdraws from Gaza.

In the past few days, Sharon repeatedly has said that Israel will not tolerate terrorist attacks during the planned pullout. At a top-level security meeting Sunday, Sharon warned that if the Palestinians fail to restrain rogue terrorists, Israel will feel free to retaliate with a ferocity not seen in the four-year-long intifada.

IDF generals acknowledge that this could entail a sweeping land operation through Gaza, as well as a more telling use of air power and artillery.

During the evacuation, the IDF says it expects that 70 percent of Gaza’s 8,000 settlers will leave voluntarily. That means the generals estimate that about 2,500 settlers will dig in, joined by at least 2,000 “infiltrators” from the outside.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz says he expects the entire operation, which will start in northern Gaza and sweep south, to last for two to four weeks.

Ironically, the smoother the pullout goes, the higher the stakes for Israel. Sharon has been saying that once the army pulls back to the new lines, he does not intend to go any further.

But the Americans and other key players in the international community see a successful Gaza pullout as a prelude to further Israeli concessions in the West Bank that kick-start a new peace dynamic with the Palestinians.

As for the Palestinians, they are expected to launch a new intifada if, after the Gaza pullout, the process bogs down — or, as many observers warn, even if it doesn’t.

In the internal Israeli debate, hawks like Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argue that further withdrawals will only whet the Palestinian appetite and invite international pressure for more pullbacks without any Palestinian quid pro quo.

But doves in the Labor Party and to its left argue that unless Sharon follows up with a substantial withdrawal from the West Bank, the Gaza pullout will not achieve its basic goals: the establishment of a clear Jewish majority in an Israel with something akin to internationally agreed borders, the end of the nightmare scenario of a binational state with a Palestinian majority, and the regaining of the moral high ground by rolling back the occupation.

Any further pullbacks will have a profound effect on the national religious movement.

The run-up to the Gaza withdrawal has sparked animated debate over future relations between religious Zionism and the Jewish state. Some religious thinkers speak in terms of betrayal and of a need for religious Jews to distance themselves from the state’s secular organs. Others call for an end to religious Jews’ obsession with “the land” and for a new focus on the state’s Jewish content.

These political and religious debates, at the cutting edge of Israeli society today, hold the key to Israel’s future character.

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