For the first time since the disengagement plan, soldiers are being evacuated from a base near the Gaza Strip due to the security situation in the area, Ynet has learned.
Major-General Yosef Mishlav, the coordinator of the government's activities in the territories, has instructed the army to temporarily relocate the soldiers serving in the Coordination and Liaison Authority near the Erez crossing to the Julis base, located about 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) away from the Strip.
This unprecedented decision sparked a great deal of criticism in the IDF. "(The decision to evacuate the base) is an admission of our failure to protect the lives of our citizens and soldiers," an army official said.
"The army and members of the security establishment should be at the front and serve as a buffer between the enemy and our civilian population. It is wrong to evacuate them because of a threat. What will the residents of Netiv Ha'asara, who live near the base, say? They will justifiably demand that the State evacuate them as well."
The decision to evacuate the base was reached prior to last week's attempt to launch an attack at the Erez crossing with the use of a truck bomb.
The evacuated soldiers will continue with their work, including the coordination of the transfer of Palestinians and goods to Gaza, from the Julis base. A small number of soldiers will remain at the base near Erez.
The base near the Erez crossing was exposed to terror attacks prior to Israel's unilateral disengagement from the Strip. The IDF particularly feared that terrorists would transfer explosives to the base through an underground tunnel and then set them off.
'Like waving a white flag'
Following the disengagement, the base was relocated to the upgraded Erez crossing, which contains fortified structures. Millions of shekels worth of additional fortification apparatus was brought to the base.
The base that is slated for evacuation has become a favorite target for terrorists since Hamas' violent takeover of the Strip in June 2007, with more than 200 mortars and rockets of various kinds fired in its direction.
The Zikim army base, located south of Ashkelon, was not evacuated even after a Qassam rocket attack last September left some 70 soldiers injured. Other bases that were also exposed to terror threats were not evacuated for fear of the message such an act might send to the Palestinians.
The office of Maj.-Gen. Mishlav said that "in light of the security situation at the Erez crossing the coordinator decided to temporarily relocate the soldiers to a home front base because there is no point in jeopardizing their lives. The decision is temporary and may change according to security estimates."
Knesset Member Zevulun Orlev (National Union-NRP) said in response to the decision "Those who run away from terror - terror will chase after them. The solution of relocating an entire IDF base is a cowardly one. Are they also planning to relocate Sderot, Kfar Aza and Ashkelon?"
MK Otniel Schneller of Kadima called the decision to evacuate the base "a show of weakness", adding that it is "akin to waving a white flag in surrender."
"This is not characteristic of the IDF. This is a show of weakness by people and commanders who do not understand what the IDF stands for," he said.
MK Danny Yatom (Labor) was less critical of the move, as he claimed the soldiers being evacuated were not combat soldiers. "I can't see any reason to make claims against the security forces for moving these soldiers, who are not combat soldiers, elsewhere. It shouldn't be perceived as the waving of a white flag," he reasoned.
'Disgrace for IDF'
Residents of the southern town of Netiv Haasara were shocked by the decision. Chairman of the town's security committee, Ziv Volk, said that it constituted "impudence, gall, and disgrace for the IDF and the State of Israel." He thought for a moment and then added, "Actually, nothing surprises us anymore.
"We have been under fire for three years now, since the pullout. We have had ministers, Knesset members, and security officers from the very highest levels visit us and promise to protect us, but in the end they run away. When the State makes such a decision it is shameful," Volk said.
Residents of Netiv Haasara also commented upon the decision. "This means we are staying here alone," one resident remarked. "It leaves us vulnerable to other infiltration incidents." Another resident commented that "perhaps next they will give us rifles or mortars to shoot at the Palestinians ourselves."
Alon Shuster, head of Shaar HaNegev Regional Council, was also upset by the decision, especially since no one had informed him ahead of time. "Unfortunately nobody thought to update us and we learned about the decision from Ynet. The decision may not have an operational impact, but it certainly has psychological repercussions," he said.
Meanwhile, the IDF is continuing to asses the damage done to the crossing following the attempted truck bomb attack. Army officials said the cost of renovating the site may exceed NIS 2 million (about $600,000).
The renovation works at the Kerem Shalom crossing, which was attacked by Palestinian terrorists in Passover, have yet to commence. The security establishment does not plan on reopening the crossing anytime soon.
Amnon Meranda contributed to the report