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Israel ramps up incursions into Gaza

JERUSALEM — Amid the chaos of a Gaza hospital ward overwhelmed with patients and bodies Friday, Dr. Jamar Saaqa could not help but notice what to him seemed to be a contradiction. "If Israel is leaving here, why are they killing all of us?"

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon does indeed want to uproot Jewish settlements and settlers from Gaza by this time next year and leave the strip to the 1.3 million Palestinians who live in its cramped camps and cities.

Despite this, Sharon approved a new major military incursion into Gaza Thursday night. Israeli forces pushed deep into the Jabalya refugee camp, sparking battles that continued through the day on Friday. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights reported that 39 Palestinians had been killed as of Friday evening — among them are 19 civilians, 14 of whom were children. Three Israelis were also killed in separate Gaza fighting on Thursday: two soldiers and a female jogger.

Why, many Palestinians and some Israelis argue, doesn't Sharon just pull out of Gaza now and avoid another year of what seems to them to be pointless clashes and endless rounds of killing?

The simplest answer is that the army raid is to stop militant rocket fire at the Israeli town of Sederot, located just outside the Gaza border fence.

A more complicated answer has less to do with military tactics and more to do with a desire by Israel to leave Gaza without the withdrawal being viewed as a retreat under fire, and to purge Gaza of militants to avoid leaving behind an armed camp.

Palestinian officials argue that Israel could accomplish this by negotiating the pullout with them to ensure a smooth and peaceful transition. But Israeli leaders, feeling no Palestinian leader is serious about confronting the powerful militias, say the only solution available to them now is force.

"There will not be a disengagement under fire," said Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "If there will be fire, it will be our fire on the terrorists. We will walk out, and they will be on the run."

Gissin said that Israelis "learned our lessons from Lebanon." Israel ended its occupation of southern Lebanon in May 2000, leaving behind the militant force Hezbollah that has become the de facto ruler of the area and continues to wage cross-border attacks.

Israeli leaders warn that leaving Gaza will not resolve the conflict. They note that two Israeli children killed by militant rockets on Wednesday did not live in Gaza settlements but in the Israeli town of Sederot. It is proof, they say, that militant groups are not fighting to push Israelis out of Gaza, but are fighting to push Israelis out of Israel.

"The war against terror does not end with disengagement," Gissin said. "It will continue. The disengagement is the result of the failure of the Palestinian Authority to combat terror. That is why we don't have the roadmap (a U.S.-backed peace plan) right now and no agreement with our Palestinian neighbors."

Jonathan Fighel, a senior researcher at the International Policy Institute for Counter Terrorism in Herzliya, outside of Tel Aviv, said that Palestinians successfully turned the crude Kassam rockets into a strategic weapon of deterrence, and Israel was slow to respond.

Earlier attempts to blow up workshops or track down launchers failed, leaving the army with little choice but a broad campaign such as is now unfolding. He said the issues involved, however, are broader, and go to the heart of Israel's talk of withdrawal.

"On the one hand we are talking about a unilateral pullout and on the other hand the army is going in," said Fighel, a former colonel in the army and military governor of the Palestinian cities of Ramallah, Jenin and Tulkarm.

"Now, is this latest operation a temporary one or do we have to occupy in order to pull out?" he said. "It's part of the contradictory reality of this conflict. Until the pullout, Israel and any government cannot tolerate the reality that civilians are being killed by rockets or by any other means."

But Fighel said there is no doubt that the incursion now under way in Gaza is part of a broader, psychological plan by Israel's military. "The Palestinians want to show that Israel's pullout is the success of four years of bloody fighting," he said. "The challenge for us is how not do withdraw under their plans."

Hisham Ahmed, a professor of political science at Birzeit University in the Palestinian West Bank city of Ramallah said that the military operation in Gaza reflects an internal Israeli crisis sparked by the debate over the removal of settlements.

"On one hand Sharon has to assure settlers that he has the upper hand and can maintain security," Ahmed said. "But he also wants to pull out from Gaza to show his people that he is a man of peace."

The professor said that militants have found through the Kassam rockets a tool "that Sharon has proven he is completely unable to contain." He said he doubted that Sharon would ever dismantle settlements in Gaza.

"What is happening on the ground defies the very essence of Sharon's plans," Ahmed said. "He is engaged in the all-out destruction of Gaza. The whole notion of a pullout is a mockery. "

It was the largest army operation in Gaza in the past four years of fighting, coming days after the fourth anniversary of the uprising that has now claimed the lives of about 1,000 Israelis and more than 2,700 Palestinians.

Amie Oren of the Haaretz newspaper wrote, "It is impossible to implement the withdrawal plan under the present security situation." Under an article headlined, "To withdraw from Gaza, Israel must occupy it," Oren argued that Sharon put his army and nation in a quagmire.

"Before the evacuation, the army will occupy large territories around the settlements, remove the settlers and fight on the way out, only to return again after the next firing incident," Oren wrote.

The columnist said that the cost in terms of casualties and bad public relations pales with a more vexing issue: what he called a contradiction between the political plan and the military activity. "The escalation in Gaza has turned Sharon into his own enemy," the article says. "He cannot withdraw and cannot stay, and he is waiting for larger forces than him, world forces, to save him."

Israeli radio reported Friday that Sharon's security Cabinet approved the large-scale operation in Gaza, but rejected a call by some ministers to begin a full occupation of the Gaza Strip. Instead, the army plans to create a buffer zone in the north from the fence to the eastern edge of the Jabalya camp.

Palestinians said that hundreds of gunmen from myriad factions have come to the camp and surrounding towns to join the battle that involved hundreds of soldiers and 200 tanks. The Israeli army said that its troops would stay until the threat from rockets has been eliminated, and that they would go on a door-to-door search for gunmen.

In addition to Thursday's heavy casualties, at least five more Palestinians were killed in northern Gaza Friday, including two militants disguised as Palestinian policemen who tried to bomb the main border crossing into Israel and three men killed when an army force bombed a house in the camp.