Cracks in support for Sharon

Israelis question Gaza presence in a week when six soldiers died.

Ordinary Israelis, media commentators, and military officers unleashed unusually strident criticism Sunday of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's strategy in the Palestinian territories, a wave of anger that some analysts say may signal the first cracks in previously broad public support for his policies.

The condemnation followed a Palestinian attack on a remote Gaza Strip settlement that killed three soldiers on Friday, including two 19-year-old female soldiers shot while sleeping.

Their deaths, in a week that began with the death of three other troops in an ambush, triggered questions about Israel's presence in Gaza, the lack of a political process with the Palestinians, and Mr.

Sharon's failure to deliver on election promises of greater security. The criticism, along with stirrings on the long dormant political left, suggest a shift in Israeli opinion may be afoot.

The week "ended with mounting questions about the nature of the [Israeli army's] presence in the territories [and] the character of its activity," wrote analyst Yael Gwurtz in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper. "All of the above have helped define a new crossroads in public opinion ... the convergence of the argument about the cost of the war on terror and the argument about the cost of the occupation."

"This is unprecedented, such broad, direct criticism of this government and the army," says Yaron Ezrahi, a political scientist at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. He sees it as an expression of public frustration with the government "for following only the strategy of force and more force, while immobilizing the diplomatic arm of Israel."

Israeli soldiers demolished three empty apartment buildings in the northern Gaza Strip early Sunday to retaliate for Friday's attack, evacuating Palestinians within a 400-yard radius beforehand.

An army spokeswoman, Maj. Sharon Fiengold, said militants used the buildings to monitor activity in the settlement, called Netzarim, and plan Friday's attack.

Described by one Israeli commentator as "a bone in Gaza's throat," Netzarim is a small, acorn-shaped area in the center of Gaza that abuts the sea. Home to 65 families, it is isolated from other settlement blocs, so much so that an entire army battalion and a tank company are stationed there for the settlers' defense.

Supporters say Netzarim is strategically important, allowing troops to monitor Gaza City, but its isolation makes it extremely controversial. In 37 months of conflict, nine soldiers have died defending Netzarim. Friday's attacker cut through the settlement's fence and infiltrated the barracks. The fact that two of his victims were young women in bed asleep seems to have stoked Israeli public fury.

The centrist Yediot Ahronot fulminated in an editorial, "Justice for their blood needs to be sought not only with those who committed this heinous crime [but] also with the government, the army."

The critical onslaught focused on Israel's presence in Netzarim and included army officers who told reporters that the government should reexamine its policy of keeping remote settlements that require large numbers of troops for their defense.

Wider criticisms of government policy followed. "It seems that Israeli policy over the past few months has centered only on the question of what the response will be after every terror attack," analyst Amir Rappaport wrote in the Ma'ariv newspaper.

On Israeli radio, former government minister Shulamit Aloni said the government commits "blatant and violent provocations, they do not want to talk, and they know in their calculations that it will bring a response, and our people will be killed."

Labor Minister Chaim Ramon expanded on calls to leave Gaza by suggesting that Israel abandon the Palestinian territories altogether. "Unilateral separation in Gaza first will be a pioneering test for the comprehensive unilateral separation plan," he wrote.

There are changes in the air, says Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University outside Tel Aviv. While Sharon still has approval ratings over 50 percent, they have fallen sharply.

"We have criticism of [Sharon's] policies, complications because of corruption charges involving his sons and his previous election campaigns, and his failure to present a realistic alternative to the Israeli public," says Professor Steinberg, who notes that most Israelis favor pulling out of Gaza and most West Bank settlements. "The Netzarim tragedy reinforces this. After all those speeches and promises, Sharon has not produced any political openings or plans."

Yet few analysts expect any change in Sharon's strategy. "Like most military and political leaders, he's reluctant to shift things under pressure," says Steinberg, who sees no immediate political threat to the prime minister. "There's no leader who has presented him or herself who can challenge Sharon, certainly no one on the left."

Yet the political left, moribund since the Oslo peace process collapsed in September 2000, has been showing new signs of life. Some 4,000 people protested Sharon's policies outside the prime minister's residence on Saturday in the first major Jerusalem demonstration in over a year.

Left-wing politicians and their Palestinian counterparts recently crafted an alternative peace plan, called the Geneva Initiative, and controversy still simmers over the refusal of a group of Israeli pilots to take part in "targeted killings" of Palestinian militants.

"It's early to judge" whether there is a political shift in the works, says analyst Yossi Alpher, "but perhaps we're seeing the beginnings of cracks in Israeli consensus."

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