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Last Updated: Monday, 18 October, 2004, 15:19 GMT 16:19 UK
Analysis: Israel's Gaza strategy
By Barbara Plett
BBC correspondent in Gaza

Israel has scaled down its biggest invasion of the northern Gaza Strip since the beginning of the Palestinian uprising four years ago.

An Israeli tank in the northern Gaza Strip
Israeli troops launched their offensive a fortnight ago

The offensive was ostensibly launched to stop Palestinians from firing home-made rockets into southern Israel, it was expanded when the mortars killed two Israeli children.

But the incursion killed more than 100 Palestinians, at least one third of them civilians, including children.

Why would Israel launch an operation of this scale when it is talking about leaving Gaza?

After all, a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and a small part of the West Bank has become the main policy of the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - his so-called "disengagement plan".

'Recasting' occupation

In Gaza, this means removing Jewish settlers from the interior and redeploying troops to its borders, poised to reinvade if necessary.

"We will not allow them to fire on our civilians, not now, not during evacuation, not after it," said Mr Sharon recently.

A side effect is the creation of a 'sense of losing' on the Palestinian side meant to suppress their wish to fire Qassam rockets or to disturb the evacuation of settlements
Alex Fishman,
Military analyst
"It is essential we change the situation in the Gaza sector," he said.

But in what does this change consist?

Palestinians say the recent offensive shows that Israel is not so much withdrawing the occupation from Gaza as recasting it.

They point out that Israeli armoured vehicles have been patrolling deep inside Palestinian territory. The army says this is to push rocket launchers out of the range of Israeli border towns.

The Palestinians say this is the beginning of a new "security zone", similar to the one Israel occupied in South Lebanon until May 2000.

They fear such a zone will become what Ariel Sharon has called Israel's new "defensible borders" in Gaza.

One of Israel's top military correspondents, Alex Fishman, seems to confirm many of the Palestinian fears.

"The goals of the present operation... are very clear," he wrote in the Yedioth Ahronoth mass circulation daily.

"Along with distancing the Qassam rockets... broadening the security zones around the settlements is also an element. This means either killing the armed cells in these areas or making them flee.

"A side effect of the military pressure... is the creation of a 'sense of losing' on the Palestinian side... meant to suppress their wish to fire Qassam rockets or to disturb the evacuation of settlements."

'Security zone'

In the West Bank, establishing new "defensible borders" appears to mean Israel's territorial expansion, by consolidating large Jewish settlement blocks and incorporating them into Israel, aided by the building of a vast barrier that Israel says is meant to stop Palestinian attacks.
Palestinian rally during a funeral of a man killed in an Israeli raid in Gaza. Archive picture
Many Palestinians have vowed revenge for Israeli raids

"The disengagement from the Gaza Strip along with the construction of the fence in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) will lead to a strategic achievement," said Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz in a newspaper interview.

"The settlements in Judea and Samaria will determine borders," he said.

'Freezing' process

But for that to happen it's crucial Israel isn't blocked by any diplomatic process demanding adherence to international law, which requires a full Israeli withdrawal from all the Palestinian territory it occupied in the 1967 Mid-East War, or at least mutually agreeable borders negotiated with the Palestinians.

It is very possible that after the evacuation (from Gaza), for a very long period there won't be anything else
Ariel Sharon,
Israeli PM

This some Israeli officials feel they have achieved, including Dov Wiesglass, a key advisor to the prime minister who essentially worked out the disengagement plan with the Americans.

"The significance (of the disengagement plan) is the freezing of the political process," he recently told Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper.

"And when you freeze that process you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion about the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package that is called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed from our agenda indefinitely."

Roadmap

Israel still pays lip service to the internationally-backed peace plan known as the roadmap - Mr Sharon has said it's suspended, not dead, and will be revived when Palestinians stop their "terror".

Ariel Sharon
Sharon is determined to press on with his "disengagement plan"

He reaffirmed his commitment to it after the diplomatic furore raised by Mr Weisglass' remarks.

But it's clear his interpretation of the roadmap bears no relation to that of the Palestinians or most of the international community. 

"I don't see terror coming to an end," he said in an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth.

"This is the agreement I reached with (US) President Bush. He promised there would not be any pressure on Israel to accept any plan other than the roadmap," Mr Sharon said.

"And I don't see the Palestinians doing their part in the roadmap. It is very possible that after the evacuation (from Gaza), for a very long period there won't be anything else."


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