- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 17, 2004

JERUSALEM — Israeli and Palestinian leaders are trying to achieve propaganda victories over a plan for Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip, and it could result in more violence and crackdowns before peace is achieved.

Islamic leaders in the Gaza Strip went into hiding yesterday as Israeli troops amassed on its periphery and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered strikes against both the military and political heads of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

“The hunting season has begun,” said a senior Israeli security official.

Although the Israeli deployment comes in the wake of twin suicide bombings Sunday in the port city of Ashdod, which killed 10 Israelis, it is now being viewed by Israel’s leadership in the broader context of Israel’s planned pullout from Gaza and the image it intends to leave behind.

Islamic leaders in Gaza have described Mr. Sharon’s decision to stage a unilateral pullout from the strip as a victory for Palestinian militants. “He’s running like a rabbit,” said a leader of Islamic Jihad last week.

Israel intends to create the opposite impression by maintaining pressure until the pullout, which is expected to take at least a year.

It wants to avoid the perception of a retreat, which is how the Palestinians viewed Israel’s evacuation of southern Lebanon three years ago. Such an impression, it is feared, would increase the militants’ stature in the Palestinian camp and encourage attacks into Israel after the withdrawal.

Palestinian militants have stepped up their activities in the weeks since Mr. Sharon revealed his decision to pull out. Israeli security officials say that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are planning acts of “megaterror” inside Israel to augment the impression that the Israelis are retreating under fire.

A more immediate objective of Israel’s new “active defense” policy is to keep the Palestinian militants, and particularly their leaders, so busy defending themselves that they will have little time to plan attacks on Israel.

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