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Gaza pullout is relatively smooth

Posted: Monday, August 22, 2005

JERUSALEM — So far Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza is as significant for what did not happen as for what did.

No major attacks from Palestinian militants. No use of weapons by settlers. No significant disruption of life inside Israel. No mass refusal of soldiers to carry out orders.

The army credits preparation and training for the relatively smooth pullout. But there are deeper reasons, too: Palestinians do not want to do anything to endanger the return of their land, and Israelis are reluctant to raise a hand against their own army.

Israel’s historic pullout from the Gaza Strip and parts of the northern West Bank is playing out with lightning speed. An operation that was supposed to take a month was nearly complete in 2 1/2 days, with 19 of 25 settlements slated for removal emptied before the weekend.

It has not gone off without a hitch. Protesters threw skin-burning paint thinner on troops at Kfar Darom, a settler with an M-16 rifle threatened to shoot soldiers, and hundreds of anguished youths kicked and locked arms to fight officers hauling them from Gaza’s biggest synagogue.

Still, Jewish extremists are aware the perception of an easy pullout could create momentum for further Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank, and that could prod them to violence in the final days of an evacuation the government now hopes to wrap up by Tuesday.

In recent days, a 19-year-old soldier in northern Israel fatally shot four Israeli Arabs on a bus, and a Jewish settler in the West Bank killed four Palestinian laborers. Authorities fear extremists might try to stage an even more spectacular attack to show withdrawals exact a price.

Among the nightmare scenarios would be an attack on the holy site in Jerusalem known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. A major assault there would enrage Muslims across the entire Middle East and threaten peace efforts.

At the moment, the main danger appears to come from Jewish extremists who believe Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has betrayed a divine promise: that the land being given up belongs to the Jews.

Israel captured the Gaza Strip and Sinai from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria during the 1967 Mideast war, a conflict that lasted six days — about the same time it will take Israel to evict the Gaza settlers. Sinai was handed back to Egypt in 1982 as part of peace treaty signed three years earlier.

Although Israel originally said it would hand back all those territories in exchange for peace, nationalist and religious Jews began lobbying to build settlements on land they deemed essential to Israeli security and belonging to the Jews by biblical birthright. The first settlers moved into the West Bank in 1968 and into Gaza in the mid-1970s.

Still to be evacuated next week are two settlements in the northern West Bank, Sanur and Homesh, where residents and their supporters are expected to put up stiff resistance. They see giving up West Bank land — the heart of biblical Israel — as particularly calamitous.

‘‘Over there we’re talking about a lot of vigilantes,’’ military spokeswoman Sharon Feingold said. ‘‘We hope very much that we will not have extreme situations there, but it’s a different story.’’

Palestinian extremists also have a motive for violence: to create the impression that Israel is withdrawing under fire. But if they were going to stage a major attack during the Gaza pullout they probably would have done so already.

Gaza’s 1.3 million Palestinians have suffered greatly during the past five years of Israeli-Palestinian violence, and leaders of militant groups are sensitive to their yearnings to get the Israelis out so they can begin rebuilding their lives.

Also helping mitigate against militant violence is the surprisingly effective cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces.

‘‘On the ground, army officers on both sides are working very well together,’’ said a senior Sharon adviser, Assaf Shariv.

So far, the Israeli military’s largest non-combat operation has been characterized by restraint and patience on the part of soldiers and only limited violence from protesters. Amid the ubiquitous scenes of troops hauling off screaming protesters by their arms and legs, settlers and soldiers also hugged each other and cried together.

The army’s show of overwhelming force undoubtedly played a role. Some 55,000 soldiers and police are involved in the operation, evacuating numerous settlements at the same time.

Feelings about Jewish unity and reverence for the army also help explain the lack of significant violence, political analyst Mark Heller said.

‘‘I think in the back of everyone’s mind is a clear understanding that Israel is still in a hostile environment, still faces all kinds of threats,’’ he said.

Before the pullout, many had feared opponents would tie up traffic throughout Israel and divert security forces from the Gaza operation. That has not happened, perhaps because the military’s speed caught protesters off guard. In addition, many extremists slipped into Gaza to make a last stand, allowing troops to deal with them there rather than chase after them elsewhere.

The compassion that Israeli troops showed for Jewish settlers, even those putting up resistance, was painful for Palestinians, who have suffered at the hands of Israeli forces.

Palestinian senior negotiator Saeb Erekat asked, ‘‘If they were Palestinians in this position how would the Israeli army treat them?’’



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