While the world waits for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to make his next political move, after the Likud Party rejected his plan to unilaterally withdraw Israeli troops and settlements from the Gaza Strip, the Israeli Army is engaged in what looks like a plan to unilaterally destroy the Palestinian territory.

In some of the heaviest fighting in years, 13 Israeli soldiers and dozens of Palestinians have been killed since the Likud Party referendum on May 2. Yesterday brought horrifying scenes of death as an Israeli tank and helicopter opened fire on a group of Palestinian demonstrators, including children, in the Rafah refugee camp. Also, despite widespread international condemnation, Israel persists with its policy of demolishing hundreds of Palestinian dwellings in what looks like a heavy-handed form of collective punishment.

Israel indisputably faces a threat from Hamas cells within Gaza, but it is hard to see how these sorts of attacks on Palestinians will do anything other than serve as a recruiting campaign for Hamas.

A political miscalculation is partly to blame for Mr. Sharon’s obsession with appearing characteristically tough, lest his desire to withdraw be taken for a sign of weakness. He should never have entrusted his withdrawal plan to a narrow sliver of the electorate, the one most susceptible to pressure from the extremist settlers. If he had wanted to force the issue and deliver on his promise to President Bush, a better way would have been to call for a national referendum or merely a parliamentary vote. Polls consistently show that more than two-thirds of Israelis favor retreating from Gaza, a sentiment expressed at an impressive peace rally in Tel Aviv held last Saturday. Even Mr. Sharon’s defense minister calls the Gaza occupation a “historical mistake.”

Mr. Sharon’s broader miscalculation was his belief that Israel alone can determine the terms of its withdrawal and the outlines of a long-term accommodation with the Palestinians. Unfortunately, President Bush helped enable this fantasy by telling the prime minister in Washington last month that if Israel withdrew its settlements from Gaza, it could decide in advance that it would keep some of its West Bank settlements and would deny Palestinian refugees the right to return to their old homes without even putting the issue on the table.


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