Interior Minister Ophir Pines (pictured above) delivered Sharon a major blow with his declaration that the Nitzanim area north of Ashkelon is now a nature reserve.
At the same time, unnamed security sources said that disengaging this summer would play into the terrorist plans of Hamas.
Prime Minister Sharon has said that Nitzanim, a largely pristine area of sand dunes and untouched areas, would be the site of four new communities to replace the 18 Gush Katif towns he wishes to destroy. The proposal, while not taken seriously by most Katif residents, is seen as meeting their strong desire to remain together even if they are expelled from Gaza.
However, Minister Pines of Labor has all but nixed the idea. "The sands of Nitzanim are a national resource," he said today, "that we must carefully preserve for our own sake and for future generations. We must now make sure to prevent any construction from creeping into the area of the sands."
"Development needs in general, and the need to find housing solutions for the Gush Katif evacuees in particular, are a most important national interest," Pines said, "but they must not come at the expense of the no-less important national interest of preserving Israel's natural treasures."
The seemingly environmental decision has immediate ramifications on the political/diplomatic disengagement plan. MK Tzvi Hendel, chairman of the National Union faction and a resident of Gush Katif, said today that Pines' decision proves that the Nitzanim plan is a deception that was meant to mislead. "Pines has united all the Gush Katif residents in the struggle to ensure that all of Gush Katif will remain in place, with G-d's help," Hendel said.
Hendel was referring to the disagreement that had arisen within Gush Katif as to whether or not to respond to the government's "invitation/ultimatum" to take part in the Nitzanim program. Hendel and the Land of Israel Legal Forum, which voluntarily represents the legal interests of the Gush Katif residents, were of the opinion that the government could not be trusted to implement the Nitzanim plan in a way that would guarantee its availability in time. Pines' decision is now seen as proof of the correctness of that approach.
At the same time, environmentalist groups filed a petition in the Supreme Court today with the demand to freeze all construction in Nitzanim. The groups claim that not all of the required permits had been obtained. Prime Minister Sharon, in a visit to the site last week, demanded that the work proceed even before all the permits had been obtained, saying there was no time to spare.
In addition to the housing problems, unnamed security sources were roundly quoted today as saying that carrying out the withdrawal on time will be "very bad for Israel." Internal security evaluations show that the planned withdrawal will play into the hands of Hamas, which is planning a wide-scale terror attack immediately afterwards to force Israel to retreat from additional areas in Judea and Samaria.
The security sources say that pushing off the disengagement by a number of months would enable the Palestinian Authority to strengthen itself and prevent Hamas from taking over. They further add the housing problems of the Katif residents as a reason to postpone the retreat.
Prime Minister Sharon, in keeping with his "bulldozer" reputation, responded to the above news by saying, "The disengagement will be executed precisely according to the timetable that was set." Though 600 caravans have been ordered for the purpose, no one in the government or in Gush Katif can say with even the slightest degree of confidence where the residents will live if and when the police and soldiers begin throwing them out of their homes.