- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 27, 2004

On Sunday, the Israeli Cabinet will vote on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s revised plan for removal of settlements in Gaza. The scaled-down plan calls for a gradual withdrawal from Gaza in four phases; the first phase, to be voted on by the cabinet Sunday, entails a withdrawal from three or four small Gaza settlements.

In the next three phases, Israel will withdraw from remaining Gaza settlements; withdraw troops stationed in Gaza to protect the settlements; and withdraw from four small settlements in the northern part of the West Bank. Each phase will be voted on separately by the Cabinet.

It needs to be understood that Operation Rainbow — the large-scale Israeli military operation in southern Gaza that ended earlier this week — is an integral component of Mr. Sharon’s plan to withdraw Israeli settlements from Gaza. While Mr. Sharon remains committed to leaving Gaza, he is determined not to repeat the mistakes made by his predecessor, Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who unilaterally withdrew from southern Lebanon four years ago this week, under relentless attack from the Hezbollah terrorist organization.

Although Israeli casualties in Lebanon fell following the pullout, Hezbollah’s victory had disastrous consequences elsewhere. It helped persuade Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat that he stood to gain more from terrorism and violence than from negotiating with Israel — helping trigger the collapse of President Clinton’s peace plan and the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian war on September 29, 2000. During the war, Hezbollah — with the support of Iran and Syria — has stepped up its cooperation with Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups in the West Bank and Gaza. This has included explosives training and smuggling of armaments to enable the Palestinians to carry out suicide attacks and other strikes against Israel.

By launching a robust military campaign to destroy weapons-smuggling tunnels along the border separating Gaza and Egypt, Mr. Sharon seeks to prevent a situation in which Israel is perceived as being weak. But the most critical reason for the campaign (which is likely to be repeated in the months ahead, whether settlements remain in Gaza or not) is to deny the terrorists the ability to smuggle long-range weapons into Gaza for use against nearby Israeli cities. Israel’s failure to do that before withdrawing from Lebanon has resulted in Hezbollah being able to deploy missiles capable of reaching Haifa — an area where much of Israel’s industrial capacity is located. Mr. Sharon is understandably determined to prevent Hezbollah and its friends from doing this in the south.

This week Egyptian Intelligence boss Omar Suleiman met with Mr. Sharon to discuss the possibility that Egypt would help to police the Gaza border to prevent weapons smuggling. Until now, Cairo’s reluctance to do this has enabled the security problem in Gaza to fester. Were Egypt to play a more constructive role in policing its side of the border, it could help bring stability to that war-torn area.

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