The Israeli government may delay its unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip for three weeks not only to avoid a conflict with the observance of Tisha b’Av, but also to undermine Hamas’ expected success in local Palestinian elections, according to a prominent Israeli analyst.
“There has been no decision yet [about a delay],” said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University. “[Ariel] Sharon is reluctant to have any kind of delays, but … [a delay] would give Israel time to see the results of the Palestinian election and remove the link between the election and the withdrawal.”
The Palestinian election is scheduled for July 17, with the Israeli withdrawal slated to begin three days later.
Steinberg said if the Palestinians go to the polls in the same week that Israelis are preparing to pull out of Gaza, it could be seen as strengthening the hand of Hamas terrorists at the polls. Already they are taking credit for the Israeli withdrawal, claiming it is evidence of the success of their terror tactics.
Delaying the Israeli evacuation until Aug. 15 — the day after Tisha b’Av, which marks the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem — might help Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party at the polls because it would dampen the assumed Palestinian “euphoria over the Israeli withdrawal,” Steinberg said.
Observant Jews in the Gaza Strip point out that the three weeks before Tisha b’Av are traditionally a period of mourning during which devout Jews do not customarily move to a new home, go on pleasure trips, wear new clothes or get haircuts.
Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz, an opponent of the withdrawal, suggested that it be delayed until after the High Holy Days in October. He was quoted as saying that “conditions aren’t ripe [for the withdrawal]. Nothing is ready.”
But Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz reportedly rejected a delay until October, saying it is “not practical.”
The government had hoped to have the removed settlers in new quarters in time for the beginning of school.
Steinberg said he believes talk of delays are yet another stalling tactic by evacuation opponents, who have failed in their attempts to hold a national referendum on the matter.
“Already people are saying that if the move is delayed until mid-August, it should be delayed until next summer because school starts Sept. 1,” he pointed out.
Asked about the alleged logistical difficulties of relocating the 8,800 settlers from the Gaza Strip, Steinberg said he tends to believe that those complaints are another stalling tactic.
“There are enough empty places and caravans,” he said. “We are only talking of a few thousand people.”
There were reports this week that some settlers are making their own relocations plans, believing that the forced evacuation of the Gaza Strip is inevitable. The Jerusalem Post reported Wednesday that the number of families who have agreed to move now totals 108 out of some 1,700.
Israeli defense experts are making predictions about what will happen to the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip once the evacuation is complete. Sharon was quoted in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot as telling senior cabinet members Tuesday: “Immediately after the Israeli army leaves there, everything will be looted.”
Sharon’s comments suggest he is resigned to seeing chaos in the wake of the withdrawal, but his aides and government officials were slated to meet with Palestinian Authority representatives this week to try to coordinate the forced evacuation from 21 Jewish settlements.
Haggai Huberman, the military correspondent for the Israeli publication Hatzofeh, a religious Zionist weekly, said the Israeli military believes that the withdrawal will trigger renewed Palestinian violence against Israelis. He said the expected onslaught has been code-named “Rainy Day” by the army, and that military analysts believe the Israel Defense Forces will be forced to retake two West Bank cities, Tulkarem and Jericho, which were handed over recently to Palestinian Authority security forces.
And the defense expert at the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Amir Oren, said military analysts believe the reign of Palestinian terror will become so great that the IDF will be forced to re-enter the Gaza Strip.
Steinberg said he is not sure whether Israel’s “working assumption” about renewed Palestinian violence is more a prediction or an effort to “put pressure on the Palestinian Authority.”
“Abbas has done very little” to reign in terrorist groups, he noted, saying that Abbas’ claims have been disputed that he collected the weapons of some of those on Israel’s terrorist list.
But that may change with the appointment this week of James Wolfensohn to be the special envoy of The Quartet to oversee Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and to advise on the rebuilding of the Palestinian economy there. The Quartet — the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — authored the “road map” to peace that both the Israeli and Palestinian governments have agreed to follow.
Wolfensohn, 71, who retires May 31 as president of the World Bank, has 10 years of experience dealing with Palestinians and Israelis on aid issues. Steinberg said his appointment is a clear signal to the Palestinians that the international community will be watching the situation in the Gaza Strip very closely.
“There will be tremendous focus on Palestinian security and activity in Gaza, and it will affect the way international aid is funneled,” he said. “The World Bank takes security more seriously than the E.U., and this appointment is serious and indicates that the E.U. is putting the Palestinians on notice that security will be an important part of the aid package.”