Stripped of Gaza, What Then?

The withdrawal was completed. The settlers were evacuated. The demonstrators were removed. The delegations met. All that remained was to transfer control from the Israeli side, which was ending the occupation, to the Arab side.

The withdrawal was completed. The settlers were evacuated. The demonstrators were removed. The delegations met. All that remained was to transfer control from the Israeli side, which was ending the occupation, to the Arab side. At that moment the Arabs put forward another demand: "An official delivery certificate." Without it, they said, they would refuse to accept responsibility for the territory. The American who was at the site was recruited, the document was drawn up and signed, and Egypt finally agreed to accept from Israel one used Sinai in pretty poor shape.

That was on April 25, 1982. David Graham, the legal adviser to the multinational force in Sinai, which had then begun to operate from the evacuated Eitam air force base, was the one who was able to avert an unnecessary complication and save the day. The force's Norwegian commander, General Fredrik Bull-Hansen, who was as taken aback as the Israelis at the new Egyptian condition, recovered quickly and announced, after a few tense minutes, that there would be a break of a quarter of an hour, and that when the sides reconvened, the required document would be ready.

And so it was, as related in a book about American military advocates-general in combat during the past few decades. The continuation of the story, though, is not told. Graham completed his tour of duty and returned home, and the government of Menachem Begin, Ariel Sharon and the chief of staff, Rafael Eitan, compensated itself for the withdrawal from Sinai and Israel's demolition of the settlement of Yamit by invading Lebanon. Eighteen years later, when Israel withdrew from Lebanon, the violent confrontation with the Palestinians was exacerbated. Peace that is not comprehensive and multi-arena, and a move that is not agreed but unilateral, turns out to be a momentary satisfaction that fades into the black gall of the morning after.

The prospect of implementing Prime Minister Sharon's declaration - that he intends to pull Israel out of the Gaza Strip within months - appears smaller than the prospect that he will keep his word. For the past three years, he has been under investigation by the police for alleged bribery and other offenses, and in the past few weeks he has become a central figure in drafts of indictments prepared by the State Prosecutor's Office. The essential question is not whether he will spend time in prison, but whether he will continue to spend time in the prime minister's residence. His successor will not be committed to his plan. The weakened Sharon will not generate sufficient momentum to kick-start the move so that it can be completed.

The life of government and politics is now having its revenge on the man who marketed himself as "Mr. Security" but brought very little security. As a military man, Sharon wants to behave like the commander of the Marines division in the Iraq war, General Jim Mattis, who in one of the battles used a brigade as a diversion to lure a Republican Guard force into a trap. The brigade commander, Colonel Joe Dowdy, wasn't enthused about this maneuver: he knew that the death of every soldier under his command would be in vain, even if in the service of the divisional mission. His concern for his troops was costly - in a rare move, he was relieved of command in the field.

Sharon is now ready to sacrifice the brigade - Gaza - for the benefit of the division, the West Bank; but the commanders under him are not relying on the good judgment of the divisional chief. The evaluations being voiced by senior officials in the Shin Bet security service and by senior officers in the Israel Defense Forces are frustrating Sharon - who said exactly the same thing for decades, until a different truth was revealed to him. They are devoting greater energy to describing the gloomy developments behind the withdrawal from Gaza than they are in planning it.

In the scenarios of the General Staff and the Southern Command, even if all the settlers should disappear from Gaza by some wave of a magic wand, and the division moves to the eastern side of the fence (where it can be shrunk into a brigade), the fighting will continue and the withdrawal will be replaced by an invasion. What will happen, these scenarios say, is that the law of preservation of hostility will come into play. The calming of the sectors of the settlements and their access roads will not eliminate the determination of the Palestinians to take action against Israel, but will only channel it into the remaining sectors - or into new ones. The unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, which was made possible by the absence of settlements there - and whose true meaning was the recoil from a large-scale, agreed, conflict-ending withdrawal from the Golan Heights - did not put an end to Hezbollah attacks; it only relocated them from the north to the territories. Galilee's big gain was the even bigger loss of the center of the country.

Without settlers and soldiers in the Gaza Strip, the friction with the Palestinians will be reduced, which is a good thing, but the base for hostile actions will grow, and in the eyes of the IDF and the Shin Bet that is a very bad thing indeed. Gaza could turn into a Palestinian Cape Kennedy, becoming a launching pad for mortar shells and Qassam rockets. A partial list of communities into whose populated or tilled areas or areas near them warheads have fallen includes: Sderot, Yad Mordechai, Erez, Miflasim, Kfar Aza, Nir Am, Hanal Oz, Nirim, Be'eri, Re'im, Alumim, Nir Oz, Or Haner, Gavim and Netiv Ha'asara.

This is the counter-weapon, the external stimulus for a renewed invasion, but the internal stimulus, too, will remain, because the big Achilles heel of an evacuation of Gaza is Rafah. In the agreement that was concluded with the certificate formulated by Major Graham, Israel retained the buffer between Egypt and Gaza. Israel is appalled by the thought of a Palestinian border with Egypt and with Jordan. At the Allenby Bridge transit station, where responsibility is divided between Palestinians and Israelis - almost the last vestige of the period of security cooperation - tension between the guard shifts is high. This week in Cairo, Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter sought signs of Egyptian willingness to accept joint responsibility with the Palestinians for a border between them, but chances for that are slim.

In the four months of Israel's occupation of Gaza during the Sinai War, Israel took a revolutionary decision, which under American pressure was quickly swept away into a complete withdrawal. A few years ago, researcher Yaakov Toubi documented readiness by the government of David Ben-Gurion to partially drop its opposition to settle Gaza refugees in Israel, in return for world acceptance of Israel's continued control of the Gaza Strip (the administration there was supposed to be a "triangle": Israel, local and United Nations). Holding on to Gaza and separating it from Israel's major enemy, Egypt, was considered even more important than the principle that refugees could not return.

Similarly, after the reconquest of Gaza a decade later, in 1967, the Egyptian threat was perceived to be greater than the Palestinian one. Hence the establishment, near the place where the Gaza Strip meets Egypt, of Gush Katif, the bloc of Israeli settlements, supposedly as an eternal fact; hence also the IDF's responsibility for guarding the line of contact between Egypt and Palestine, which on the maps is called the "Philadelphia" axis. In the genealogy of the army, it's the grandchild of "Tempo" axis in the northern part of the Suez Canal during the War of Attrition.

A long wall protects the movement of IDF units along the axis. Ahead of the withdrawal from the southwestern settlements (Bnei Atzmon and Rafiah Yam), the wall will be extended to the seashore, a distance of just four kilometers, and two more army outposts will be built. The Palestinians will obtain and smuggle in, or fire from the Egyptian side, antitank missiles, as advanced and as lethal as the Hezbollah missiles during the fighting in Lebanon, and will hit Israeli armored vehicles. They will continue digging tunnels under the border and carving out underground passageways leading to IDF outposts, in order to blow them up with explosive charges. The IDF will knock down another row of Palestinian homes in order to expose the hiding place of the diggers, but by doing so will only increase the community of those who hate it. This will achieve a tiny addition of 60 meters, a challenge the diggers can live with. It will end - and even then it will not end - in a major operation involving large-scale destruction and killing.

Senior officials of the Palestinian Authority, such as Jibril Rajoub, are trying to reassure Israel by promising that PA units will take control of Gaza. Rajoub is flagrantly dismissive of Hezbollah ("They are Shi'ites. We are Sunnis") and of the threat latent in Hamas. However, his major rival is the head of the southern branch of Fatah-Tanzim, Mohammed Dahlan, and even if Rajoub repositions himself at the head of the northern branch, in partnership with Marwan Barghouti and still in subordination to Yasser Arafat, his grip on Gaza will be weak. Dahlan, the Prince of Gaza, did not carry through his promise to seize control there in the brief summer of the Abu Mazen government.

Sharon, too - if he survives in office and leads the withdrawal plan through the political labyrinth - will have a problem of control. It's not the 7,000 settlers in Gaza who will disrupt the execution of the withdrawal, but their tens of thousands of ideological partners from the West Bank and the Golan Heights. They are supposed to be dealt with by the Israel Police, whose forces will block the access routes from the West Bank to Gaza and isolate the field of battle.