Israeli military warns Sharon against unilateral withdrawal

Special to World
Thursday, February 12, 2004

TEL AVIV Israel's military has warned the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip will increase Palestinian insurgency attacks in the West Bank and Israel.

Israeli officials said the warning was relayed over the last month by Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon, the commander of Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip, Brig. Gen. Gadi Shamni and military intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi Farkash. They said a similar assessment was submitted by National Security Council director Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland.

The military's assessment was that Palestinian insurgency groups would become emboldened by the Israeli withdrawal and would immediately use the Gaza Strip as a launching pad for missile and rocket attacks on Israel. The assessment said the Palestinian Authority would likely lose control over the Gaza Strip and much of the West Bank as Iran and Hizbullah would exploit the absence of an Israeli military presence.

Senior commanders have urged a phased approach that would maintain a significant force in the Gaza Strip. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who has endorsed the principle of a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip was said to have adopted this approach.

On Tuesday, Zeevi-Farkash issued the most public warning by the military of an Israeli unilateral withdrawal. The military intelligence chief told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that such a move would bolster what he termed terrorism in the Gaza Strip.

"The Palestinians see this as a victory for terrorism," Zeevi-Farkash was quoted as saying in the closed hearing. "This will bolster the legitimacy of terrorism in the view of Islamic elements in Gaza. They see this as a surrender to terrorism, and this gives them motivation to perpetrate more terrorism to achieve additional diplomatic gains."

The intelligence chief said the Gaza Strip could become chaotic after an Israeli withdrawal. He envisioned a power struggle between Fatah and Hamas as well as within Fatah for control of the Gaza Strip.

In his testimony, Zeevi-Farkash presented another scenario in the aftermath of an Israeli withdrawal. This would result in international pressure on Palestinian insurgency groups to end attacks on Israel.

Officials said this was the first public assessment by the military of the Sharon plan. They said Ya'alon and other senior military commanders relayed similar assessments to Sharon and key Cabinet members.

The testimony by Zeevi-Farkash sparked a storm within the Knesset and government. Aides to Sharon were alarmed over the assessment by Zeevi-Farkash and said neither he nor his superiors had expressed such a position. Hours later, an Israeli military statement said his assessment to the Knesset panel was misunderstood.

[On Wednesday, an Israeli air and armored force resumed operations in Gaza City and in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah. In all, Israeli troops were said to have killed 10 suspected Palestinian insurgents three of them in uniforms of the Palestinian Authority police.]

Sharon's national security adviser, Eiland, has also warned against a unilateral withdrawal, officials said. Eiland has been authorized to draft a plan for such an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. The plan was meant to be submitted for review by the United States.

"A unilateral retreat without anything in exchange will not solve anything," Eiland was quoted as saying by the Israeli daily Hatsofe.

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