Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, vowing that the targeted killings of Hamas’ top leaders in recent weeks was “not the end of it,” stepped up military attacks in northern Gaza this week on Palestinians firing rockets at Jewish settlements.
At least nine Palestinians were killed in gunfights with Israeli troops in the area. The rocket attacks increased following Israel’s missile attack on Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi.
The aggressive military moves by Sharon are seen as strengthening support among the Likud Party’s 200,000 members for the prime minister’s disengagement plan from Gaza. Likud members will be asked to endorse the plan in a May 2 referendum.
Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Limor Livnat all threw their support behind the disengagement plan this week, moves seen as virtually assuring Likud’s support.
Opponents of the plan — which calls for evacuating all 7,500 Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip and another 700 in four isolated settlements in the West Bank — insist that the move will be seen by the Palestinians as a victory. A leader of the opposition, Minister Uzi Landau, said through a spokesman that Israel should concentrate on causing “chaos” among the terrorist organizations.
“Only then is there a chance of making real peace with compromises,” he said, citing Egypt and Jordan as examples of those who “realized that violence would not get them anywhere.”
The spokesman, Erez Goldman, said opponents of the disengagement plan were still hopeful of success. He said one of the latest polls found that 47 percent of Likud voters opposed the plan.
“We believe we are going to win and then send a clear message not just to Israeli leaders but all over the world that Israel is not giving into terror,” he said.
But Sharon said Tuesday that the “whining and complaints” coming from Palestinians over the disengagement plan is proof that they understand that “this is the end of their hopes to fulfill their dreams.”
Sharon’s objective, according to Uzi Arad, director of the Herzliya-based Institute of Policy and Strategy, is to “hold accountable for their actions the chieftains and commanders of Hamas who are involved in authorizing and planning terrorist attacks.
“They will have to pay the price for their mischief,” he said. “Hamas has been the more violent of the Palestinian organizations involved in terror.”
Hamas has been “more industrious” in using female as well as male suicide bombers, and “more vicious in their targets — restaurants and shopping malls — with the deliberate intention of harming children.”
He noted, though, that the Hamas leadership is “in some kind of disarray because of the severe blow they received — but no one expects them to disband. They are as radical as ever and still have operational capability.”
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University, says most polls show that Likud members are likely to vote for Sharon’s plan, even though traditionally Likud has opposed giving up any land.
“The Sharon-Bush press conference took all the wind out of their sails,” he added, referring to opponents of the Gaza withdrawal.
In Washington last week, President George W. Bush supported the disengagement plan, rejected the notion of a Palestinian right of return to Israel, and endorsed the concept of Israel retaining at least some West Bank settlements.
Bush’s action was condemned by Palestinians, said Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Arab studies at Columbia University.
“The president has changed longstanding American positions, one of which was taken because of Israeli importuning over decades — that this conflict had to be decided between the parties themselves,” he said.
“I know there are people dancing in the streets of Maale Adumim, Ofra, parts of Williamsburg and Palm Beach,” Khalidi said regarding Bush’s support from some Israeli West Bank settlements. “But I’m not sure that supporters of Israel should be happy that America reversed seven American administrations’ worth of policy.”
“This is a very sad day for a two-state solution,” he added.
But Steinberg said Khalidi is wrong to believe that Bush decided these issues. All Bush did, Steinberg insisted, was to “express an opinion, not to impose one. … The U.S. was saying it understands the Israeli position.”
Khalidi said that even though Bush insisted that these issues were still to be negotiated, “it was like a 900-pound gorilla putting his thumb on the scale.”
Richard Murphy, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, also questioned the Bush administration’s strategy.
“What did we achieve as a would-be mediator by what Bush did?” he asked. “This may work out well, but at best it’s unclear.”
Shibley Telhami, who holds the Sadat Chair at the University of Maryland, said that “no matter what the objective meaning of the administration’s support for the plan, the perception in the Middle East is almost entirely negative.”
As one sign of anger in the Arab world, King Abdullah of Jordan canceled his White House meeting this week, miffed by the Bush support for an Israeli presence in the West Bank. It will be rescheduled for May.
The United Nations Security Council met this week to take up Israel’s killing of Rantisi, with more than 40 countries opposed to the action, though Hamas is widely regarded as a terror organization.
On the Gaza withdrawal, Mideast experts say much depends on whether the pullout is a first or last step on Israel’s part, whether it is part of a diplomatic deal moving toward peace talks on a long-term interim solution to avoid further contact with the Palestinians.
Sharon suggested the latter when he told one Israeli newspaper recently: “In the unilateral plan there is no Palestinian state; this situation could continue for many years.”
But former President Bill Clinton and a panel of American and Israeli observers at a seminar here this week maintained that unless the Gaza pullout is a step toward negotiations, the violence would be protracted. (See Gary Rosenblatt column, page 7.)
Many believe that if Likud approves the withdrawal plan, a number of right-wing members of the Sharon coalition will leave the government, paving the way for the left-wing Labor Party to come in.
“If that happens, it might create an opportunity [for peace],” said Telhami. “If it does not happen, it could be read that the unilateral disengagement plan will play into the hands of the militants on the Palestinian side.”
And for the Palestinian Authority, Telhami said, the challenge will be to “find a way to engage the [Bush] administration … and overcome what is likely to be a painful dynamic that will play into the hands of Hamas.”