JERUSALEM – A lethal arrest raid, a suicide bombing, fresh land expropriations, a threatening Hamas video: So far, that’s the follow-up to Israel’s historic Gaza pullout.
Rather than seize the moment to jump-start negotiations, Israelis and Palestinians appear to be falling into a familiar pattern of violence and rhetoric. Still, the withdrawal from Jewish settlements in Gaza is of such significance that even the latest spasms are unlikely to torpedo all momentum for peace.
Ariel Sharon won praise for fulfilling his pledge – in a dramatic, breakneck sweep that ended last week – to evacuate 8,500 settlers from the Gaza Strip and another 500 from the northern West Bank. Now the Israeli leader wants to send a very clear message that terrorism won’t be tolerated and that major West Bank settlement blocs will remain Israeli.
“Israel cannot return to the ‘67 or ‘48 borders, because of the settlements,” Sharon said in a TV interview Monday, referring to Israel’s frontiers before it captured Gaza, the West Bank and other lands. “The settlement blocs will remain in sovereign Israel. They are of vital strategic importance.”
He added, however, that some other settlements would have to go in a final peace deal.
Sharon’s critics say now is the time to capitalize on the good will created by the Gaza evacuation, not to flex muscles. Many fear the two sides already have begun to squander a unique historical opportunity. And the recent friction has brought home the pitfalls of trying to get Israelis and Palestinians together after five years of trust-destroying violence.
Both sides say they’re still prepared to talk, however. Officials said a meeting is possible between Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas when the two are in New York next month to address the United Nations.
And Sharon’s withdrawal, ending 38 years of Israeli presence in the Gaza Strip, is likely to have long-lasting ripple effects on Mideast peacemaking that could weather some setbacks. With the settlers gone, the army is expected to complete its own pullout in the coming days.
“We understand that Mr. Sharon has to show the Israeli people that he is conceding on one side and strengthening his position on the other,” Rafiq Husseini, the Palestinian chief of staff, told the Associated Press. “That worries us, but I think that in the end, justice will have to prevail.”
Officials on both sides expressed hope that the pullout would create momentum for a return to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Then, an Israeli arrest raid in the West Bank town of Tulkarem deteriorated into a shootout that killed five Palestinians, and a suicide bombing Sunday critically wounded two security guards at a bus station in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba.
That bombing came a day after Hamas militants in Gaza released a videotape purportedly showing their top bomb-maker, Mohammed Deif, celebrating the Gaza pullout as a victory for armed resistance and threatening more attacks until Israel is destroyed. Deif has been in hiding from Israeli security forces since 1992.
And Israel, just two days after the last Gaza settler was evacuated, announced plans to confiscate Palestinian land around the West Bank’s largest Jewish settlement to build a separation barrier that would, in effect, annex it to Jerusalem. Israel also said it would build a police station between the settlement, Maaleh Adumim, and Jerusalem – another step that alarmed Palestinians.
“In exchange for the evacuation of … people who shouldn’t have been there in the first place, (Israel) is going to steal more and more Palestinian land,” said Diana Buttu, legal adviser to the Palestinian Authority.
Buttu said Israel can’t claim that it has ended its occupation of Gaza because it still controls the coastal strip’s borders and air and sea space.
But she said an agreement, approved by the Israeli Cabinet over the weekend, to have Egypt deploy 750 troops along the Gaza-Egyptian border so that Israel could pull out of the area was “a step in the right direction.”
Another promising development occurred Monday when Palestinian militant groups in Gaza told an Egyptian envoy they remained committed to a six-month-old truce with Israel. At the same time, however, an Islamic Jihad leader said his group reserves the right to respond to what he called Israel’s “brutal massacres.”
Military officials said Israel’s army chief, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, did not give final approval for the arrest raid in Tulkarem that killed five Palestinians and set off a new round of violence. The officials, requesting anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak on the topic, said Halutz criticized the raid as ill-timed and lacking “sensitivity.”
Still, some saw the raid and other measures as an attempt to shore up government support among Israeli hard-liners after the Gaza pullout alienated large sections of Sharon’s right-wing Likud party.
David Landau, editor of Israel’s Haaretz daily, said he thinks Sharon has hurt himself “so badly with the right that I honestly can’t see much that he can do by way of winning them back over.”