Latest army losses fuel calls to quit 'the curse of Gaza'

Friday, May 14, 2004

JERUSALEM -- A bitter debate among Israelis about whether to pull out of the Gaza Strip took on new urgency with the deaths of 11 young soldiers in fighting there this week.

The losses energized the campaign in favor of a Gaza pullback, much as pressure from bereaved parents played a pivotal role in Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000.

But mourning parents also lined up on the other side of the debate.

One of the most powerful voices Thursday was that of Shlomo Vishinsky, a stage actor, whose 20-year-old son Lior was killed Wednesday in southern Gaza along with four other soldiers. Their armored personnel carrier, laden with a ton of explosives, was hit by a homemade Palestinian rocket.

Vishinsky, 60, blamed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud Party, which vetoed Sharon's withdrawal plan in a May 2 referendum, for his loss.

"My son was a patsy for the Likud," Vishinsky said, adding that he would have the funeral cortege assemble at Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv in a show of outrage.

No date for the funeral was set because the remains have not been recovered. On Thursday evening, hundreds of soldiers, many on their hands and knees, were still sifting through the Gaza sands in search of body parts.

Moshe Kanan, whose son was killed in Gaza fighting last year, vigorously opposed a pullout, saying it would reward Palestinian militants and encourage further attacks against Israel. Directing his words to Vishinsky, Kanan said: "I want to tell him that his son is not a patsy; his son is a hero, his son is holy."

Israelis have been arguing over a Gaza pullback since Sharon announced earlier this year that he planned to evacuate soldiers and 7,500 settlers from the coastal strip.

The pullback was to be part of Sharon's plan of "unilateral disengagement" from the Palestinians, to reduce friction and draw a border in the West Bank.

The Likud veto has frozen the plan for now, though Sharon says he is determined to find a different forum for approval for the Gaza withdrawal.

A majority of Israelis favor a pullback. After the Likud referendum, many complained that a hardline minority was imposing its will. Only about half the Likud's 193,000 participated in the vote, meaning the decision was made by about 2 percent of Israel's population.

Some commentators drew parallels between Israel's presence in Gaza and its ill-fated 18-year occupation of Lebanon, which ended with a withdrawal in 2000.

At the time, a grass roots movement called "Four Mothers" began lobbying for a withdrawal, tapping into a growing feeling among many Israelis that the continued presence in Lebanon was not worth the risk of having soldiers killed.

Orna Shimoni, who led the campaign for a Lebanon withdrawal, wrote in Yediot on Thursday that Israel must pull out of Gaza quickly. "We should have left Gaza before the last two tragedies, just like we left Lebanon," she wrote.

The Maariv daily reported Wednesday's deaths under the banner headline: "The curse of Gaza." A front-page photo showed scared-looking young soldiers.

Robbie Damien, whose son David was shot and killed by a Palestinian two years ago while on reserve military duty in the West Bank, said that after learning of the latest deaths, she called fellow members of The Parents' Circle, a group of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian parents.

The group organized a vigil at Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, a traditional rallying place for all shades of protest. Members will take turns sitting there until a mass rally for a Gaza pullout scheduled for Saturday evening.

"We who have paid the highest price cannot stand by while other families pay the price for the latest crop of bereavement," Damien said.

The veteran Israel group Peace Now is reviving the tactics it used to protest the Lebanon campaign, sending 11 activists to stand in protest outside Sharon's Jerusalem residence -- one for each of the latest fatalities.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz supports Sharon's plan, but in a televised speech Thursday avoided direct mention of a Gaza withdrawal. Instead, he tried to give meaning to the deaths of the 11 soldiers, saying they fought in crucial operations intended to help protect Israel against attacks by Palestinian militants.

He urged Israelis to stand tough. "Unfortunately, in war there are difficult moments and at times like this, we must stand strong and united, and continue to do what is necessary," he said.

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