Israeli soldiers home as Gaza raid scrapped

Megan Goldin,JERUSALEM, Reuters

Israel sent reservists home on Sunday as it retreated from a planned Gaza Strip offensive that had been undermined by diplomatic pressure and dissent from generals.

Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told reporters that Israel’s decision to shelve an assault should not be interpreted as surrender to “terrorism”.

“We reserve the right to respond when we want and how we want — period,” Ben-Eliezer said, touring the site near Tel Aviv of a Palestinian suicide bombing that killed 15 Israelis on Tuesday, an attack that triggered plans for a Gaza sweep.

On another front, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon faced a key policy battle within his own party over the question of a Palestinian state.

Supporters of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Sharon’s Likud party said they would push a resolution through the central committee declaring the party would never support the creation of such a state.

Likud officials raced to hammer out a compromise.

If the resolution is passed at the forum in Tel Aviv, it could tie Sharon’s hands in future peace efforts and weaken his standing in Likud as Netanyahu gears up for an expected leadership challenge ahead of next year’s general election.

Sharon has said he envisages a Palestinian state at the end of a long peacemaking process.

In the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian laborer shot dead his Israeli employer near a checkpoint leading to the Jewish settlement of Rafiah Yam, an army spokesman said.

The incident followed an easing of tensions on the Israel-Gaza border as military sources said some of the reservists mobilized on Thursday for a sweep against militants in the densely populated Gaza Strip were being sent home.

Israeli military affairs correspondents, who are briefed regularly by senior officers, had reported that some generals had opposed a Gaza operation, warning of heavy Israeli army and Palestinian civilian casualties.

Senior political sources said the offensive was shelved because details of the battle plan were leaked to the media.

David Magen, chairman of parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee, said the real reason was Israeli fear of diplomatic fallout so soon after a sweep through the West Bank.

“I think the delay is due to political and other public reasons,” he told Israel Radio.

Israel has been urged by U.S. and other foreign leaders to eschew another military thrust to avoid burying new diplomacy, including a U.S. initiative for a conference on peacemaking.

A Saudi official travelling with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah on Sunday welcomed Israel’s decision to send home reservists.

“This is firm evidence that American pressure on Israel is working,” the official told Reuters.

Diplomats said the shelving of a Gaza strike was a welcome extension to Friday’s resolution of an Israeli siege that lasted more than five weeks at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity.

Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal cited a “ray of hope” for peace after the European-brokered deal in which Palestinian militants holed up in the church were sent into exile and Israeli forces left Bethlehem.