Sharon Scrambles to Save Face over US Rebuke on Gaza Occupation

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JERUSALEM, April 18 (AFP) - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was scrambling to save face on Wednesday, confronting the harshest US rebuke yet of his policies to tackle months of raging violence with the Palestinians and criticism at home that he had caved in to US pressure.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon meets with Likud party ministers at his office in Jerusalem 18 April 2001. Sharon came under fire at his security cabinet meeting for failing to consult ministers on the decision to send in troops to occupy Palestinian-ruled areas in the northern Gaza Strip.

The administration of US President George W. Bush assailed Israel over its occupation of Palestinian-ruled land during a fierce assault on the Gaza Strip over Monday night -- just as the army was withdrawing its forces from the area.

But Israel, while seeking to brush off suggestions that there was any strain in its relations with its closest US ally, also denied its decision to pull out from Gaza bore any connection to Washington's harsh statement.

"First of all we did not withdraw -- we went in for a limited period. We went in for 24 hours in order to leave -- period," said Defence Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer.

Israel launched its air, land and sea raid on the Gaza Strip in retaliation for a Palestinian mortar attack on a nearby Israeli town, sparking fears of a further escalation of a conflict that has threatened to explode on the Lebanese front.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell denounced the short-lived land grab, while noting that it was precipitated by "provocative" Palestinian mortar attacks.

"The Israeli response was excessive and disproportionate. We call upon both sides to respect the agreements they've signed," he said in a statement.


Diplomatic sources in Washington said Israel had sought in vain to prevent the United States from issuing a harsh denouncement of its move into autonomous Palestinian territory.


Under the hawkish Sharon, elected on a pledge to use a firm hand to confront the nearly seven months of the Palestinian uprising, Israel has launched a number of pre-emptive and retaliatory strikes as the Palestinian use of mortar fire has increased.

And only hours after the withdrawal, Palestinians fired another hail of mortar shells on Jewish targets in the Gaza Strip -- but this time there was no immediate Israeli riposte.

However, the army later moved its tanks and bulldozers into a Palestinian area in the southern Gaza Strip to destroy a security post and then withdrew.

Haaretz analyst Zeev Schiff said that Israel's move into the area near Beit Hanun in the northern Gaza Strip was for operational purposes and that it had "no intention of setting up a security zone along the lines of the one in Lebanon."

But he added: "The Palestinian Authority is trying to expand the fighting and to provoke Israel to respond in a way that will be seen to be out of proportion."

Prominent Palestinian MP Hanan Ashrawi hailed the US statement, which followed on the heels of US criticism of Sharon's settlement policy as well as a shooting incident after a US-hosted security meeting in which the Israeli army fired on an official Palestinian convoy.

"They forced the conflict on the American agenda and the American move was certainly a positive move," Ashrawi told CNN television. "Let's hope it shows a new determination and a sense of policy to prevent further escalation and bloodshed."

Diplomatic sources in Washington said Israel had sought in vain to prevent the United States from issuing a harsh denouncement of its move into autonomous Palestinian territory.

"The Israelis knew it was coming and tried to stop it," one source said. "It didn't work because (the United States) wanted people to know that Israel had crossed a red line when it went into Gaza."

The sources said Washington was intent on a strong statement because it had already been irked by Israel's cross-border air strike early Monday on a Syrian target in Lebanon in retaliation for a weekend attack by the Syrian-backed Hezbollah that killed an Israeli soldier.

Mark Heller, senior researcher at the Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies, said Israel's move into Gaza may have violated an understanding that it would not take action that took the US administration by surprise.

But he said while the US rebuke could signal an end to the "honeymoon" between two new governments, it was not a deterioration in relations.

"I think it's just that the honeymoon in relations between the two new governments was a little bit artificial, because it was based on the premise that the US could somehow stay out of things and that wasn't really realistic," he said.

"This problem was bound to intrude on the American agenda sooner or later."

But former foreign minister Shlomo Ben Ami, who was a leading dove in the former government of Ehud Barak, suggested the hawkish Sharon could risk losing the US support unless his government worked towards getting negotiations back on track.

"If the government continues on this path, with only a military option, without any political track, there will be a review of the American policy and the United States won't stay on the side of the Israeli government as it was during the first days of the Bush administration," he said.

  Category: World Affairs
  Topics: Conflicts And War, Foreign Policy, Gaza, Occupation, Palestine
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