Gaza strife sharpens debate over pullout

Israel demands remains of six soldiers killed Tuesday.

For Israelis, it wasn't just that Palestinian militants killed six soldiers in one explosion - exacting the highest single-day death toll for the Israeli army since 2002. It was that they paraded and filmed the soldiers' remains, and then spirited them off into the back alleys of the Gaza Strip.

The news seemed to hit home in the same way it did for many Americans when the bodies of US contractors were mutilated and strung up in public view in Iraq last month. But, as in Iraq, the grisly scenes may only marginally change the course of public opinion. Many here say the impact won't necessarily move Israelis any closer to withdrawing from the Gaza Strip, which Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proposed and which failed to pass in a referendum in his Likud Party May 2.

After Palestinians blew up an Israeli armored personnel carrier in the Gaza Strip Tuesday, Israel launched an offensive that killed eight Palestinians and wounded more than 120 in what the military said was a raid to destroy suspected weapons workshops. They continued operations throughout the day Wednesday, making house-to-house searches in an attempt to find the soldiers' remains and bring them home.

"When you touch a raw nerve in Israeli society, you're going to get the raw end of the deal," says Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Prime Minister Sharon. "We're not going to relent, we're not going to stop until we bring them back to burial. If not, they're going to have hell."

Though the renewed violence unleashes a fresh wave of recrimination, it may not significantly alter the fabric of public opinion. Most Israelis have already made up their minds about whether withdrawing from land in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, occupied by Israel since the 1967 war, is a wise move.

"The impact of this is zero. Those who want to get out of Gaza will be strengthened in their views, and those who don't will be strengthened in theirs," says Joseph Alpher, a strategic analyst and former head of the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv.

The paradox is that, according to polls, most Israelis do want out of Gaza. According to this week's "Peace Index," taken by the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University, 53 percent of Israelis would agree to evacuate all settlements if it would lead to a comprehensive peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Backed by the Bush administration, Sharon's aides say in the next three weeks he will bring another version of a disengagement plan - which would have Israel withdraw some 8,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip - to his cabinet for a vote.

But since several of his ministers have already expressed reservation or outright opposition, experts say he will have a difficult time getting his government's approval. That, they say, could lead to a major cabinet reshuffle.

"Sharon's biggest hurdle is how to maneuver between a majority of members in Likud who are against it and a majority of the Israeli public supporting it," says Mr. Alpher.

For now, many Israelis are focused on retrieval. In the past, Israel has made it a priority to get remains returned. At times it has even exchanged prisoners in return for body parts. In January, Israel freed hundreds of Palestinian captives in exchange for the bodies of three soldiers and a captured businessman held in Lebanon.

"You have to understand the strength of Israeli society on this," says Mr. Gissin. "We will do anything to retrieve the dead for the sake of the living. We will never stand for the desecration of our soldiers."

Many Palestinians, especially supporters of Islamic militant groups, view Tuesday's attack as a mark of success. A week ago Sunday, an Israeli mother and her four daughters were shot dead driving near their home in the Gaza settlements. But there had not been another major attack since Israel assassinated Hamas's two top leaders, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdul Aziz Rantisi.

"It tells Israel, think again and again on the withdrawal from Gaza. It puts more pressure on Sharon and says, 'You are losing in Gaza,'" says Ghazi Hamad, the editor of Al Risale, a newspaper sympathetic to the Islamic militant movement. Mr. Hamad, a former Hamas member, spoke by telephone with the sound of rockets and helicopters in the background.

Hamad says that the Islamic groups holding the remains may gain more legitimacy because Israel would have to engage in speaking to them - through an international mediator such as the Red Cross. Meanwhile, he added, the Palestinian Authority is trying to convince militants to return the remains.

"The military operations against settlers and soldiers will push Sharon to withdraw more quickly from Gaza," Hamad says. "All of their analysts are saying, 'What are we doing there?'"

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