Withdrawal imperils security of Jewish state

Last week the Shin Bet released information regarding operational planning by Islamic Jihad aimed at launching terrorist attacks against Israeli targets from fishing rafts in Gaza.

The Iranian-backed group had allocated $500,000 to the plan, which involved purchasing motorized fishing rafts from which it would conduct shooting and grenade attacks against Israeli civilian targets and military installations along the coastline. The group enlisted the assistance of a Gaza fisherman to train and outfit the terrorists, who would act under the cover of normal fishing activities off the Gaza coast. The plot was exposed when Israeli forces arrested the fisherman in Gaza.

Now that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has embraced the Labor Party’s platform of unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, it is necessary to ask: How could Israeli forces have possibly thwarted this plot if they weren’t operating in the Gaza Strip? Sharon’s newest plan to remove all Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip is rife with troubling moral and ideological dimensions.

The notion that Jews should be forced out of their homes and communities anywhere in the world is offensive. The notion that the Jewish state would order the forced transfer and destruction of Jewish communities is uniquely appalling.

Putting aside the moral, ideological and spiritual issues, there are other no less troubling implications of Sharon’s plan to pull out of Gaza. These span from the tactical to the strategic to the diplomatic spheres of Israel’s struggle against its enemies.

Opponents of the Jewish communities in Gaza often point to the large military forces deployed for their protection. “It takes an entire battalion to defend Netzarim” (a settlement of some 60 families) is one of the most frequent statements to this effect.

A senior Israel Defense Forces commander pointed out to me this week that this oft-repeated statement ignores the larger picture. “Our forces in the settlements don’t just guard homes. We use the settlements as forward bases to combat terrorists. If we didn’t have the settlements, we would have to form them ourselves.”

Since the outbreak of the Palestinian terror war, 57 percent of all terror attacks have emanated from the Gaza Strip. The most popular and strongest group in the area is Hamas. Military sources have warned in recent weeks and months that Hamas is poised to take over the entire area from the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

And yet, Palestinian and military sources admit that in Gaza, the distinctions between the various terror cells have long ceased to be operationally significant. From a tactical perspective, an Israeli retreat from Gaza would provide safe havens for all these forces. Gaza would become a carbon copy of South Lebanon.

The Palestinian preparations for the war in 2000 are stark reminders of this fact. In the months before Arafat launched hostilities in September 2000, Palestinian forces in Gaza conducted six battalion-level exercises, simulating urban warfare operations; attacks on Israeli settlements and military installations; seizure of land and combined infantry-armored offensives using the armored personnel carriers they had received as part of the Oslo accords.

These exercises were a marked escalation of their regular training regimens. Until 2000, these training regimens rarely went above the company level.

Today, with IDF forces stationed in Gaza choke points, such full-scale exercises are inconceivable. But if the IDF were to leave Gaza and take the settlements with it, these exercises would become a daily occurrence. So from a tactical perspective, a withdrawal from Gaza would be a windfall for the terrorists operating inside the territory.

Proponents of a pullout from Gaza have often argued that Gaza has no strategic value to Israel. They point to the geographical isolation of the area and explain that in contrast to Judea and Samaria, Gaza can be hermetically sealed off. If we leave, so the thinking goes, we can lock the door and throw away the key.

By every possible measure, Gaza is a burden. With arguably the highest birthrate in the world, half of the population of 1.2 million is under the age of 15. Gaza has no natural resources to point to. Sixty percent of the population is impoverished. Why should Israel be there?

In 2002, Sharon himself provided the answer, declaring, “Netzarim is the same as … Tel Aviv. Evacuating Netzarim will only encourage terrorism and increase the pressure upon us.”

Cutting and running is not an option when one’s enemies take any retreat as a sign of strategic decline and military weakness. So while Gaza could conceivably be sealed, although only at great economic and political cost, the effects of such a move on Israel’s strategic posture would be devastating.

Proving this point, Fatah terrorists told Ma’ariv last week, “Sharon refers to this as a withdrawal. We call it a capitulation. He wouldn’t retreat of his own free will. This decision was made because of the will of the Palestinian people.”

For his part, Sharon has argued that the urgency of the withdrawal stems from increased international pressure to impose a settlement on Israel. Such a “settlement” would involve a full Israeli withdrawal from Judea and Samaria as well. In announcing his intention to retreat in Gaza, Sharon argues that he is heading off an even more devastating strategic retreat.

Yet from the international reactions to Sharon’s plan, there is little reason to think that this is in fact the case. Last week, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, “Removing settlements can help us move down the road toward the vision [of two-states] but it can’t be seen in isolation … from other steps on settlements and other steps … that both parties need to take to achieve a negotiated solution.”

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan also sees Sharon’s plan as “a first step because withdrawal from the West Bank will also be required.” And so, as the immediate international reactions to Sharon’s plan make clear, a withdrawal from Gaza will not stem the tide of demands on Israel to vacate Judea and Samaria. To the contrary, it will signal Israeli willingness to do so.

It is hard to understand what happened to make Sharon ignore the dangerous consequences of his plan to withdraw from Gaza. Quite simply, it makes no sense. But it is the responsibility of his Cabinet ministers to remind him of these consequences and to make it clear to the prime minister that he ignores these ramifications at the peril not only of his political future, but at the peril of the security of the state.

Caroline Glick is the deputy managing editor of The Jerusalem Post, where this column previously appeared.