Military Losses Aggravate Gaza Pullout Debate

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - The missions on which soldiers were sent in the Gaza Strip the last few days had nothing to do with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan, ministers from his party said, but nevertheless, the deaths of eleven soldiers in two days aggravated the debate over the Israeli presence in the area.

In two separate incidents this week in Gaza, two armored personnel carriers were blown up and eleven soldiers killed while on regular anti-terror missions.

Sharon's Likud party voted in a party referendum last week against the disengagement plan, which calls for evacuating all settlements housing some 7,800 Israelis from the Gaza Strip as well as from four West Bank settlements. But, according to opinion polls, most Israelis would support such a plan.

Opposition Meretz Knesset member Yossi Sarid was quoted as saying that he believed in the coming days there would be a popular uprising in Israel, demanding an immediate withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Labor MK Avraham Burg said it would be the parents of Israeli soldiers that would force the government to get out of the Gaza Strip and certain West Bank settlement areas if it was unable to do so on its own.

"Gaza will hound us," Burg said in a radio interview. The only thing that will resolve the problem, he added, was a negotiated settlement.

Actor Shlomo Vishinski, whose son Lior, 20, was one of five soldiers killed in Wednesday evening's attack even blamed Likud party members, who rejected Sharon's plan for the death of his son, and demanded that Lior's funeral procession begin at Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv.

"The members of the Likud, they are responsible," Vishinski said in a radio interview. "The army doesn't belong to the right[wing]. The army belongs to all of us... My son was the sucker of the Likud."

But Likud Minister Uzi Landau, who led the campaign against the disengagement plan, said the plan's defeat has "absolutely no connection whatsoever" to the attacks on the soldiers in Gaza this week.

"The soldiers' mission had nothing to do with the disengagement plan," Landau's spokesman, Erez Goldman said. They were sent to find weapons and destroy laboratories where they are made, he added.

Five soldiers were killed when their armored personnel carrier was hit by a rocket propelled grenade along the southern edge of the Gaza Strip Wednesday evening. They were part of a mission searching for Palestinian weapons' smuggling tunnels running under the Israeli-Egyptian border.

A day earlier, six soldiers were killed when their APC was hit by a roadside charge in the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City as they were completing a mission to destroy machinery used to manufacture Kassam rockets. Both vehicles had been carrying large amounts of explosives for their demolition missions.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, a proponent of Sharon's plan, said on Thursday that the battles in Gaza this week had been essential and unavoidable. He added that Israel would not run away from the Gaza Strip.

Earlier, army Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon dismissed comparisons in the media between Israel's previous involvement in Lebanon and the situation in the Gaza Strip.

Israel maintained a swathe of land in southern Lebanon for 18 years as a buffer zone against terror attacks on its northern border.

Four years ago, Israel withdrew from that zone unilaterally under heavy Hizballah fire. The militant Islamic group claimed the Israeli retreat as its victory and encouraged Palestinians to follow suit.

But in Gaza, Israeli governments on both the left and the right supported the establishment of settlements there, where most Israeli residents believe they have settled in part of the land promised to the Jewish people in the Bible as an eternal inheritance.

Ya'alon said that unlike its departure from Lebanon, Israel would continue to fight terror in the Gaza Strip for as long as it takes.

"For as long as there is terrorism in Gaza, an infrastructure of terror, and arms of the sort that threaten the settlements in the [western Negev in Israel] area, like Sderot, Nahal Oz, Kissufim, we will need to continue to operate against the terror infrastructure in Gaza on every front," Ya'alon said.

Nevertheless, reserve Maj. Gen. Avraham Rotem of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies said Israel's exit from Lebanon acted as a "trigger" for the beginning of the intifadah in September 2000.

Because of the nature of Israel's enemies, Israel would have to be very careful in the way it withdraws from Gaza and would probably have to re-enter periodically to clean out the terrorists, Rotem said in a telephone interview.

"Gaza is a very, very complicated problem. Nobody in the world wants to touch it," Rotem said.

"Egypt [left] us this treasure," he said. "They fled out of it voluntarily [and] didn't even mention it [when Israel and Egypt made peace in 1979]...We swallowed the bait and we took it - first under the label that it was important to our security...

"Now it's a very strong symbol, and if you have a policy not to evacuate Jewish settlements, it's much more a symbol and political problem [than it] has nothing to do with security," Rotem said.

Nevertheless, there are security problems to withdrawing unilaterally from the Gaza Strip, he added. There is the problem of smuggling of rockets and missiles into Gaza that would be able to extend well beyond the border into Israel, as well as a weakening of access to intelligence information once Israel is on the outside of the Strip.

"Once in a while we will have to go inside and conquer the place, clean the inside," Rotem said. "I don't know if it will be twice a year or twice a month. It depends on how [many] mortars [they fire]."

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