If Israel pulls its troops out of Gaza, how can Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon be sure that Hamas won't seize power in the ensuing chaos?
That's one of the key questions troubling Israeli policy planners. So far, they have come up with a number of answers: Military force to clip the wings of the Islamic terrorist group before the pullout; diplomatic efforts to convince Egypt to play a peace-keeping role after the withdrawal and encouraging Britain to train Palestinian Authority police forces to maintain law and order.
It remains to be seen, however, whether these steps will satisfy the Bush administration, which also is wary of the potential for chaos in Gaza after an Israeli withdrawal.
Early Sunday, a large Israeli force entered the Bureij refugee camp in Gaza, hunting for known Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists. In the ensuing firefight, 14 Palestinians were killed, mostly armed fighters identified with Hamas.
According to Israeli military analysts, the operation was not in retaliation for attempted terrorist attacks the previous day at a border crossing between Gaza and Israel proper. Rather, it was part of an ongoing policy designed to keep terrorists off balance in the limbo period between Sharon's declaration of intent and the actual Israeli pullout, perhaps some time later this year.
Such relatively large-scale military actions are likely to be stepped up in the interim period. The Israeli army's chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon, said that mere talk of withdrawal could be encouraging the Palestinians to intensify attacks to give the impression that Israel is fleeing under fire.
To counter this, Israel hopes to inflict a heavy defeat on the terrorists before leaving. The message is that the Palestinians will be making a big mistake if they think more terrorism will force further Israeli withdrawals.
At stake is the credibility of Israeli deterrence. Before Israel withdrew unilaterally from Lebanon in May 2000, Sharon urged then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak to hit Hezbollah hard so that the Syrian-backed Shi'ite militia couldn't claim a victory that would inspire other Arab groups to attack Israel. However, Barak ignored that advice.
Because of that, Sharon believes, Arabs widely perceived the Lebanon withdrawal as an Israeli defeat -- one that encouraged the Palestinians to take up arms to achieve similar results. The result: the intifada, now nearly three and a half years old.
Now, with the drawn-out intifada shaping up as a test of national wills, many Palestinians are touting Sharon's announcement of a Gaza withdrawal as vindication of their strategy of violence. Sharon wants to do all he can to counter that impression.
Focusing the army's attack on Hamas and Islamic Jihad also is an attempt to make it easier for relative moderates, like Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan, to take over after Israel leaves and establish a modicum of law and order.
But Sharon doesn't trust Dahlan or any other Palestinian figure to stop the smuggling of arms into Gaza from Egypt after Israel leaves. Nor does he want to leave Israeli forces on the sensitive Philadelphia Axis, which runs for about five miles along the border between Egypt and Gaza and is the scene of frequent clashes.
For years, the Palestinians have used a system of tunnels to smuggle arms and explosives from the Egyptian side of the border into Gaza. Sharon's solution lately has been to appeal to Cairo for aid in shutting off the smugglers' traffic. If the Egyptians agree, close aides said Sharon is ready to make the necessary changes in the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace agreement to allow Cairo to move heavier forces into place.
Israel recognizes that controlling the Philadelphia route would require a different force structure and a different deployment on the Egyptian side, a senior Israeli official said. Sharon favors an Israeli pullout from all of Gaza, but aides said he will go that far only if Egypt undertakes to police the Philadelphia route. In other words, the outcome of talks on the Philadelphia issue could determine the scope of Israel's Gaza pullback.
The signs are not good. In a recent interview with the French newspaper, Le Figaro, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was highly skeptical about a proposed Egyptian role in Gaza, warning that it could lead to clashes with the Palestinians and even with Israel.
Israeli officials had hoped Egypt would step up in order to impress Washington and be recognized as a major regional player. But it seems it will take a lot of persuasion from Washington to get Mubarak to agree.
The leader of the Israeli opposition, Labor Party Chairman Shimon Peres, saw Mubarak a few weeks ago and said he thought Egypt would be ready to police the border but only from its side.
The Egyptians are keen to prevent chaos after an Israeli withdrawal, because it could have dangerous repercussions on the Egyptian street -- but they would like to see the Palestinian Authority take charge. They have, therefore, been pressing the Palestinians to organize their forces on the ground and make sure Hamas has no chance of taking over in the Gaza Strip. Britain also has been helping the Palestinian Authority formulate a security plan and said it is ready to help train Palestinian police.
Similar offers have been made in the past, however; what has been lacking is any Palestinian will to meet their security obligations -- a situation that, if it continues, could turn Gaza into a tinderbox after an Israeli withdrawal.
American envoys are due in Israel again soon to get a more detailed account of Israeli plans and of how Israel sees the Palestinian Authority's future vis-a-vis Hamas.
Israeli officials argue that the Palestinian Authority can raise close to 50,000 armed men, as opposed to the couple of thousand that Hamas and Islamic Jihad can summon. Together with Egyptian, British and American help, that should be enough to keep the fundamentalists at bay, Israeli officials said.
If the Americans feel it's too much of a risk, however, President Bush could ask Sharon, when they meet in Washington next month, to defer the withdrawal until after U.S. elections in November.
Given the pressure from the Israeli right against withdrawal and the apparent Egyptian refusal to get too deeply involved, Sharon may be happy to go along -- and use the extra time to refine his withdrawal plans.