A Forgotten Cabinet Proviso Could Throw Israel’s Gaza Evacuation off Course

The Israeli cabinet meets Tuesday, July 12, to dive into some troublesome outstanding issues in the operation to evacuate 10,000 people from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank 35 days away from its implementation. Funding is only one problem. A delegation is in Washington with a request for $2.2bn in special aid to be spread over several years toward the cost of relocating military bases from the Gaza Strip and developing Israel’s under-populated northern Galilee and southern Negev regions.
An important issue that has suddenly popped up is a forgotten rider to the cabinet’s February 2005 approval of the pull-out. Prime minister Ariel Sharon won the votes of half a dozen Likud ministers by a pledge to execute the withdrawals in four stages with a cabinet assessment of current circumstances between each.
This week, attorney general attorney-general Many Mazuz confronted the defense and police ministers as well as the chief of staff with a warning: their master plan for an uninterrupted one-stage evacuation is incompatible with that rider. The dilemma was referred to the prime minister Ariel Sharon.
Already the troops and police designated for the evacuations are training at the Tselim base near Beersheba for operating together as a single entity. The high command says 41,000 servicemen are directly involved. But on the ground, no more than 14,000 will handle evictions.
Military and police planners attach the highest importance to the operation’s unbroken continuity as a means of cutting down on risks – especially in view of intelligence incoming this week on the new strategy the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas has designed for the evacuation.
Hamas intransigence intensifies as the evacuation date approaches. In an interview with the Italian Corriere della Sera, Hamas’ Gaza leader Mahmoud a-Zahar stood firm on the refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist. Asked whether the Jewish state’s withdrawal to pre-1967 borders would be acceptable, he replied in the negative because in the long term Palestine would be Muslim and Israel disappear off the face of the earth.
Hamas military leaders have fine-tuned their tactics for the coming pull-back from the Gaza Strip.
Rather than shooting at random on the concentrations of Israeli troops and civilians engaged in the pull-out – in full view of the world media – Hamas military commanders propose waiting for the civilians to be removed and then pound the troops and police remaining on the spot with mortars and missiles for maximum carnage.
They will thus vindicate their propaganda line that Israel is not disengaging voluntarily but retreating under Palestinian guns. However Israeli military planners are preparing to respond to this eventuality with a large-scale counter-offensive. The troops will storm the sources of the fire – which the Palestinians habitually embed in their own population centers – in Khan Younes and the outlying camps and districts of the southern Gaza Strip.
But this turn of events would clearly also abort the evacuation process and end any coordination that may yet be achieved with the Palestinian Authority.
A stop-go operation would make it easier for Palestinian terrorists to target the operation, whereas smooth, swift progress with no pause to get it over in the shortest possible time is built into the military master plan. Supplies of fuel, water and food are also programmed for an unbroken process. For instance, after clearing Netzarim, the military and police would move on immediately to Gadid or Netzer Hazani. Forcing them to hang about and wait for the next stage to be approved in Jerusalem would magnify the vulnerability of an operation which has been pretty chancy for the start.
Hamas could more easily target stationary troops with their mortars and missiles than units in rapid motion.
According to debkafile‘s counter-terror sources, the Islamic group has come to an agreement with fellow terrorist organizations, including Jihad Islami, the Fatah-al Aqsa Brigades and the Popular Committees, for them to open fire on the pull-back – even at low intensity – in the intervals between the Hamas volleys. These attacks will target Israeli soldiers and civilians alike.
Our military sources report that the military and police command are skeptical of the claims emanating from the offices of the prime minister and defense minister that the Palestinians have concurred on steps to coordinate the withdrawal. They do not believe that the Palestinian interior minister Gen. Nasser Yousef can make good on any intention to deploy a troop buffer between the Palestinian areas of the Gaza Strip and the towns to be evacuated.
Mahmoud Abbas may really be preparing to sink tens of millions of dollars put up by the Americans and Israelis to create thousands of jobs and keep young Palestinians out of terrorism by gainfully employing them. Israeli military and intelligence offers are convinced that a part of the money will reach terrorist groups while the rest will fill the pockets of idlers.
Sharon’s most urgent task now is to clear away the obstacle the attorney general has dropped in his lap: the four-stage rider to the evacuation plan.
Failure to get round this hurdle would present the anti-evacuation ministers led by finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu and agriculture minister Yisrael Katz with a chance to manufacture delays week after week weeks in between stages – or else claim a steep political price for a seamless evacuation.
In the meantime, the entire country is on edge lest some extremist fringe group or desperate evacuee switches from passive to active resistance to the pull-out and turns to violence, such as shooting at Israeli troops, taking hostages or collective suicide.

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