Palestinian terrorist groups are growing stronger and Hamas is even forming its own army as Israel progresses with its preparations to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday.
Speaking at Ariel College in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, the minister said he opposed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to evacuate all 21 settlements from Gaza and four of 120 from the West Bank, despite having voted in favor of it in a Knesset vote.
“As the unilateral pullout nears closer, the terror forces grow. Hamas is forming its own army and maybe soon its own government. Why are they getting stronger? Because what is relayed on the Arab street is simple..as long as hope for expulsion grows stronger, so does the hope to expel those from Ariel and then from Tel Aviv.”
Israel is concerned armed groups like Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction and already has a large following in Gaza, will try to seize control of the territory after the pullout.
Vows to oppose pullout
Netanyahu, who has long sought a political comeback after being ousted as prime minister in 1999, voted in favor of the pullout in a Knesset ballot in October but opposed it in a government vote in February. As predicted by Sharon and analysts at the time, the cabinet easily passed the plan with a majority of 17-5.
“As the expectation of expulsions lies before the eyes (of terrorists) and terror succeeds, what is happening to the terror groups? They are gaining strength,” he said. “This is one of the reasons why I voted against the disengagement in the government, and I will vote against it again.”
Netanyahu did not specify his opinion of coordinating the pullout with the Palestinian Authority. Israeli officials have been engaged in talks in recent weeks with Palestinian counterparts regarding possible cooperation on security, economic and other issues related to the withdrawal.
“I would like to be able say that prior to the withdrawal we would see parades and protests of peace in Gaza,” he said. “That is not what we’re seeing. We are seeing rows of armed youngsters calling for Israel’s destruction, and calling to continue the uprooting.”
Netanyahu also called to strengthen Ariel, Maale Adumin and Gush Etzion, Israel’s largest West Bank settlement blocs, echoing Sharon’s comments to Jewish leaders in New York on Tuesday.