Israel outlines security consequences of Gaza withdrawal

Special to World
Friday, March 12, 2004

JERUSALEM Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has received the first comprehensive draft of a plan for an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, a study in which his advisors envision stark consequences in wake of any unilateral pullout.

The report, drafted by a panel headed by National Security Adviser Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, raises the prospect of Palestinian insurgency groups using the airport and sea ports in the Gaza Strip to smuggle anti-aircraft missiles and heavy weapons.

Other scenarios raised in the report include widespread unrest in the Gaza Strip amid Israel's refusal to allow Palestinian laborers into the Jewish state. The report also raised the prospect that an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip would bolster irredentist trends in the Israeli Arab community, which comprise nearly 20 percent of the Jewish state.

The draft was discussed on Thursday by Sharon during his more than three-hour meeting with U.S. National Security Council members Elliot Abrams and Stephen Hadley and Assistant Secretary of State William Burns. The U.S. visit was part of the Bush administration's efforts to win a series of commitments from Sharon that any unilateral withdrawal would not destabilize the region.

"Everything that is raised must be consonant with the Bush plan and this has been agreed upon," Amos Gilad, head of the Israeli Defense Ministry's political-military unit, said.

Officials said Sharon sought to gauge the extent of U.S. economic and political support for the Israeli unilateral withdrawal plan. They said the administration has been cautious in its response and suggested that Israel draft a plan for a withdrawal from most of the West Bank as well as the entire Gaza Strip.

[On Friday, the Egyptian state-owned Al Ahram daily reported that Israel intends to begin the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank by July 2004. Earlier, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, during his visit to Cairo, briefed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on the Sharon withdrawal plan.]

The Eiland draft first detailed in the Israeli daily Maariv on Thursday did not support Sharon's drive for a full withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Instead, the draft envisioned Israeli retention of the northern Gaza Strip, where three Israeli communities are located, as well as a bolstered military presence along the Egyptian border near the southern Gaza town of Rafah.

The draft also called on Sharon to offer the United States the dismantling of up to 20 Israeli communities in the West Bank in an effort to form a viable Palestinian state.

The Eiland report presented a range of threats that could emerge from a unilateral withdrawal. Threat scenarios included the bolstering of Palestinian insurgency groups and their motivation to attack Israel; a decline of the Palestinian Authority and its replacement by Hamas; the enhancement of the Palestinian weapons industry, particularly the extension of the range of the Kassam-class short-range missile.

Other scenarios raised by the plan included damage to Israel's intelligence-gathering capabilities as well as the collapse of basic services in the Gaza Strip. The draft warned that Israel would be blamed for any humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian areas.

Eiland and his team appeared concerned over the prospect that Israel would also lose considerable military capabilities and still remain under heavy international pressure. Any pullout, the draft said, must be linked to an agreement by Washington and its allies that they would end pressure on Israel for further withdrawal until the Palestinians agree to peace with and full security for the Jewish state. The draft also recommended an international commitment to press the Palestinians to dismantle the insurgency network.

"I believe that the backing of the U.S. to this plan is very important for us," Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said after meeting U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in Washington on Thursday. "And I described all the positive issues regarding to this plan that the prime minister is leading in this time."

In a preamble to the report, Sharon outlined his aims for a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. They included a long-term improvement in Israel's security and increase in international support for the Jewish state. Sharon was said to have urged that any withdrawal must be conducted in a way that does not appear as if Israel was surrendering to insurgency groups.

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