TEL AVIV — With barely a month left before the official beginning of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza — the August 15 date isn’t likely to change, despite last-ditch efforts by right-wingers inside and outside Ariel Sharon’s government — the fate of the disengagement plan is now more in the hands of the people in the field than in those of the decision-makers. As the events of last few days made clear, there is much that can still go wrong, some of it impossible to control. Still, the message from those in charge of implementing the plan, both military and civilian, was clear: The evacuation will take place — and perhaps with less opposition than feared.
July 18 will mark what security officials call the first major test of the two sides’ patience, resolve and ability to communicate. Opponents of disengagement have called for a massive three-day rally at the Kissufim Crossing, the southernmost crossing between Gaza and Israel proper. The army, fearing that the rally would turn into an attempt at mass infiltration into the Gaza settlements, decided to declare the entire Gaza district a closed military zone, opening it only to residents. Sharon made the declaration Wednesday.
The closure was something the army had resisted up till the last minute. Just a day earlier, a senior officer in the Southern Command had told the Forward that closure would be instituted only as a last resort, given the burden it would place on the settler community. However, the growing pace and intensity of confrontations between the army and anti-disengagement extremists appears to have brought events to a head.
The July 18 rally is aimed at creating pressure on wavering Likud members, notably Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in advance of a scheduled July 20 Knesset vote on postponing the evacuation.
But Defense officials were convinced that the rally’s unstated purpose is to position thousands of militants near the Gaza separation fence for a mass infiltration. Opposition leaders, sensing that resistance among settlers inside Gaza is weakening as evacuation time approaches, openly aim to place as many of their own people as possible inside the district. The recruits will be drawn from residents of settlements in Judea and Samaria and of pre-1967 Israel. The hope is twofold: to make the evacuation itself more difficult by maximizing active resistance, and, security officials fear, to provoke clashes with Palestinians in hopes of fueling an explosion that will cancel the evacuation altogether.
The army is concerned that some of the infiltrators may even cut the security fence between Israel and Gaza to enable unmonitored passage into the district.
Defense officials were alarmed by the proliferation of incidents of violence and near violence in the last week. On Monday, Jerusalem’s central bus station was evacuated after police found what turned out to be a dummy bomb placed there by disengagement opponents as a warning. The incident infuriated the country’s leaders, with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz declaring that the opposition had crossed a line “from protest to a reality of near-terrorism.”
The following day, a melee erupted between police and Jewish militants in Gaza after police set up a makeshift encampment and arrested an opposition leader, Noam Livnat, the brother of Israel’s education minister. Livnat had been barred from Gaza by a restraining order. Settlers surrounded the police and tried to prevent his arrest by force.
Army officials for weeks had resisted calls for a closure of Gaza. The senior officer called closure a “nightmare scenario” for the district’s settlers, who have been free of the sort of burdensome lockdown that Palestinians have experienced repeatedly over the past four years.
A full closure was imposed on Gaza settlers last month, following clashes with Jewish extremists from outside Gaza who had set up a stronghold at a beachfront hotel at Neveh Dekalim. It took only 18 hours for the militants to capitulate.
In general, those in charge of the evacuation said, the Gaza settler leadership is caught in a vise. After months of unbending defiance, many of those to be evacuated have given up hope of a last-minute miracle and are secretly preparing to leave. Many, the officer said, are now concerned mainly with “mundane” matters, such as future jobs and their children’s fall schooling. They are also aware of a new government ruling that those who do not vacate or at least remove their belongings by August 17 — 48 hours after the evacuation officially begins — will lose everything, down to furniture and appliances. Many, he predicted, will remove their effects, send their children to their new homes and remain in Gaza to put up one last, symbolic protest.
Yonatan Bassi, head of the Evacuation Administration, this week publicly made a similar prediction. In an interview with Ha’aretz, Bassi claimed that two of the four settlements to be evacuated in the northern West Bank, Ganim and Kadim, are already nearly empty. He predicted a “great wave” of residents leaving Gaza on their own as August 15 approaches, and estimated that only 2,500 people, about one-third of the Gaza total, would be in their homes when troops arrive.
This may seem unduly optimistic, given the dark predictions of massive resistance and pitched battles that have filled the mainstream Israeli media in recent weeks. However, a military source noted, Bassi and the military command are in closer touch than most prognosticators with the actual activists in the field — the settlers’ “battalion commanders,” as one officer called them.
What they cannot predict, some officials admitted, are the actions of a small, secretive and dangerous minority of extremists. Scenarios of what can be expected from those people — most of whom are not Gaza residents — include intentional clashes with Palestinians, perhaps even deliberately falling hostage to terrorist organizations, so as to divert public opinion and military forces away from the evacuation.
One whole army brigade — the brigade that led the fighting against the Palestinians in the area during the last five years — will be deployed to create a buffer zone between the evacuation operation and the Palestinians. Its twofold task will be to prevent the “evacuation under fire” scenario that terrorists hope for as well as to forestall provocation by Israeli extremists.
However, the Palestinian side continues to be highly undependable. Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is described by military sources as “terribly weak.” Hamas, the largest and most powerful of Palestinian opposition organizations, has indicated that it supports the Israeli withdrawal, which Hamas leaders view as a victory for the armed intifada. It has held firmly to the cease-fire signed in Cairo in February. But several smaller organizations, most notably Islamic Jihad, have not signed on. Abbas seems powerless to stop them.
The tragic results of the impasse became evident in Netanya on Tuesday. After months of calm inside Israel itself, four Israeli women were killed outside a shopping mall in the first suicide bombing in Israel in almost six months. The return of the horror to the heart of sovereign Israel strengthened the popular view, held even by some who support the disengagement, that the withdrawal will be followed by a new surge of violence. It also made the opposition to the plan even more determined to try and stop it.