TEL AVIV — Monday’s dramatic scenes of synagogues being vandalized and, in some cases, destroyed by Palestinians in Gaza reminded Oded Tira of Israel’s pullout from the Sinai Desert nearly a quarter-century ago.
Tira, a retired brigadier general in the Israeli army, was in charge of the 1982 evacuation of Yamit, the last Jewish settlement in the territory being returned to Egypt. After the evacuation was complete, the synagogue in Yamit was left standing.
A few weeks later, Tira received photographs from the area. He was horrified: The synagogue was filthy and filled with human feces. A few years later, he visited the building. It was in terrible condition, and it left Tira with feelings of shame and humiliation.
To avoid a similar fate in Gaza, Tira believed that Israel should demolish the synagogues there before turning Jewish settlements over to the Palestinian Authority. And after months of debate, that appeared to be Sharon’s government plan. But after a flurry of last-second legal and political maneuvers, Israel’s Cabinet voted Sunday to leave the houses of worship intact.
By Monday, after Israeli forces had completed their withdrawal, thousands of Palestinians were destroying some of the synagogues by hand and burning others to the ground.
Flags of several Palestinian militant factions were hung up on the ruins. Palestinian security forces stood to the side, did nothing to restrain the crowds and failed to prevent the chaotic scenes. Later the P.A. razed what remained of the vandalized buildings.
The scenes of destruction were the final phase of a hectic week that followed a ruling by the High Court of Justice permitting the army to demolish the synagogues before leaving Gaza last week. The court acted to remove an earlier injunction against demolition of the 24 synagogues in the abandoned settlements. Military officials wanted to demolish the shuls before leaving, to prevent scenes of the sort seen this week. But pro-settler groups and right-wing Knesset members appealed the demolition. In their ruling last week, the judges acknowledged the painfulness inherent in deciding to demolish the shuls, but said the matter should be decided in the political arena.
The ruling set in motion a race against the clock to find a political solution that would prevent a national trauma and grave damage to Prime Minister Sharon’s image in the upcoming political campaign. Sources in Sharon’s office hinted that he did not want to be remembered as “the first Jewish prime minister to cause the desecration of Jewish holy sites.”
The question of the fate of the synagogues had been discussed for months during meetings in the security establishment. In August, before the last-minute jockeying, the government adopted the army and the Defense Ministry’s position that the synagogues must be destroyed along with the homes of Gaza residents. The security establishment feared not only that the Palestinians would destroy the buildings, but also that they would serve as a rallying point for members of the right wing who would try to re-enter them after withdrawal.
Over the past several weeks Rabbi Michael Melchior, a Labor lawmaker, organized a series of meetings with Palestinian Authority religious leaders, together with Israeli and Palestinian government officials, trying to designate the four largest synagogues as centers for interfaith understanding and cooperation. Melchior also suggested turning the buildings into centers for humanitarian aid. However, the discussions were halted after last week’s court ruling permitting demolition.
Several hours after the court ruling, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz decided that the synagogues should not be destroyed, reversing his earlier stance. His new decision correlated with President Moshe Katzav’s appeal not to destroy the houses of worship, and echoed the view of the Chief Rabbinical Council. The council had said it was better that the synagogues be destroyed by non-Jews and not by Jews.
Over the weekend, Sharon and Mofaz agreed to take the matter to a final vote during Sunday’s Cabinet meeting.
“As a Jew and as someone who grew up in a religious home, I had to change my mind,” Mofaz was quoted as saying after he called Sharon. “As is, the disengagement process was difficult and painful — and the people of Israel should be spared this pain. It would be better to leave the synagogues there and let the Palestinians deal with them however they may.”
As the weekend progressed, a majority of Cabinet ministers lined up in favor of leaving the synagogues standing. Senior government officials were quoted as saying Sharon had changed his mind and now favored leaving the buildings intact.
Before the Cabinet vote, ministers were subjected to an intense pressure campaign led by rabbis — including Shas spiritual leader and former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef — who opposed the destruction of the synagogues. Yosef spoke with Mofaz and with Vice Premier Shimon Peres, among others. During his conversation with Mofaz, the rabbi reportedly burst into tears.
Yosef’s lead role in the campaign amounted to a reversal of a view he had expressed 14 years ago in a religious ruling issued in response to a query from the Jewish community in Cairo. The Forward has obtained a copy of his ruling, in which Yosef asserted that an abandoned synagogue is no longer a holy place after the removal of the Torah and other sacred objects.
In the end, the efforts of Yosef and others appeared to pay off. The Cabinet vote was almost unanimous. Fourteen ministers, including Sharon and Peres, voted against demolition. Only two Labor ministers were in favor. The vote undid the Cabinet’s June 6, 2004, decision stating that Israel would demolish all structures in Gush Katif without exception.
In the discussion before the vote, the head of the research department in the Israeli military’s intelligence division, Yossi Kupperwasser, said Palestinians fear that far-right activists will damage mosques throughout the country in response to vandalism against synagogues in Gush Katif. Police and officials in Israel’s Shin Bet security service also confirmed this development to the Forward, stressing that such a scenario was not ruled out in recent internal discussions.
On Monday night, after the scenes of the vandalism were aired on all the news channels, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, Israel’s former chief rabbi and currently chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, warned against harming holy sites of other religions, following threats by far-right activists to retaliate against mosques for the destruction of Gaza synagogues. “It is not our way,” Lau said. “The country must do all it can to prevent any irresponsible actions that could spark off hatred and cause bloodshed and suffering.”
Sharon, who headed to New York this week for the United Nations General Assembly, publicly condemned the attacks on the synagogues. He blamed them on Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’s failure to exercise control over Gaza. Talking to reporters on the plane to New York, Sharon declared that he had fully expected the Palestinians to act as they did.
Officials on the Palestinian side left no doubt regarding the fate of the few remaining synagogues. Hamas leaders vowed to demolish them, while Palestinian Authority security officials announced that they could not ensure the survival of the buildings. Jibril Rajoub, former national security adviser to the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, stressed that as symbols of the occupation, the synagogues must be razed.
Dozens of Palestinian youths demonstrated along the security fence in Nativ Ha’asara, the southern point of the new Israeli border with Gaza. The protestors threw stones and shouted slogans at soldiers, demanding changes in the border demarcation in the area. Israeli residents of Nativ Ha’asara are to meet next week with the commander of the army division stationed in the area. They are expected to voice fears that their homes will be fired on during future protests. Until tension on both sides of the border calms down, the army will deploy troops around the community and across the surrounding hills.
Meanwhile, chaos has emerged in the southern end of Gaza. Several hours after the Israeli army completed its withdrawal from the Philadelphi Road, hundreds of Palestinians broke through the border between Gaza and Sinai, passing from Palestinian Rafah to Egyptian Rafah. Egyptian Border Police soldiers, who are now in charge of the area, were unable to stop them. Israel’s security establishment fears that weapons will be smuggled into Gaza through Rafah and that militants will travel easily into Gaza from hostile Arab countries, transforming Gaza into a terrorist haven. Israel will monitor the situation there closely and will ask for international intervention in case things spin out of Egyptian control.
This week’s developments left opponents of the disengagement, including Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz of the Likud Party, hoping that this week’s developments will start to turn the public against the pullout. “I hope,” he said, “it will influence most Israelis who think that only good can come from the evacuation of Gaza.”