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ISRAEL DEBATES EARLY GAZA WITHDRAWAL

PM Cabinet Ministers Olmert & Peres: 'Government Should Now Consider Withdrawal Before August 17th'

Some 30,000 Protesters Near Gaza Go Home Quietly

Protestor Stoped Near Gaza (Photo: Motti Sender)

Two top Israeli cabinet ministers propose that Israel withdraw from the Gaza Strip and 4 West Bank settlements before the scheduled date of August 17th. Labor's Shimon Peres first raised the issue and the Likud's Ehud Olmert agrees. Meanwhile, over 30,000 withdrawal protesters have ended their three-demonstration and gone home after Israeli soldiers and policemen blocked them from entering the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, that are to soon be evacuated.

Should the Israeli government now decide to evacuate the Gaza Strip and 4 West Bank settlements before August 17th? Two leading cabinet ministers say Yes. Vice Premier Shimon Peres of Labor first came up the idea and Deputy Premier Ehud Olmert of the Likud agrees. Olmert argues the government can now legally start the controversial pull-out that has been postponed in consideration for religious settlers who mark a period of holy days. But Olmert argues that this time extension is now being exploited for huge protests against the disengagement. This has 'disrupted the life of all Israeli citizens' and some 15,000 IDF troops and policemen had to be assigned to barring the protesters from entering the Gaza settlements before the evacuation.

Meanwhile, settler leaders say although they were stopped this time they'll keep trying. So, what are the chances that Prime Minister Sharon will opt for any early withdrawal? He has defeated the latest drive by the opponents to his withdrawal plan. The tens of thousands of protesters were forced to pack up and go home after being stymied by the huge security forces that kept them penned inside the settler tent camp for three days in the blazing sun. It had turned into a massive outing with many of the settlers arriving with their children; but they had not anticipated the successful blocking operation and could only hold out for a couple of days.

But if Sharon has won, it was a unanimous decision rather than a knockout of the protesters who promise to be back. Both the settlers and security forces acted with utmost restraint in a very tense situation that could have easily boiled over into violence and bloodshed. There were touching cases of IDF officers and soldiers, who themselves live in the Gaza settlements, blocking their own parents and brothers and sisters on the other side. A number of soldiers who refused to obey orders are facing court-martial. However, although the Gaza vigil was less sensitive than the actual withdrawal it was a flashpoint and lends hope that a civil war over the disengagement will be averted. Nonetheless, tempers are running high in this summer heat wave. The editor of the Hazofeh religious newspaper carries an editorial charging 'Sharon is not a (decent) person but an outright dictator'. Pinchas Wallerstien, an influential settler leader agrees. Ehud Olmert has lashed out at both saying they are 'guilty of spilling Sharon's blood' and warning that their unbridled incitement recalls the campaign that led to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

Coupled with his victory in quelling the Gaza demonstration, Sharon is also riding high after the Knesset voted down decisively proposals to further delay the withdrawal. This was a last-ditch attempt by Likud 'rebels' to stall the evacuation. The Knesset begins its summer recess at the end of July making it very difficult, if not impossible, for any fresh parliamentary moves. Sharon is a master of 'waging war by deception' and he may be pondering moving up the evacuation;

IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz says the military is now prepared. The Gaza case indicates how trying the protests can be and there are still another very tense days to go; Peres and Olmert have raised some trial balloons. However, an early evacuation would enrage the settlers and perhaps spark a bloody confrontation that both sides successfully averted at Kfar Maimon, the settler tent camp near Gaza this week.

David Essing

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