Fri, Sep 02, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Early days for withdrawal as tensions mount


A lethal arrest raid, a suicide bombing, fresh land expropriations, a threatening Hamas video: That's the follow-up so far to Israel's historic Gaza pullout.

Rather than seize the moment to jump-start negotiations, Israelis and Palestinians appear to be falling into a familiar pattern of violence and rhetoric. Still, the withdrawal from Jewish settlements in Gaza is of such significance that even the latest spasms are unlikely to torpedo all momentum for peace.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won praise for fulfilling his pledge -- in a dramatic, breakneck sweep that ended last week -- to evacuate 8,500 settlers from the Gaza Strip and another 500 from the northern West Bank. Now the Israeli leader wants to send a very clear message that terrorism won't be tolerated and that major West Bank settlement blocs will remain Israeli.

"Israel cannot return to the '67 or '48 borders, because of the settlements," Sharon said in an interview on Monday, referring to Israel's frontiers before it captured Gaza, the West Bank and other lands. "The settlement blocs will remain in sovereign Israel. They are of vital strategic importance."

He added, however, that some other settlements would have to go in a final peace deal.

Sharon's critics say now is the time to capitalize on the goodwill created by the Gaza evacuation, not to flex muscles. Many fear the two sides already have begun to squander a unique historical opportunity. And the recent friction has brought home the pitfalls of trying to get Israelis and Palestinians together after five years of trust-destroying violence.

Both sides say they're still prepared to talk, however. Officials said a meeting is possible between Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas when the two are in New York this month to address the UN.

And Sharon's withdrawal, ending 38 years of Israeli presence in the Gaza Strip, is likely to have long-lasting ripple effects on peacemaking that could weather some setbacks. With the settlers gone, the army is expected to complete its own pullout in the coming days.

"We understand that Mr. Sharon has to show the Israeli people that he is conceding on one side and strengthening his position on the other," Palestinian chief of staff Rafiq Husseini told reporters. "That worries us, but I think that in the end, justice will have to prevail."

Officials on both sides expressed hope that the pullout would create momentum for a return to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Then, an Israeli arrest raid in the West Bank town of Tulkarem deteriorated into a shootout that killed five Palestinians, and a suicide bombing on Sunday critically wounded two security guards at a bus station in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba.

That bombing came a day after Hamas militants in Gaza released a videotape purportedly showing their top bombmaker, Mohammed Deif, celebrating the Gaza pullout as a victory for armed resistance and threatening more attacks until Israel is destroyed. Deif has been in hiding from Israeli security forces since 1992.

And Israel, just two days after the last Gaza settler was evacuated, announced plans to confiscate Palestinian land around the West Bank's largest Jewish settlement to build a separation barrier that would, in effect, annex it to Jerusalem. Israel also said it would build a police station between the settlement, Maaleh Adumim, and Jerusalem -- another step that alarmed Palestinians.

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