Israel would suspend its Gaza withdrawal and launch a massive ground offensive if Palestinian militants attack Israeli soldiers and settlers during the pullout, the deputy defense minister said Sunday in outlining the military’s plans for the first time.
The threat came less than three weeks before the start of the evacuation, which will mark the first time Israel has ever removed veteran settlements from the West Bank and Gaza. The first families to be uprooted from Gaza moved into temporary homes Sunday.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said repeatedly that the pullout from Gaza cannot be carried out under Palestinian fire. But he has made it clear Israel would stop the gunfire, not the pullout.
While the Palestinian Authority is interested in a smooth handover of the volatile territory, violent groups like Hamas want to step up their attacks in an attempt to give the impression that Israelis are fleeing from the Palestinians.
Palestinian leaders say they are capable of taking control of Gaza, but they complain that Israel is not allowing them enough ammunition for their security forces, a complaint backed by the United States.
Vice Premier Shimon Peres said Sunday that Israel should weigh giving the Palestinian police arms and ammunition.
“If we tell the Palestinians to combat Hamas, we have to hear what their needs are,” Peres told Israel Radio.
Sharon aide Raanan Gissin said the Palestinians were using the ammunition issue as an excuse for inaction.
“The solution is not in bullets,” he said. “The solution is in upgrading and reforming the security services so they will only engage in security and not in terrorist activity.”
On Sunday, Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim gave the first detailed look at Israel’s planned response to Palestinian attacks during the pullout, set to start Aug. 17.
Boim told Israel Radio that in case of Palestinian fire, Israel would suspend the pullout. A full division — thousands of soldiers — would move in “to deal a blow to the terrorists,” he said. “We would stop the withdrawal, (and) we would deliver a harsh strike.”
He said the operation would be similar to “Defensive Shield,” a large-scale Israeli invasion of the West Bank in 2002 in response to a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings. That operation reversed the Palestinian achievements of a decade of peacemaking as Israel retook control of main West Bank cities and towns.
The worst-case scenario would require “10 days to two weeks of a heavy strike against terror to uproot it,” Boim said.
The first few families to leave Gaza for a temporary village moved from the settlement of Nissanit, just a few miles north into Israel, to a site next to the village of Nitzan, where 164 prefabricated houses await the settlers. Though the structures are new, neat and clean with freshly planted grass and red tiled roofs, the former settlers say the houses are nothing like the villas they left behind.
“It’s not what we’re used to, but it’s the best we could do,” said Etti Ben Dahan, mother of six children, as she showed Channel 2 TV around their new 970-square-foot house.
Officials estimate that about half of the 8,500 Gaza settlers will leave voluntarily before the forcible evacuation date, and the rest will resist.
Also Sunday, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas moved to set a new date for parliamentary elections. Information Minister Nabil Shaath said Abbas would issue a decree next Sunday setting the date, aiming for Jan. 20.
Abbas postponed the election, set for July, after three rounds of local balloting resulted in significant gains for Hamas, which is contesting the parliamentary elections for the first time. Though Abbas cited technical reasons for the delay, it appeared he wanted to shore up security and implement reforms before facing the voters.