[Gaza, Tel Aviv] The Gaza Strip is just about twice the size of Washington, DC and home to 1.5 million people. In August it will also be the temporary residence for 3,000 journalists, parachuted in to cover the much vaunted Gaza withdrawal.
For virtually every Israeli citizen the evacuation of the 7,500 Jews living in Gaza will be painful at the very least. The strip has been in Israeli hands since the 1967 War (Six Day War) and for many has become as much part of the country as Tel Aviv.
However, after years of pressure from the international community, that sojourn will come to an end on August 15. Some 40,000 Israeli police officers and soldiers have been charged with the potentially explosive job of removing the Israeli residents of Gaza from their homes.
The whys and wherefores are still being addressed by the Israeli authorities, but slowly the picture is emerging of the big day itself, and, perhaps more crucially, of the day after.
It has already been made clear by the Israel Defense Forces that as of mid August the Gush Katif area of Gaza, the main area scheduled for evacuation, will be a closed military zone. Only journalists will be allowed into the area, and that will be under the watchful eye of the IDF.
However, The Media Line has learned from an Israeli military source that the date for the closure to Israelis of Gaza could well be moved forward.
Gaza is surrounded on three sides by a fence and on the fourth by the Mediterranean Sea. As a result, the only entrance and egress is via gates that are heavily patrolled by the IDF. Every day, the soldiers count the numbers of people entering and leaving Gaza.
The official Israeli population of the strip stands at some 7,500, however, in recent weeks many Jews have reportedly traveled into the area to bolster their number ahead of the withdrawal. Now, the IDF has decided that should that figure reach 10,000 the gates to the strip will be sealed.
Any reporters expecting to see all the residents being shipped out in a 24-hour period will be disappointed. The withdrawal will take four to six weeks. The army and police force are taking a pragmatic approach. Rather than taking on all the candidates for evacuation at once, they intend moving from one group of homes to the next. One analyst called it “the salami approach.”
In order to prevent clashes between civilians and troops the Israeli government and armed services have issued very clear guidelines to commanding officers. There will be some eight rings of personnel operating during the withdrawal. The inner two will comprise police officers. Only then, will there be an army presence, whose initial aim is to protect the police force. The outer rings of police officers and soldiers will be positioned to defend the Israelis from potential Palestinian attack.
The working assumption is that many of the residents will have moved most of their possessions out of the strip prior to August 15. The army hopes that will make the evacuation run more smoothly.
However, the planners are well aware that many things could go wrong.
The first of the worst-case scenarios is the obvious: a violent backlash to the withdrawal on the part of the residents and any other Jews who managed to enter the strip for the purpose of resistance. The police officers are under strict instructions – absolutely no gunfire unless lives are at risk. Similar to orders handed out to soldiers dealing with Palestinians, once a gun is drawn a warning shot must be fired into the air. That would be followed by aiming at the legs of a protester in order to disable them, and only then to aim for the torso.
The other key fear in Gaza is that armed Palestinians will use the potential confused situation to launch multiple attacks against the Israelis. The IDF is planning for the eventuality that Palestinian gunmen would succeed in breaking through several of the Israeli security rings and open fire indiscriminately on civilians and security personnel.
The worst-case planning goes far beyond the perimeter fence of Gaza. With so many soldiers being pulled into Gaza, there are fears that other sensitive areas could be targeted. It will be up to the elite paratrooper units to maintain the peace in the West Bank while the evacuation takes place. At the same time, the IDF fears the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hizbullah could well open fire on Israel’s north from its positions in nearby southern Lebanon.
If the withdrawal goes according to plan, the residents will be out of Gaza by the fourth week, with a further fortnight being set aside for the army to pack up.
Plain sailing one would think, given that the Israeli and international demand is for the withdrawal to be completed by December 31. Yet the military planners say it may be impossible to end the move on schedule. In the last few days the Palestinians and Israelis agreed the some 1,000 homes built by Israelis in Gaza will be demolished, allowing for the Palestinians to build skywards in a desperately overpopulated area.
The IDF maintains it does not have the necessary supplies and machinery to destroy all the homes and clear the sites as agreed. Contracted demolition experts will do much of the work, whilst ensuring the extensive agricultural developments remain.
Although the houses will go, the two sides have agreed the Palestinians will take over the internationally-acclaimed hothouses from the Israeli farmers. That process will take some time as the Israelis say they will have to train the Palestinians in advanced techniques of hydroponics in addition to the basic maintenance techniques of the high-tech greenhouses.
Another controversial part of the withdrawal has still to be fully thrashed out by the residents and the Israeli government. There are 44 bodies in the cemetery in Gush Katif.
Every step of the pullout will be covered by the media. Every claim of violence, every arrest made, every quote will be front-page news. Aiding, or rather managing, the media clamor is proving to be a logistical nightmare for the Israelis as they try to focus on the main issue at hand, the withdrawal itself.
The IDF’s southern commander is insisting that any “embedded” journalists spend four to six weeks holed up with the soldiers. That means following a single unit 24 hours a day, not being allowed out of Gaza and only roaming the designated quadrant of the strip.
Any reporters currently in Gush Katif will be asked to leave no later than August 15 and forcibly so after that date.
The reporters who cannot spend a month-plus living the life of a soldier will have two available options. Buses will shuttle them into Gush Katif for either a period of three or 24 hours. They must agree in advance to return on the same bus, or face the consequences.
In previous major operations, the IDF and Israeli government have been accused of not taking seriously Israel’s image abroad. This time though, the IDF’s spin doctors say they are being treated with respect by the military’s top brass and believe every effort will be made to enable the foreign media to accurately report the Gaza withdrawal.