Israel anxious to avoid sinking into ‘Gaza swamp’

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM — By wasting little time withdrawing troops from northern Gaza over the weekend after a two-day operation, Israel made clear it did not want to get bogged down in territory it quit less than a year ago.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is under growing pressure to show his people, who overwhelmingly backed last year’s pullout, that he will not re-occupy Gaza again even as he presses an offensive to halt Palestinian rocket fire and to free a soldier. Getting stuck in Gaza could derail his plan to reshape the occupied West Bank by quitting remote Jewish settlements while strengthening major blocks, a blueprint already undermined by the soldier’s kidnapping and daily rocket attacks from Gaza.

Israelis also vividly recall what happened when the army created a protective buffer zone inside southern Lebanon — troops stayed for 22 years until 2000.

“I look at the way they went in and left on the weekend and it seems the spirit is ‘beware the quagmire’,” said Uri Dromi of the Israel Democracy Institute and a former air force officer. “But Gaza is sometimes stronger than our plans. It just sucks you in because there are always more tunnels, more rocket launches and more terrorists.”

Israel pulled out of former Jewish settlements and Palestinian towns in northern Gaza on Saturday after troops and tanks went on the attack for 48 hours. Forces remain in a disused airport in southern Gaza, partly to ensure the abducted soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit, is not smuggled into neighbouring Egypt, said one political source.

Speaking to foreign reporters on Monday, Olmert reiterated that Israel had set no timetable for the operation.

Army commanders, responding to the northern Gaza withdrawal, said the rationale was to enter, leave and then return again, thus evading what officials call the “Gaza swamp”.

“From the political level and the mindset of the Israeli population, nobody wants to go back to the crowded streets of Gaza,” said Jonathan Fighel, a retired colonel and senior researcher at Israel’s Institute for Counter-Terrorism.

“What can happen is these incursions, which will be on and off for a long period, will be the new reality.” Israel uprooted settlers and soldiers from Gaza nearly one year ago after 38 years of occupation.

The move was popular among Israelis, who saw little strategic reason to continue to keep 8,000 settlers and large contingents of troops to protect them in a narrow strip home to 1.4 million Palestinians. The international community saw it as a way to revive peace talks, although hopes that negotiations might resume were dashed when the Islamic movement Hamas won elections in January and took office two months later. Hamas is sworn to destroy Israel. Israeli troops initially re-entered Gaza to force fighters to free Shalit, who was seized in a cross-border raid by fighters including members of Hamas.

That objective has expanded to try to halt the daily firing of homemade rockets into the Jewish state.

Palestinian political analyst Hani Habib said Israel wanted to come and go as it pleased.

“Israel wants to control the rules of the game by going into some areas, attracting fighters to gun battles and to hunt them from the air to inflict as many losses as it can,” he said.

That means being able to carry out ground raids against fighters without having also to fend off international accusations it was bent on re-occupying Gaza.

Indeed, Olmert is loathe to squander the diplomatic chips Israel won by leaving Gaza in the first place, especially when he wants international backing for his West Bank plan and impose Israel’s final borders there if peacemaking remains frozen.

Accusations that Israel is using excessive force in Gaza have grown louder, but international criticism has also been levelled at Shalit’s abductors.

Israeli forces have killed about 50 people, including some 20 civilians, during the offensive, residents have said.

Some Israelis see lessons from Lebanon.

“In Lebanon we really gained the upper hand when we pulled out and turned the whole thing into a scenario the international community can relate to. You are defending yourself against aggression from another country,” said Dromi.

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