By Herb Keinon, Margot Dudkevitch, and Janine Zacharia
JERUSALEM (April 18) – The IDF late last night began pulling out of the positions in Gaza that it reoccupied Monday night, with an official in the Prime Minister’s Office saying that it was because “the mission was completed.”
Various IDF officers said throughout yesterday that the goal of the operation had been to push Sderot out of mortar range. An IDF statement last night said that, after completing its mission, the IDF was pulling its forces out of the Gaza Strip and redeploying them to their previous positions. It added that the IDF views the Palestinian Authority as being directly responsible for what occurs in the area and expects it to prevent all terror activities, especially shooting at Israeli communities, civilians, and soldiers.
The withdrawal came within hours of a statement issued by US Secretary of State Colin Powell calling on Israel to pull back its troops. Powell issued a statement criticizing Israel’s actions in Gaza Monday night as “excessive and disproportionate,” but said that they were “precipitated by the provocative Palestinian mortar attacks.” He called on “both sides to respect the agreements they’ve signed.”
For the Palestinians, he said, “this includes implementing their commitment to renounce terrorism and violence, to exercise control over all elements of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority, and to discipline violators.” For the Israelis,”this includes respecting their commitment to withdraw from Gaza according to terms of the agreements signed by Israel and the Palestinians. There can be no military solution to this conflict.”
Senior diplomatic sources denied that the pullout was being conducted under American pressure, noting that it had been set by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon before the US announcement.
Sharon was reportedly angry with Gaza battalion commander Brig.-Gen Yair Naveh for telling reporters yesterday that IDF forces could stay in Palestinian-controlled areas for “days, weeks, or months.” Military sources said the Gaza Strip would remain divided into three sectors, preventing Palestinians from travelling from one side of to the other.
The far-reaching air, sea, and land operation targeting Palestinian security installations in Gaza and establishing new outposts on Monday night was from the outset termed a temporary defensive mission. The IDF last night began withdrawing troops from Beit Hanoun and from areas where troops had set up encampments. Operations were expected to be completed sometime this morning.
Security officials last night were surprised by the sudden decision. One official declared that the government had capitulated to US pressure and to its statements condemning Israel’s actions in Gaza.
“The decision is not only humiliating, but it will have repercussions in the future, and the army will have to realize that any operations it launches maybe changed at the last minute. It is extremely humiliating for the army.”
Another official said Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer had not been informed of the decision until a later stage. However, the official noted, “from the outset it was stressed that the operation was temporary, and it is important for Israel to receive international legitimization for its actions.”
Powell warned that the situation in the Middle East – exacerbated by the Hizbullah attack on Israeli forces, the IDF attack on Syrian positions, the ongoing Palestinian mortar attacks, and Monday night’s raid on Gaza – was threatening to spin out of control and posed “a risk of broader conflict.”
Powell said that the US continues to “strongly believe that the resumption of bilateral security cooperation is essential to reduce and eventually end the violence. We are continuing to work with the parties so that they can resume as soon as possible the security discussions they began two weeks ago.”
One diplomatic official, however, said that currently there is no serious attempt to bring the sides together for high-level security talks. A security meeting scheduled for Monday night was canceled by the Palestinians prior to the mortar attack on Sderot, according to Israeli officials.
Ra’anan Gissin, a Sharon aide, said that despite the US statement, Israel reserves the right of self-defense. He stressed that the mortar attack had come at the height of the evening rush hour, in an attempt to indiscriminately kill as many people as possible.
Gissin also said that Powell’s statement clearly points the finger of blame at the Palestinians. “You have to look at the whole statement, and not just the words ‘excessive and disproportionate response,’ ” Gissin said. “Powell said that the provocative Palestinian mortar attacks precipitated the Israeli reaction, and makes clear that it was the Palestinians who provoked the attack.”
While the US reaction was viewed by some in the Prime Minister’s Office as balanced, the same could not be said of a scathing attack on Sharon leveled yesterday by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
After meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat in Sharm e-Sheikh, Mubarak blasted Sharon for “troublemaking” tactics, which he said could only intensify regional violence.
“If Sharon wants peace and security for the Israeli people, then I tell him that this way will not achieve peace for the Israeli people or neighboring nations,” Mubarak told state media.
“[The Israelis] want to make trouble for all those around them… I tell Sharon ‘no.’ That is a thing of the past,” he said. “If Israel thinks it will stop violence in that way, violence will increase everywhere.”
Mubarak voiced pessimism about prospects for bringing Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table soon. Asked if Egypt would pursue contacts to contain the violence, he said, “We will try as much as we can.” The Egyptian leader called on Sharon to be “realistic,” saying that aggression would be translated into more violence and that Sharon was adopting a misguided policy.
Mubarak also reacted angrily to reports quoting General Security Service head Avi Dichter as saying at Monday’s cabinet meeting that the Egyptians were turning a blind eye to weapons smuggling into the Palestinian Authority.
“I want to tell Sharon not to try to stray into forbidden territory… All this is provocative behavior,” Mubarak declared.
The Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement clarifying what Dichter had said, saying that he never made the remarks attributed to him, and that Dichter said the smuggling of weapons from Egypt to the Palestinian Authority is made possible by various individuals in the border area who are influenced by Palestinians involved in the smuggling.
The statement added that “Israel is interested in peace with Egypt, as well as in promoting it.” Meanwhile, Zalman Shoval, a foreign policy adviser to Sharon, said Arafat is interested in keeping violence high not only in order to bring about an internationalization of the conflict, but also in order to win himself a visit with US President George W. Bush.
“The government must now cope with Arafat’s well known strategy, which is to increase the wave of violence in order to bring about international pressure on Israel, and also in order to get himself invited to Washington,” said Shoval. “As a senior Palestinian member of Arafat’s entourage recently said, ‘We are going to pave our way to the White House with blood, sweat and tears.’ ”
According to this logic, Arafat hopes to stir the pot to such an extent that the US president will be forced to invite him the Washington. As one senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office put it, Arafat’s policy can be termed, “I shoot, therefore I am.”
“This strategy is not working” said Shoval, “because the American administration, and I would say at least some members of the European Union, understand that Arafat is the cause of the increased violence.”
One diplomatic official said that, although he doubts whether an increase in the violence will gain Arafat access to Bush, it could force Powell to make another visit to the region soon.