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DANIEL MANDEL

Retreat from Gaza

SINCE December 2003, Ariel Sharon has astonished friend and foe alike, embracing the very idea he opposed in the elections that confirmed him in power in January 2003.

The idea is ''unilateral disengagement," whereby Israel, without a peace agreement, withdraws its military and civilians from the territories administered by Israel since the 1967 war -- in this case, the Gaza Strip. The Labor opposition's Amram Mitzna lost badly campaigning on this very platform, coming in for incisive criticism from not a few figures, not just among the governing Likud, but from a bevy of informed Israeli observers. To cite just two:

Historian Michael Oren: ''The minute you pull out of Gaza you signal to the Arabs that you're in retreat. It's a huge victory for the Palestinians. Palestinians will have huge celebrations in Gaza. You think they'll sit down and talk after that?"

Respected centrist journalist, Yossi Klein Halevi: ''If unilateral withdrawal could happen in a void, it would be the right decision But it is not happening in a void . . . The psychological implications are to reinforce the post-Lebanon withdrawal perception in the Arab world that we are a defeatist society and with enough pressure we'll simply withdraw."

Indeed, Ariel Sharon himself could not have been clearer at the time: ''A unilateral withdrawal is not a recipe for peace. It is a recipe for war."

If these criticisms are correct, then unilaterally withdrawing from Gaza is a victory for terrorism; bloodshed is likely to flow from it, and Sharon of all people must know it.

What, then, is Sharon's rationale? According to his supporters, both right and left, the withdrawal represents Israel seizing the initiative, setting its own lines of defense, and preempting noxious diplomatic initiatives from Israel's ill-wishers. But all this looks doubtful. True, the Israel Defense Forces will be relieved of the onerous duty of defending isolated Jewish communities in a sea of enemies, but its absence from Gaza will also afford Palestinian terrorist groups a freer hand for mounting further attacks. And an initiative that stimulates the aggression of terrorists will not be altered by its originating in Jerusalem, as the terrorists themselves make clear.

Thus, Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, has opined, ''all the Israeli statements about a withdrawal from Gaza Strip are due to the Palestinian resistance operations. We are completely confident that as the Hezbollah Organization managed to kick the Israeli forces out of Lebanon, the Palestinian resistance will kick them out of the Palestinian territories, and we will continue our resistance."

A top Hamas leader in Gaza, Mahmoud al-Zahar, concurs: ''Very simply, nobody can deny that if Israel is going to leave the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank, that was because of the intifadah, because of the armed struggle, because of the big sacrifices of Hamas for this goal."   Continued...

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