This summer, Israel will withdraw its troops from Gaza and the northern West Bank and remove the 9,000 Jewish civilians who call those places home. While much has been written about Prime Minister Sharon’s disengagement process already, it is worth revisiting how this ill-advised decision was taken, for it holds a very real and threatening lesson for the future of the State of Israel.
Last year, Sharon succeeded in maneuvering the country into adopting the bold, even surprising, unilateral disengagement plan. First the Cabinet voted approvingly, and then the Knesset voted 59-32 in favor. On the way to legislating the plan, however, Sharon lost his own Likud Party’s internal referendum and fired two ministers in order to gain a majority in the Cabinet. He also refused to extend military chief of staff Moshe Ayalon’s term of service after he expressed misgivings about the plan..
The disengagement policy and the lengths to which Sharon has been willing to go in order to ram it through make a remarkable turnabout for the prime minister. His last election campaign, which kicked off in late 2002, was waged against Labor Party candidate Amram Mitzna and his proposal to unilaterally disengage from Gaza. Fudging on campaign promises is, of course, nothing new for politicians, but the gap in public accountability, created by Sharon, had even veterans startled.
As for the disengagement plan itself, little mention has been made of the fact that Israel already handed over all of the densely populated sections of Gaza a decade ago, and it was only Palestinian terrorism that kept Israeli troops in the area. A total handover of all Gaza, therefore, should not be necessary in order for Israel to comply with the demand for territorial compromise.
Much as Israel’s withdrawal from Southern Lebanon in 2000 was seen by many Arabs as a victory for terrorism, the withdrawal from Gaza is all but certain to be taken as a withdrawal from the intifada. Sharon, then, has Israel returning to square one: With Palestinian terrorism perceived as the sole instrument that can cause Israel to yield, new negotiations will always depend on how many Jews are killed or wounded in future attacks.
Moreover, all indications are that Israel will not be disengaging from terrorism. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has been unsuccessful in asserting authority over the mavericks in Fatah, not to mention over Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Eventually the missiles, which can be expected to have their range and performance improved, will fly easily over any fence Israel could build. Sharon’s farm in the Negev could be their next target.
Meanwhile, demographics will continue to represent a major difficulty — especially the Palestinian demand to give refugees the right of return. If population density is indeed a major factor, then why should Israel disengage from northern Gaza — where no Palestinians are living or have lived?
With all the spin being put on Sharon’s plan, both at home and abroad, there should be clarity about exactly what is set to transpire this summer: Israel will be disengaging from a portion of the original area recognized by the League of Nations mandate as the future Jewish national home.
As it is, Gaza was home to Jews centuries before the League of Nations mandate. Until its recent destruction, tourists could view the floor of a synagogue in Gaza City. Around the world, on every Sabbath, hymns composed in Gaza in the 16th century are sung. It was only in 1929, when Arab rioters forced Jews out of the area, as they had in Hebron, that this continuum was forcibly broken.
Make no doubt about it: Sharon has set Israel on a course of disengagement that is stripping Israel of its history and the Jewish people of their identity. This process is already quite advanced in Jerusalem, where the Temple Mount has been pillaged and its archeological artifacts have been discarded and eradicated. The burning of Joseph’s Tomb outside of Nablus is yet another instance, one that also points to the durability of agreements made with the P.A.
Simply put, a country denied its past and denuded of its culture and history will be rendered soulless — all the more so if the act is committed willingly by its own hand.
Sharon has disengaged Israel from fundamental democratic principles with his high-handed manner of ignoring votes against him and with his firing of independent-minded ministers before they could vote against his plan. He has instigated a media spin that portrays demonstrators as agitators of civil war. Special tribunals have been established to enable summary judgments. And the justice ministry, the state prosecutor’s office and police are promoting policies that have a chilling effect on free speech and lawful assembly.
Opponents of disengagement suggested a referendum, but Sharon’s disdain for an instrument of true participatory democracy quickly ended that effort. A nonviolent protest campaign, therefore, is a perfectly legitimate step. In fact, in such circumstances it is nothing less than a national obligation — to ourselves, to our history and to our future. One man’s presumption should not be permitted, in a democracy, to override too many concerns of doubtful success.
Yisrael Medad is foreign media spokesperson for the Yesha Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza.