Thursday afternoon 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 $500,000 allocated to the plan which involved the purchase of 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 Gaza fisherman Iyad Alwan 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 Aluwan 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. As is the case in Judea and Samaria, Jewish settlement in Gaza dates back to biblical times. Kfar Darom, perhaps the most demonized settlement in Gaza was originally founded before the establishment of Israel. The community fell to Egyptian forces in 1948 after a prolonged siege. Like the settlements in Gush Etzion in Judea which were ethnically cleansed and razed by the British commanded Arab Legion in the War of Independence, Kfar Darom was reestablished after Israel's victory in the 1967 Six Day War.
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. Yet, the moral, ideological and spiritual dimensions of Sharon's latest plan are aspects that can be discussed elsewhere. In our post-moral, anti-ideological culture, such considerations are considered passe, somehow beyond the pale of reasoned debate by educated, cultured people.
So putting these issues aside, there are other no less troubling implications of Sharon's plan to pull out of Gaza. These implications 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 force structure deployed for their protection. "It takes an entire battalion to defend Netzarim," is one of the most frequent statements to this effect.
A senior IDF 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."
"In Operation Defensive Shield," he continues, "if we didn't have the so called ideological settlement of Bracha by Nablus, it would have taken us four days to enter the city to commence operations, fighting all the way. Because we had Bracha, we were able to enter Nablus quickly and easily. The same is true of our operations in Gaza."
The fact that Palestinian forces in Gaza have to operate in secret is a result of IDF forward deployment in and around the settlements, he explains. And the security situation in Gaza is vexing. 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 PLO.
And yet, Palestinian and military sources admit that in Gaza, the distinctions between the various terror cells have long ceased to be operationally significant. Since the beginning of the war, Fatah terror cells have been openly operating with Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza and PA security services have provided support structures for these cells as well as taken part in their operations.
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.
A reminder of this fact is to be found in the Palestinian preparations for the war in 2000. In the months before Arafat launched hostilities in September, Palestinian forces in Gaza conducted six battalion level exercises. In these exercises they simulated 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 the tactical perspective of the IDF's daily grind to disrupt and destroy terror cells, 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. These youngsters have been indoctrinated to work for the destruction of Israel through jihad by the PA since they were babies. 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. He declared, "Netzarim is the same as Negba and Tel Aviv. Evacuating Netzarim will only encourage terrorism and increase the pressure upon us."
Speaking on a related topic, US President George W. Bush said Wednesday, "America will never be intimidated by thugs and assassins. We will do what it takes. We will not leave until the job is done." Bush was, of course, speaking of the US-led occupation of Iraq. In the post-September 11 world, the US has learned the lessons of earlier American retreats from Somalia and Lebanon. Today it is clear that once US forces have been engaged in an area, that spot, be it Baghdad or Mogadishu becomes strategically important to US national security interests. 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 hermetically 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 on Wednesday, "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."
A reasonable strategic argument for withdrawing from Gaza could be made if the retreat was coupled with an Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley, Gush Etzion, the Ma'aleh Adumim block and Western Samaria. If Israel were to concede Gaza while exacting irrevocable payment for the withdrawal in more strategically vital areas, it would be impossible for the Palestinians to view the withdrawal as a victory. And yet, there has been next to no discussion of such a plan.
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. So 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. On Wednesday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, "Removing settlements can help us move down the road towards 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."
For his part, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan also sees Sharon's plan as one that will be taken in the context of additional Israeli withdrawals from Judea and Samaria. In his words it "should be seen 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 as well. 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.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.