Gaza clash tests withdrawal plan

Responding to rocket fire, Israel has escalated strikes on Gaza, killing at least 50 Palestinians.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says he intends to withdraw from Gaza, but on the ground, Israeli occupation of the crowded coastal enclave is expanding and intensifying.

Scores of armored vehicles are now dug into a 3.6-mile-deep buffer zone in northern Gaza that Israel carved out in recent days to thwart Hamas fighters from firing rockets across the border. The need for the reoccupation as part of Operation Days of Penitence, as the military effort is known, was underscored, in Israel's view, when two toddlers were killed in a rocket attack against the border town of Sderot last Wednesday.

But the incursion, which has brought Israeli troops inside the Jabalya refugee camp, is not only about stopping the homemade Kassam rockets. It's an attempt to deal a blow to Palestinian fighters in the run-up to Mr. Sharon's planned withdrawal next year and thus help ensure that Israel leaves the Strip as the victor rather than the vanquished, officials say.

"Israel will not disengage under fire, but you can be sure the disengagement will go according to schedule," says Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon. "If the terrorists do not cease their actions by themselves by the time of disengagement, we will give them so much fire that they will ask us to stop. We will walk out smoothly and they will be on the run."

If anything, the fighting underscores that the disengagement plan, far from calming the Strip, is fueling an escalation as each side tries to dictate the meaning withdrawal. "We have to see what is happening now as part of an ongoing conflict. Israel attacks and Hamas counterattacks, and vice versa," says Palestinian legislator Ziyad Abu Amr. "This is part of the struggle over who will emerge victorious."

Caught in the middle are civilians on both sides, with the residents of densely populated Jabalya paying a heavy price.

Despite the Israeli firepower, the Kassam rockets keep falling. Missile strikes killed two Palestinians Sunday after they launched a rocket in the northern Gaza Strip, the army said. Another missile strike and gunfire killed at least five more Palestinians. In total, more than 50 Palestinians and five Israelis have died in the fighting. About half of the Palestinians killed in Operation Days of Penitence through Saturday, when the last tally was made, were civilians, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. "PCHR has noticed that Israeli occupation troops have used excessive and disproportionate force against members of the Palestinian resistance, in disregard for the lives of Palestinian civilians who could be in the area," they said.

An Israeli army spokeswoman says: "Our troops are constantly under attack. We try to minimize as much as possible the harm to civilians but the terrorists operate from among the civilian population." Eighty percent of the Palestinians killed were fighters, says Mr. Gissin.

Two Israeli tanks on a hill in the camp "are opening fire at everything that moves, with heavy machine guns," says Ahmed Abu Hmidan, a Jabalya resident. "My windows and walls have been hit by machine-gun fire. For the first two nights we stayed at home but because of the psychological state of the children, now we are staying with relatives away from the shooting."

If fighting continues it will complicate Sharon's plans for withdrawal, say some Israeli analysts. It could scupper them entirely, according to others.

"Sharon will have difficulty disengaging if there is too much fighting," says Ephraim Inbar, head of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv. "The army will be busy fighting Palestinians instead of establishing an envelope to remove settlers." He notes that despite all the talk of withdrawal, Sharon has yet to get cabinet or Knesset approval for dismantling settlements. Hamas's firing of the rockets "to some extent makes Sharon's life difficult inside his own [Likud] party," he adds. "The people in Likud do not want a withdrawal that looks as if they are giving in to terrorism."

Ofer Shelah, a military analyst, wrote Saturday for Israel's Y-net news agency that the firing of the rockets has revealed the main shortcoming of withdrawal, namely that it's unilateral and has no Palestinian partner.

"Without an advance agreement with the Palestinians, there will be no withdrawal that isn't under fire, and whoever promises such a withdrawal is deceiving the public. There simply won't be a situation in which the Palestinian terror organizations, which are fighting for prestige and for the day after the withdrawal, will agree to allowing Israel to leave Gaza victorious. And since Israel sees itself as bound to respond to Palestinian actions, every action will generate a reaction.... With each passing day, the chances of Israel leaving Gaza and the chance it will be able to declare victory there are getting smaller and smaller," Mr. Shelah wrote.

Mohammed Ali contributed to this report from Gaza City.

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