Exiting Gaza, Israel fights on two fronts

Israel's landmark withdrawal faces both Palestinian militants and Jewish protesters.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

To carry out Israel's withdrawal of 9,000 Jewish settlers from Gaza and parts of the West Bank next month, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon may have to wage a battle on two fronts - striking against restive Palestinian militants who launched rockets over the weekend at Israeli targets, while contending with Jewish extremists who vow to fight the historic evacuation.

Sunday, Mr. Sharon said he would launch a "massive, prolonged, and intricate" attack in Gaza if the Palestinian Authority (PA) cannot control the militants. Also, in an effort to deter thousands of antiwithdrawal protesters from descending on the Gaza border Monday, Israel declared a planned march illegal.

While this worst-case scenario has been anticipated by Israel's military, say analysts, the political fallout of unrest on both sides could hamper Sharon's ability to pull off the landmark withdrawal of territory occupied by Israel since the 1967 Middle East war.

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"It's going to be messy, but I think it's doable. The big question is political will. Sharon will have it, but will his government?" says Yossi Alpher, the former head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. "It could conceivably create enough political pressure within Sharon's own government so that he would find it difficult to proceed with disengagement."

Settler leaders have said they intend to gather tens of thousands of supporters in southern Israel Monday to march past Israeli soldiers and police who have sealed off the entry to the enclave of settlements inside Gaza. The march leaders have promised nonviolence, but have vowed to go to jail to challenge the closure on the settlements.

Following the worst week of violence during a five-month Israeli-Palestinian calm, Israeli troops massed around Gaza's border waiting for a green light from Israel's government. Israeli cabinet ministers said the army would hold off for a few days to give the PA a chance to rein in the militants.

Egyptian mediators sought to diffuse a standoff between Hamas and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who used force over the weekend for the first time against the Islamic militants to stop the rocket attacks, spurring rare internal clashes that left two Palestinians dead in Gaza. In a televised address Saturday, Mr. Abbas said his government wouldn't tolerate new attacks by militants.

If Israeli troops do strike, analysts say, it would increase the likelihood of artillery raining down on soldiers and policemen as they struggle to extract Jewish settlers.

"We will fight terror and carry out the disengagement. One isn't dependent on the other," said Israeli cabinet minister Ehud Olmert in remarks broadcast on Israel radio. "The fire needs to be halted, and every operation to stop the fire is correct."

But in recent months, Israeli and Palestinian military officers had reached a series of understandings - with US mediation - to coordinate the withdrawal. Also, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is headed back to the region later this week to shore up the cooperation.

Tension mounted after an Islamic Jihad suicide bombing killed four outside a shopping mall in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya last week. That set in motion a spiral of fighting that prompted Israel's military to renew a policy of targeted assassinations, leaving eight Islamic militants dead.

The sniper fire Sunday killed Sayid Tzaim, who the army said headed Hamas' militant wing in the city of Khan Younis and was responsible for attacks on Israeli targets.

After months of upholding a fragile truce with Israel, Hamas came under pressure to launch new strikes in order not to be upstaged by Islamic Jihad as the leading force in the uprising against Israel, says Salah Haider Shafi, a Gaza-based political analyst. The violence forced Abbas to use force for the first time against Hamas.

If the Egyptian mediation is overtaken by an Israeli invasion of Gaza, it would mean an end to the truce and a serious blow to Abbas, he says. "Once there is an incursion we are back to Square 1," Haider Shafi says. "We were hoping the disengagement would go smoothly and peacefully, with coordination. I don't think the disengagement itself is at risk, but we might see a different disengagement."

Israeli military chiefs have promised over recent months to ensure that the evacuation of 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four in the northern West Bank is not accompanied by hostile fire. Even cabinet members from the dovish Labor Party said Sunday that an offensive would be unavoidable.

Yuval Steinitz, a legislator from Sharon's Likud Party, said the pullout would be impossible without launching a major offensive at militant strongholds, reminiscent of Israel's 2002 invasion of West Bank cities.

"We will need a massive operation. We will need to take control of the Gaza Strip for two weeks to look from place to place to reduce the terrorist capability," said Steinitz, who heads the parliament's foreign affairs and defense committee. "I think it is impossible from an operational perspective and from a moral perspective to take people out from their homes and communities under such massive fire."

Palestinian rocket attacks have put a dent in public support for Sharon's unilateral pullback initiative. The uptick in violence is likely to provide a compelling backdrop to a demonstration seen as the settlers' final chance to stop the evacuation.

Pinchas Wallerstein, a member of the umbrella settler leadership council for the West Bank and Gaza, has called on followers to engage in civil disobedience to challenge the pullback.

Hoping to pressure the public and politicians to reconsider the move at the last minute, Wallerstein said he considers Monday's planned demonstration to be following the tradition of US civil rights protesters in the 1960s.

"There is no doubt that the example of an extra-parliamentary march like the march on Washington can conquer the entire country," he said.

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