August 25, 2005

Goodbye, Gaza

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JERUSALEM — 9:03 a.m., August 2, The Novotel Hotel. Between the jetlag and the Mono, I’m exhausted.

I’m halfway through Day 1 of this 14-day trip and already beginning to wonder whether coming was such a good idea. I look around at the other 22 college students in the program and see them also struggling to keep awake. Together, we wait outside the conference room for our scheduled guest speaker to arrive. He’s late. But this is the Jewish State, I remember — everything starts late.

The security lady holding the walkie-talkie slips past me into the room. She gravitates toward a table with 30 or so upside-down glasses and proceeds to turn each over, one by one, while we stand there patiently.

27, 28, 29, 30… No suspicious objects. We’re allowed in, and as we take our seats, I ready my camera. I turn to the back of the room, and in he walks, the second most powerful man in Israel. Unlike Israel’s 300-pound-plus Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is not an imposing figure. The lanky former mayor of Jerusalem has neither charm nor good looks nor the ability to stir a crowd. Still, many speculate that Sharon’s faithful sidekick will one day succeed the Prime Minister.

Before then, Ehud Olmert will remain Ariel Sharon’s “trial-balloon man,” the one who goes public with future Israeli policies to measure their potential effects inside and outside Israel. So it was, in December 2003, when Olmert hinted at possible unilateral Israeli steps to break the impasse in the Arab-Israeli peace process. Those moves — withdrawal from all 21 Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and four more in the northern West Bank — would become known as the “Disengagement Plan,” or, simply, “Disengagement.”

“Disengagement is a response to certain demographic realities,” explains Olmert, waving his hands like a professor. “Within a few years, due to the higher Arab birth rate, Jews will become a minority in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. I don’t want [Israel] to be South Africa because we don’t believe in apartheid. We simply have to separate from the Palestinians so that we can control our own destinies.”

The specter of demography is what ultimately drove Ariel Sharon and most of his right-wing Likud Party to accept the idea of Palestinian statehood. The scope of any Israeli territorial concessions in Gaza and the West Bank, however — and whether they should be made unilaterally, if necessary — has opened a schism among Likudniks.

“We can never totally return to the indefensible pre-1967 borders,” Olmert insists, referring to Israel’s frontiers before the Six-Day War, in which the Jewish state captured the West Bank from Jordan, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula from Egypt. “We simply cannot afford to make Israel [9 miles] wide again at its center. We can’t allow the Palestinians to be a couple [miles] from [Tel Aviv’s] Ben Gurion Airport in the age of shoulder-fire missiles with the capacity to shoot down jumbo jets. But that doesn’t mean we must remain in every corner of the West Bank or in Gaza, where fewer than 10,000 Jews, living next to 1.3 million Palestinians, have been protected by twice as many soldiers.”

Much as only the staunchly anti-communist Richard Nixon could normalize relations with Communist China, many believe that only the hawkish Ariel Sharon, long regarded as the godfather of the settlements, could be the one to remove any of them.

This is not the first time Sharon has dismantled settlements. As Defense Minister in 1982, he oversaw the evacuation of 17 Israeli enclaves across the Sinai Peninsula in accordance with the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace accord. Because it provided Israel with tangible benefits — diplomatic recognition from an erstwhile enemy — that evacuation was far less controversial than this one, which has earned Sharon the charge of retreat under fire.

“I don’t know if any of the world leaders who preach to Ariel Sharon have ever done anything so completely against their political interests,” Olmert says. “In the last election, Sharon doubled the Likud Party’s representation in the Knesset. He was admired by his party’s base, and he had a fabulous relationship with President Bush. Cabinet meetings were so boring because all votes were unanimous: two hours and we went home. Because of the Disengagement Plan, Sharon lost his majority coalition, subjected himself to all sorts of internal pressures, and put his own personal security at stake.”

Ten years after Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin was murdered at a peace rally by a Jewish extremist, Israel has been on alert for new attempts on the lives of Israeli politicians. Sharon and Olmert, Disengagement’s primary proponents, have had the most to fear. Despite that, the Deputy Prime Minister believes passionately in the Disengagement Plan and the possibilities it holds for peace with the Palestinians and the wider Arab world:

“If the Palestinians take advantage of this opportunity, together we can bring the momentum of Disengagement into a new dialogue,” Olmert says. “We’d like to be able to help them in Gaza after we leave: with business, infrastructure, trade. But success depends on the Palestinians. Every time in history that we have shown a willingness to compromise, they have responded with violence. After we withdraw from Gaza, there will be no excuse for further terror from there.”

He pauses for a second and continues, slowly: “If Qassam rockets continue to be fired at Israeli towns from Gaza, we reserve the right to defend ourselves. And Lord knows we have the capability to do so.”

Olmert glances at his watch and informs the group he must leave. One of his aides remains to field questions.

I raise my hand.

“Yes, you.”

“Will we see a Prime Minister Olmert in a few years?” I ask.

“I hope,” she laughs. “He certainly thinks so.”

* * *

Only days ago, the Israel Defense Forces evacuated the last Jewish settlers from the 21 Gaza Strip settlements and four more West Bank enclaves, completing the largest peacetime operation of the Jewish State’s history.

Those 10,000 Israelis are currently being resettled inside Israel. Some left voluntarily, others were forcibly evicted. At two Gaza synagogues in which they had holed themselves up, hundreds of settlers and their supporters were dragged out by Israeli forces one by one, kicking and screaming, while the crowd chanted “Yehudi Lo Megaresh Yehudi” (“A Jew doesn’t expel a Jew”). Most of the settlers never believed this day would come, that somehow, by some twist of fate, by some act of God, it would be averted. Only now are they conceding defeat.

Israel’s voluntary withdrawal from part of the disputed territories has won applause from the international community, which views it as a positive step toward a final-status agreement with the Palestinian Authority.

Palestinians have welcomed the plan while expressing concern that Sharon has been using it to divert attention from more controversial measures in the West Bank, such as the completion of Israel’s security barrier and continued construction in the major settlement blocs that it loops around.

Sharon has not denied the withdrawal’s public relations benefits. Indeed, the international political capital a Gaza withdrawal would generate was one of his major selling points to more hesitant Israelis.

“Ever since accepting the Road Map and the idea of a two-state solution in 2003, Sharon has realized that all settlements in Gaza would have to be dismantled under any final-status agreement,” explained Israeli spokesperson Mark Regev. “What Sharon has been emphasizing to his opponents is that by evacuating them now, he gets badly-needed brownie points with the international community, which loves the fact that we’re withdrawing from Gaza.”

Sharon has said that in addition to bolstering Israel’s security by shortening its lines of defense, an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and part of the West Bank will reduce friction between the Israeli and Palestinian populations an
d give the Palestinian Authority a chance to prove it can handle the responsibilities of statehood.

* * *

The debate in Israel over the Disengagement Plan has proven more controversial than any since the heated 1950s discussion over whether to accept Holocaust reparations from Germany. Though a solid but silent majority of Israelis supported Disengagement from its inception, a vocal, mostly religious minority carried on an ultimately abortive campaign to derail it, routinely turning out over 100,000 at rallies. Perhaps inspired by the recent success of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, they chose orange as their official color. (With the color’s political baggage, normally faddish orange shirts have remained on closet and store shelves.)

“Disengagement’s opponents are against it for three reasons,” Regev said. “One, they believe it will harm national security because it may be perceived by the Palestinians as a reward for terrorism, as [the 2000 withdrawal from south] Lebanon was. Two, they believe it’s a great tragedy that people who have lived in Gaza for decades, who were encouraged by various Israeli governments to move there, are now being uprooted from their homes. Three, some of them — though they downplay this reason because they know it doesn’t sell — believe ideologically that it’s wrong to give away any part of the Land of Israel.”

They also resent the undemocratic manner in which they say the Prime Minister has implemented his plan. Ironically, many of Sharon’s most vocal opponents voted for him in 2003, when he ran on a platform rejecting a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, an idea then proposed by Labor Party candidate Amram Mitzna. When Sharon changed course and introduced the Disengagement Plan, he called a referendum of Likud Party members, which he lost in a landslide. He disregarded the results of that referendum and neglected calls for a national one. He gained a majority in his cabinet for the plan, but only after firing ministers opposed to it.

The absence of a democratic mandate for the withdrawal is the primary reason cited by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — son of Cornell History Professor Emeritus Benzion Netanyahu — for his August 2 resignation as Finance Minister. Many speculate that Netanyahu is preparing once more to battle Sharon for the Likud nomination before next year’s general elections. Polls released following the resignation give Netanyahu a commanding lead over his longtime rival.

* * *

Though Sharon may be forced into early retirement because of his plan, he claims to have no regrets about it. On the night of August 15, the first of Disengagement, he addressed the nation on television to reiterate the benefits of abandoning Gaza.

Even the Prime Minister’s staunchest supporters, however, are not euphoric over this step. It is hard, they say, to be enthusiastic about removing thousands of people from their homes, necessary as it is.

“Make no mistake,” said Sharon spokesperson Doron Spielman, “this is, above all, a human story. Picture this: A soldier — 18, 19 years old — is sent into Gaza to knock on the door of a family that’s been living there since before he or she was born. The mother answers, two kids hanging over her shoulder, dinner on the stove, and the soldier says, ‘I am here to evacuate you on behalf of the State of Israel. You have 48 hours to leave your home.’

“‘You’re asking me to leave my home?’ she says. We told all our soldiers that if, at that moment, they felt the need to cry, they shouldn’t fight it — they should go into the living room and cry with the family.”

The tears have been shed, the families have been evacuated. Soon, the homes will be demolished, clearing the way for high-rise apartment buildings to house thousands of Palestinian families. Jewish coffins will be dug up and reburied in Israel, where families of the dead will, for a second time, mourn the seven days of shiva in accordance with Jewish law.

It is a scene that has taken place before and will almost certainly take place again, when further Jewish settlements in the West Bank are dismantled either unilaterally or as part of a bilateral agreement.

Nobody knows whether Disengagement will bear the fruits it has promised. Its supporters have not claimed it will bring peace, or even security, but that it might create conditions under which peace and security can be achieved someday.

A gamble, for sure. But then again, in this neck of the woods, one rarely gets more than that.

Archived article by Ben Birnbaum
Sun Staff Writer