It was late one night in September of 2000, and Michael Oren saw gunfire over the hills of Nablus. Oren didn’t know it at the time, but he was witnessing the beginning of a Palestinian intifada that would threaten to destroy the State of Israel and lead to the policy of disengagement from the Gaza Strip five years later.
A senior fellow at the Shalem Institute in Jerusalem, Michael Oren came to Cornell yesterday to talk about the recent Gaza pullout and the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations. The lecture, entitled “From Engagement to Disengagement: Israel’s Quest for Security and Stability,” was sponsored by the Cornell Israel Political Affairs Committee and focused on the evolution of Israeli policy in Gaza and the West Bank since the start of the intifada six years ago.
Oren was an officer in the Israeli military when settlers in Gaza were placed on buses and driven out of their homes last August. He said that the experience was a traumatic one, but that it represented an important phase in the evolution of Israel’s political image under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
“Sharon’s disengagement policy represented a significant departure from the Israeli paradigm,” Oren argued.
In the past, Israel had returned land to the Palestinians without any practical guarantee that terrorism would stop. Under Sharon’s new policy, continued Palestinian violence after the disengagement from Gaza would not be tolerated.
Although Sharon’s policy drew the ire of many right-wing Israelis, the vast majority of the population supported the disengagement. Israelis realized, according to Oren, that staying in the Gaza Strip created more problems than it solved.
“If Israel remained in Gaza,” Oren explained, “people wouldn’t send their children to defend the settlers.”
Oren also argued that the minority status of the Israeli population in Gaza contributed to the disengagement policy.
“The State of Israel is predicated on a Jewish majority,” Oren said. The lack of a Jewish majority in Gaza, he explained, made it politically impossible to support the settlements.
Israel’s policy in Gaza, Oren claimed, can be traced back to the beginning of the Palestinian intifada, when the Israeli military was caught off-guard by a sudden increase in Palestinian violence.
“Israel was completely unprepared for Arab violence,” Oren explained. “It was nothing Israel had ever seen.”
Although Israel had been dealing with suicide bombings since 1995, the crisis in the summer of 2000 was compounded by a Palestinian population that came out in unprecedented support of terrorism.
“What was new was the massive outpouring of support among the Palestinian population for the suicide bombers,” Oren argued. The broad popular support gave the war on terror a different dynamic than it had in the past.
Surprisingly, Israel’s response was relatively peaceable. The Israeli military would attack only unpopulated Palestinian fields and unoccupied buildings instead of targeting Palestinian militants. Oren explained that the initial Israeli reaction was due to a fractioning Israeli society, half of which blamed the increased Palestinian violence on Israeli settlements in Gaza and the West Bank.
“Half of the Israeli population blamed the Israeli state for precipitating the fighting by allowing settlements to grow over the Oslo period,” Oren claimed.
It took a few years, but the government ultimately listened to the Israeli majority and pulled out of the Gaza Strip.
The State of Israel, according to Oren, has continued to evolve since last August’s disengagement.
“Since August, Israel has gone through a dramatic transformation,” Oren explained. “The recent Hamas elections offer greater latitude in dealing with the Palestinians,” he said, which provide an opportunity for peace in the Middle East.
Oren argued that Israeli citizens are more confident than ever that they can overcome Palestinian violence. He ended his lecture by telling a personal story that underscored the great resolve of the Israeli population. After a late-night suicide bombing devastated a Jerusalem café, Oren was surprised to see workers rebuilding the popular eatery hours later.
“The message was: you’re not going to beat us,” Oren said. “We will weather the storm.”
Students had high praise for Oren’s lecture.
“Many of his statements were intriguing but also very respectable,” said Linda Schwaber ’07.
Alex Matthews ’09 was especially impressed by Oren’s portrayal of Israel as a nation striving to establish peace and democracy in the Middle East.
“It was a powerful representation of what Israel is in the backwardness of … the Middle East,” Matthews said.
Archived article by Noah Grynberg