Pullout on hold, Gaza flares up

Israeli troops advanced into Gaza Wednesday morning, killing at least 14 Palestinians in a firefight.

Just a week after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made what seemed like a landmark declaration of intent to pull Jewish settlers out of Gaza, Israeli tanks staged a raid in Gaza City Wednesday.

The toll of 14 Palestinians killed, 12 in Gaza City and two in the southern Rafah Refugee Camp during two army incursions was the highest in months. But the scenes of urban warfare were similar to those in a raid just two weeks ago, also in Gaza City, in which nine Palestinians were killed.

Masked men clutching guns they used against Israeli tanks, ambulances screeching, and wounded civilians wincing Wednesday all added to the sense that turmoil rather than momentum towards peace is following Mr. Sharon's surprising statement, which has since been watered down by officials including the defense minister, Shaul Mofaz.

The officials said last week that Israel would not withdraw from three settlements in northern Gaza and would keep a security zone along the border with Egypt. Ha'aretz quoted Mofaz as saying that the army might not pull out of the Katif settlement bloc, currently home to many of Gaza's more than 7,500 settlers, instead holding onto it as a "bargaining chip" for future negotiations.

Israeli government spokesman Avi Pazner said the recent army actions are part of an ongoing campaign against terrorism. "We are on a search mission for terrorists. We are trying to destroy terrorist infrastructure." And Col. Yoel Struk, in charge of northern Gaza, said "The timing of the operation stems from operational considerations only."

Army officials explaining their advance into Gaza said that recently there had been a surge of violent activity from the Shajaiyeh neighborhood, including the planting of bombs. Colonel Struk was quoted by Israel's Ynet news service as saying that all of the Palestinians hit by Israeli gunfire were "armed" but the Shifa Hospital's wards in Gaza included civilians, some of them children.

Earlier Israeli statements about a possible withdrawal of settlers in Gaza seemed to do little to cool tempers here. "We don't believe in any Israeli statements," said a black-masked, Kalashnikov-clutching fighter, near the exchanges of fire on the Shajaiyeh neighborhood's Baghdad Street. "We don't care if they talk about withdrawal or not. Every day the army takes another action. And we will keep fighting. The children here are ready to carry weapons."

He vowed there would be a response about the fatalities. "The blood of our martyrs is not shed for nothing. We will not forget their blood." Medics quoted by Reuters said that at least six of those killed in Gaza City were gunmen and one was a policeman.

Hundreds crowded outside Shifa Hospital waiting for word of the dozens of wounded as a loudspeaker blared the al Baraka verse of the Koran. It speaks of fighting in defense of the truth and tells the story of David and Goliath.

"Everything is the same," said accountant Mohammed Sbeih, sipping a mango juice after giving blood. "We are here in the hospital again. There is no Israeli withdrawal and there will not be one."

The recent raid comes amid signs of restiveness, or at least reservations in the army about Mr. Sharon's statement. On the surface, the stated intention to pull out without a peace agreement would seem to undermine the central doctrine the army has espoused since the beginning of the Palestinian uprising three years ago.

Shortly after taking up his post, the chief of staff, Maj-Gen. Moshe Yaalon said the army's task was to "burn into the consciousness" of Palestinians - that violence does not pay and that Israel will never withdraw in the West Bank and Gaza Strip under fire, as it did under pressure from Hizbullah in southern Lebanon in 2000. Such a ferocious posture was deemed necessary by Yaalon to restore what he perceived as a weakened Israeli deterrent capability

Now the army seems concerned that Sharon's statements could be interpreted by Palestinians as a cut-and-run by Israel. The head of army intelligence, Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, told Knesset legislators on Tuesday that the Palestinians view Sharon's statements as a "victory for terror" and are likely to intensify violence in the Strip.

Mofaz was quoted by Ha'aretz as saying that the army needs to make clear to Hamas and Islamic Jihad that an evacuation of the settlers does not amount to "running away" and that Israel would continue to fight them even afterward.

He stressed, according to Ha'aretz, that even after a settler withdrawal, the army would still reenter Palestinian areas in Gaza and would be even freer to act without the settlers being in the way.

Palestinian leaders say the Israeli incursions actually boost Hamas, and worsen an increasingly anarchic situation in which the Palestinian Authority is losing ground and having severe difficulty in governing. "These raids contribute to the disintegration of the authority. Hamas doesn't really have to do anything to boost its power, it can just watch as things continue to disintegrate," says Gaza Strip legislator Ziyad Abu Amr.

Earlier this month, the sense of anarchy was highlighted in Gaza when a policeman was killed and 10 others wounded during fighting between security forces in the Palestinian police headquarters. Associates of police commander Ghazi Jabali said there had been an assassination attempt against him, but a separate Palestinian security force denied that and said the shooting erupted from an argument. There have also been persistent reports of lawlessness in areas of the West Bank, particularly in Nablus.

In Abu Amr's view, the Israeli withdrawal will not bring Israel security unless it is coordinated with the PA. "Who will stop the militants from shooting across the border? What will Israel do then? If this withdrawal actually takes place, it might not be for a year or two. What I am wondering is: What will the Israelis do in the meantime?," Abu Amr asks.

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