Israel Update for April 2005

David Dolan
David Dolan

The Israeli government's unilateral Gaza Strip/Northern Samaria withdrawal plan continued to stir strong emotions and produce daily headlines during April as the countdown proceeded for the summer pullout to begin. Meanwhile cabinet ministers considered a proposal to postpone the 25 planned settlement uprootings for three weeks, until after the special Ninth of Av Jewish fast day in mid-August. This came amid indications that preparations for the contested evacuations are falling behind schedule. Security forces were kept busy during the month quelling a growing spate of anti-withdrawal demonstrations, while keeping a wary eye on unsettling developments in southern Lebanon that could potentially derail the planned pullback.

With his Likud political party severely divided over the planned evacuations, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon defended his controversial plan in several speeches and media interviews during April. His main argument echoed the one he made while securing reluctant cabinet approval for his pullout scheme last June-the United States will back Israel's right to retain three large settlement blocks near Jerusalem and Tel Aviv when peace talks eventually resume with the Palestinians if all Gaza Strip and isolated northern Samaria communities are evacuated in the coming months.

Sharon's contention was strengthened during a state visit to George Bush's Texas ranch on April 11. The American President reaffirmed his indirect pledge of April 2004 to support Israel's official position that it will never abandon the towns of Ariel in central Samaria, Ma'ale Adumim due east of Jerusalem, and Ephrat in the Judean hills south of the capital city, along with satellite communities around the three bustling towns.

During a joint press conference held by the two leaders after their meeting, Bush also impressed some Israeli political analysts by noting that Israel's pre-1967 borders were actually mere ceasefire lines from the 1948-49 Arab attempt to wipe out the nascent Jewish state: "As I said last April, new realities on the ground make it unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final-status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949." The US leader went on to state that it is "realistic to expect that any final-status agreement will be achieved only on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities. Those changes on the ground, including existing major Israeli population centers, must be taken into account in any final-status negotiations."


Israeli officials were well satisfied with the American President's supportive statements, even though there are no indications that final-status negotiations are anywhere on the horizon. However, they were less thrilled when George Bush reiterated decades-old US government opposition to any settlement expansion. With Sharon standing at his side, he told reporters that Israel must not conduct "any activity that contravenes the Road Map obligations or prejudices final-status negotiations." He added that Israel "should remove unauthorized outposts and meet its Road Map obligations regarding settlements on the West Bank."

In response, the embattled Israeli leader repeated earlier pledges to dismantle all unauthorized outposts. But he was considerably fuzzier on the hot potato settlement growth issue: "We accept the principal that no unilateral action by any party can prejudice the outcome of bilateral negotiations" was as far as he would go. However, he made clear that he does not consider the Road Map to be in operation yet, since the Palestinian Authority has barely begun to carry out its first obligation under the international peace plan-to disarm and dismantle all illegal Palestinian terror groups, especially members of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Fatah-linked Al Aksa Martyr's Brigades. Sharon said that "recent violence against Israel showed that terror is still continuing," adding that PA leader Mahmoud Abbas "must take more steps" to cripple Palestinian terror groups.

While fully concurring with their veteran party leader that PA officials have so far failed to take anything but cosmetic steps to curb the terrorist networks operating in their midst, several Likud withdrawal opponents maintained that Sharon was attempting to pull too many political eggs out of the American basket. They noted that Abbas and his PA colleagues had firmly condemned the President's statements concerning large settlement blocks, as did many regional Arab and Islamic leaders. Understanding that universal Arab demands regarding Jerusalem and Jewish settlements are unbending, the proposition that Israel can retain any of the land it captured in 1967 as part of a future peace deal is also strongly contested by the other official Road Map sponsors, especially Russia and the European Union. Therefore, they added, the current White House position-while comforting to Israeli ears-is hardly the final or definitive word on the matter, and should certainly not be presented as the main justification for the risky unilateral withdrawal that the government is planning.


Prime Minister Sharon himself warned that civil violence was likely to rock Israel due to fierce opposition by many citizens to his unilateral evacuation plan. Speaking from his Jerusalem office just before heading to the United States, he told the American NBC television network that "the tension here, the atmosphere here, looks very much like the eve of civil war." He went on to decry the physical threats that he has received over his pullout plan, pointing out that "all my life I was defending the lives of Jews. Now for the first time, security steps are being taken to protect me from Jews." Sharon's second comment angered many withdrawal opponents, with one Likud legislator saying it was the PM who "radically changed his spots and adopted the opposition's Gaza retreat plan, which endangers the lives of many Jews."

Possibly presaging some of the civil strife that may lie just ahead, scores of youthful pullout opponents blocked several major roads with burning tires during April, including the main Ayalon motorway through central Tel Aviv. The traffic disruptions led to angry scenes in several places as frustrated motorists left their cars to chase away the protestors. Nocturnal anti-pullout activists succeeded in placing heavy chains and locks on the entrance gates of over 150 schools in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, shocking local officials and government ministers. The protestors placed printed signs at each padlocked school proclaiming that "Jews Do Not Expel Jews."

Anti-withdrawal groups have warned of many more public disruptions ahead-openly admitting that their main goal is to wear out security personnel before the scheduled settlement uprootings even begin. Some have acknowledged that this is a potentially dangerous strategy, given that Israeli police and army personnel are the frontline wall that defends the country against its many internal and external enemies. Military analysts warn that wearing them down just might be enough to tempt Hizbullah to lash out along the northern border, given that leaders of the radical Lebanese militia have already expressed some desire to disrupt the withdrawal, which they see as part of Sharon's Zionist plot to annex most of Judea and Samaria.

Just how effective this strategy could be was amply demonstrated on April 10th when one anti-pullout group managed to tie up some 3,000 security personnel in and around Jerusalem's walled Old City for the better part of the day. The nationalistic "Rehava" group had earlier announced that thousands of religious Jews would stream onto the Temple Mount to hold a prayer vigil against the planned Gaza/north Samaria retreat. In the end, the group only managed to mobilize some 60 protestors outside of Dung Gate after police officials made clear they would not allow any Jews onto Judaism's most hallowed site that day. But hundreds of Arabs did respond to repeated calls from Hamas and other quarters for Muslims to gather on the Mount and around the Old City to "defend Islam's sacred shrines." In fact, Muslim demonstrations were sparked as far away as Indonesia, where thousands gathered in the streets to chant anti-Israel slogans.