Sharon tweaks withdrawal plan

Israel's leader is expected to seek cabinet approval Sunday for a Gaza plan that some say has changed little.

The Israeli army began withdrawing tanks, soldiers, and heavy weaponry from Rafah, at the southern end of the Gaza Strip, nearly a week after it launched a penetrating campaign to root out Palestinian militants and destroy the tunnels Israel says keeps them flush with weapons.

While Palestinians are still grappling with immediate damage caused by the operation - 42 dead, at least 35 homes demolished, and much destroyed local infrastructure that provided basic utilities - many Israelis are already focused on the longer-term aftermath of "Operation Rainbow" and wondering where it leads them.

The military offensive followed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's failed attempt to get approval from his right-wing Likud Party for his disengagement plan, which would have Israel withdraw from most of the Gaza Strip and some settlement outposts in the West Bank.

Mr. Sharon is now planning to submit a revised disengagement plan to his cabinet, and is expected to ask them to vote on it Sunday. The changed plan would aim to achieve some of the same objectives by making the withdrawals in stages. But many observers here are wondering what difference that actually makes - and what, if anything, has changed since the plan was defeated earlier this month in a referendum by the Likud Party.

"It's basically a watered-down version to persuade some of the naysayers that, even if they couldn't go along with the last one, they will go along with the next one," says Mark Heller, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University. "Most of those who opposed did so on ideological grounds, being opposed to the concept of unilateral withdrawal, and not the specifics."

On the one hand, many Israelis view the military drive into Gaza Strip as justifiable, given the recent shooting deaths in Gaza of an Israeli mother and her four daughters and the deaths of 13 Israeli soldiers during attacks by Palestinian militant groups. But the stated goals of the operation have been inconsistent - from what the military says is a need to destroy tunnels to plans to widen the corridor between the Strip and Egypt.

In the hawkish view, Israel wanted to show Palestinians how Israel will respond to any attempt to use a Gaza Strip withdrawal to launch fresh attacks on Israel. Or, as Ze'ev Schiff, a military analyst with the Ha'aretz newspaper, puts it: "Rafah will be a reminder to them what will happen if they go on with the terror war after the withdrawal."

Israel may also have gone on the offensive to preempt Hamas claims that the army is leaving Gaza "under fire," as Hizbollah claimed in Lebanon.

The shifting and varied reasons to justify the Rafah operation have left many here baffled, and the new and improved disengagement plan according to an editorial in Ha'aretz, "arouses both concern and puzzlement."

Says Mr. Heller: "We always proceed on the assumption that someone up there in the leadership has a clear idea of what they're doing, and we just need to figure it out. But in this case, i'm not sure if they had a clear idea.

"It's the government's job to provide a clear explanation of things, a rationale, and in that they failed - so everyone's confused and we're reduced to guessing," he says.

What is clear is that Sharon's essential thinking remains unchanged, namely that Israel has no partner within the Palestinian leadership and should therefore withdraw from some 20 Jewish settlements in Gaza and certain parts of the West Bank. But this time, he is proposing that Israel withdraw in stages - first from three isolated Gaza settlements of Morag, Netzarim, and Kfar Darom, and then from four settlements in the West Bank. After that, Israel would pull out of Gaza's Gush Katif settlement bloc and then from three settlements in northern Gaza.

Staged withdrawals were a key facet of the peace process under the Oslo Accords, created in part to gradually acclimate the Israeli population to handing over territory and the Palestinians to empowerment. But they were meant to induce a cycle of reciprocity: Israel would withdrawal from occupied territory in exchange for increased efforts by the Palestinian Authority to assert control and quash terrorist activity.

Now, however, a staged withdrawal makes Sharon's program much more vulnerable to falling victim to the cycle of violence. Any attacks by Palestinians on Israelis is likely to postpone plans indefinitely. But Sharon is running short on options, and also may be running short on time. Some time in the next month, the country's attorney general will render a decision on whether to indict him in an influence peddling scandal.

"There is really a genuine desire for disengagement, for unilateral approaches," says Schmuel Sandler, a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University. "This [operation in Rafah] was an army plan that's been around for several years, and they needed political support to get it through. The military thinks about these things because they think in terms of one-sided solutions - what they can achieve by force.

"It's the same logic here, saying the other side will just have to live with it. That's the logic behind Sharon's thinking," he says.

But Palestinians have a difficult time seeing any logic in the past week of operations. Ghazi Hamad, a Palestinian who lives in Rafah and is editor of Al-Risale, an Islamist newspaper, says Operation Rainbow has only made local Palestinians homeless and angry.

"They are still destroying some homes along the land border and all night long we were hearing bombs," says Mr. Hamad, whose offices were destroyed by a missile over a week ago because Israel considers him a Hamas spokesman, which Hamad rejects.

"We heard today they destroyed more than 10 homes this morning because they want to clean the border of all the Palestinian population. I was in Tel el-Sultan [a center of the operations] today and everything is destroyed," he says. He described a line of homes that were broken open by tanks so that soldiers would not have to enter through doors, which might be trapped with explosives.

"Sharon says he wants to get out of the Gaza Strip, but it seems more like he wants to destroy it," adds Hamad.

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