Suicide Bombings Compound Problems for Gaza Withdrawal

THE SITUATION

By Ofer Shelah

Published September 03, 2004, issue of September 03, 2004.
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TEL AVIV — In the wake of Tuesday’s twin bus bombings in Beersheva, senior Israeli military and government sources were quick to dismiss any talk of a connection between the attack and the prime minister’s efforts to press his Gaza disengagement plan.

Despite the official claims that Hamas terrorists aim to strike at Israel regardless of timing and circumstance, however, many Israelis saw a connection: On the very day that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon presented a detailed schedule for the implementation of his disengagement plan, Israel suffered the worst terror attack in many months.

At least 16 people died and close to 100 were injured in the double-suicide attack in the center of Beersheva, when two Hamas terrorists blew themselves up simultaneously inside two city buses, just a few yards from each other at a busy junction. In addition to rocking the southern city, which enjoyed relative quiet during the worst of the intifada, the bombings seemed likely to embolden Sharon’s already rebellious detractors within his own Likud Party.

The psychological effect of the attack was multiplied, both because of the apparent coordination and organizational abilities displayed by the bombers and because months have passed since the last bus bombing. So much time had passed between blasts, in fact, that Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon recently dared to declare in an interview: “I always said terror can be conquered.”

Many Israelis, in spite of themselves, were beginning to believe that the Israeli military and internal security service had indeed found the key to stopping terror altogether. And although the success level of the security forces remains high, a single bloody attack of this magnitude could quickly shatter the country’s collective sense of security. The Tel Aviv stock exchange appeared to reflect a new case of national jitters by dropping 1.25% in the hours after the Beersheva bombings.

Sharon responded to the strike as expected. “This has nothing to do with the disengagement plan,” Sharon told reporters in the Knesset. “It has to do with the murderous nature of the terrorists, whom we will continue to fight in every possible way.”

Opponents of Sharon’s withdrawal plan thought otherwise — and it wasn’t just the politicians. “Disengage from Beersheva!” was the cynical first response on the popular Web site Ynet (ynet.co.il).

Just hours before the attack, Sharon confronted his adversaries within the Likud Party and presented a timetable for implementing the various steps of his disengagement plan. He declared that the plan, including the legal structure for compensation payments to those evacuated from Gaza, would be ratified in the Security Cabinet September 14 and voted on by the whole Cabinet September 26. It will be brought before the Knesset October 24.

Sharon’s many opponents in Likud, most notably Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, met his timetable with staunch opposition. Assumed to be Sharon’s top challenger for control of the party, Netanyahu claimed that the time frame, as well as the decision to ratify the entire plan at once rather than in stages, violated the compromise that he and other government members had reached with Sharon prior to the first Cabinet vote on disengagement in June.

“I wouldn’t stick to dates,” Netanyahu told reporters, referring to Sharon’s new timetable. “They tend to influence reality instead of the other way around.”

A close examination of the status of the disengagement shows that the political hurdles are only part of Sharon’s problems. His plan is also proving financially costly. The compensation law is almost ready — and expected to cost more than $750 million. A team headed by Justice Ministry Director General Aharon Abramowitz has spent the last five months drawing up the law. Sources inside the ministry told the Forward that individual compensation figures would be determined by three variables: the value of people’s homes (those living in Gaza strip for more than 10 years would get similar houses inside the green line, regardless of the difference in land prices); loss of income, both in terms of lost jobs and lost commercial property, and some kind of general compensation, also based on length of residency in the evacuated territory. Taxation questions, as well as offering those who wish to remove their whole community in tact to a different location, are yet unanswered and unplanned.

Cost aside, most questions on how the plan would be carried out are still unanswered.

The army has yet to present its evacuation plan. According to military sources, it will entail evacuating residents first, then moving the contents of their homes and finally withdrawing the troops.

Burning questions remain regarding who will be charged with the task of actually removing the settlers, many of whom are expected to resist (some violently). The first issue is whether soldiers or police will carry out the job. The Israeli government has accepted Defense Minister’s Shaul Mofaz’s view, according to which police officers would operate the “inner circle” of the evacuation. But Tzahi Hanegbi, who stepped down Tuesday under a legal cloud as internal security minister, had been arguing that his police force was shorthanded and only the army could carry out this assignment.

Much like Mofaz, Hanegbi — and probably whoever succeeds him in his internal security post — does not wish to be associated with the images of evacuation. But the military alternative has at least one major problem: A large proportion of troops, and especially officers, in the army’s elite units are sons of the settlements or former students of the national religious movement, where opposition to disengagement is fierce. Army commanders will have to be careful who they send and where. At this point, though, they generally are sounding an optimistic note. “I have company commanders who grew up in the Gaza strip,” one brigade commander told the Forward. “Should they receive the order, I expect them to evacuate their own families.”

Yet the same soldiers, the same police force and the same government that will need to implement the disengagement plan have so far shown little effectiveness in the removal of the few families in isolated outposts — despite Sharon’s promises on the issue to the Bush administration. It is yet unclear how they intend to carry out the evacuation of more than 7,000 Jewish residents in Gaza, plus the thousands expected to infiltrate the area to demonstrate and oppose the evacuation attempts. So while Sharon declares that everything should be ready by early November, there are many practical and political hurdles in his way — not to mention the intervention of terrorists.






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