Gaza pullout plan: A case of history repeating itself?

Prime Minister Sharon's withdrawal proposal draws parallels to Israel's move out of Lebanon 3-1/2 years ago.

The Gaza Strip little resembles southern Lebanon - topographically, demographically, or historically - but for Israeli leaders, plans to withdraw from the crowded coastal enclave may evoke unpleasant feelings of déjà vu.

On Tuesday, Israel authorized a military campaign in Gaza that reportedly includes assassinations of leaders from Hamas and other factions as well as intensified ground operations. After the authorization, six Palestinians, including two 15-year old boys, were killed in missile strikes. The fatalities came three days after twin Palestinian suicide bombings in the Israeli port of Ashdod that left 10 Israelis dead.

But this time, the military effort is not about retaliation so much as making sure that the history of Israel's withdrawal, from southern Lebanon under pressure in 2000 does not repeat itself, according to Israeli officials and analysts. "The decision to escalate ongoing operations in Gaza is intended to prevent Palestinians from turning the disengagement plan - if it is carried out - into some kind of heroic victory over Israel pulling out under fire," Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim told army radio.

A senior army officer says the number of military operations "will not be dramatically increased" and that the missile attacks and a ground operation in Rafah Refugee Camp this week were not a departure from previous tactics of preemptive strikes and trying to uncover tunnels used for weapons smuggling. Since January 2003, 380 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have died during the fighting in the Gaza Strip, according to the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group. Twenty-one Israeli soldiers were killed during that period, but no Israeli settlers. Thirteen people were also killed inside Israel from two suicide bombings lauched from the Strip.

Israeli political scientist Menachem Klein, from Bar Ilan University, predicts there will be a rise in Palestinian fatalities and that Palestinian militants will mount more attacks against Israelis to prove they have not been vanquished. He expects Israeli "assassinations of big names in operations that are meant to be very impressive in order to compensate for the talk of withdrawal."

The Israeli army officer adds that an escalation is already under way on the Palestinian side, and that Hamas and other Palestinian groups are competing to be able to say that they forced Israel out.

Palestinian leaders also expect the countdown to withdrawal to be accompanied by increased casualties. "We expect even more killings and destruction so that [Israeli Prime Minister] Sharon can say he was victorious," says Jamila Sydam, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. "But whether Sharon kills one Palestinian or 1,000, he will leave Gaza defeated by the steadfastness of the Palestinian people who are defending their homes, children, and land."

The perception of defeat is exactly what Israel fears. It was 3-1/2 years ago that Israeli troops withdrew from a self-declared "security zone" in Lebanon amid claims of victory by Hizbullah, the Lebanese group that had waged a guerrilla campaign against the 17-year occupation. Its flags were hoisted over vacated army positions, Israel's Lebanese allies fled for their lives to the border, and Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah made a rousing speech, saying Israel lacked staying power.

"To the extent that it is up to the army, this story will not be repeated in Gaza," wrote Haaretz military correspondent Amos Harel. "There will be a withdrawal if the political echelon decides on one, but the army has no intention of allowing it to be presented as a defeat."

Although the Lebanon withdrawal fulfilled an election promise by then Prime Minister Ehud Barak to end what he saw as the needless deaths of soldiers, Israeli right-wingers said the pullout, or at least the timing and way it was carried out, harmed Israeli deterrent capability and helped inspire the Palestinian uprising.

A Gaza withdrawal must not be allowed to harm Israeli deterrence, Gideon Ezra, an Israeli cabinet minister, warned this week. "After we disengage in Gaza there will also be [Israeli withdrawal] steps in Judea and Samaria [in the West Bank]," Ezra told Israel Radio. "The Palestinians there will want to imitate what happened in Gaza and they must know in advance that the price for them will be so high that it won't be worth it."

In Mr. Klein's view, the use of more force is also aimed to placate far-right coalition members who are critical of plans to dismantle Jewish settlements in Gaza. "It is clear that a withdrawal will simply increase the motivation of the terrorists," says far-right Knesset member Uri Ariel.

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