Librarian Stephanie Wells so opposed Israel's unilateral withdrawal from 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza last summer that she moved to the disputed territory just three weeks before troops moved in. She stayed to the bitter end.
Among the most committed in the fight against the withdrawal, the Los Angeles resident said she flew halfway around the world and took a two-week leave of absence from her job to show her support for the settlers. She'd hoped that taking a stand, both literally and physically, would help derail the planned evacuation. She believed that pulling out of Gaza would embolden Palestinian terrorists and go down in history as one of Israel's gravest mistakes.
Less than a year after Israel's withdrawal, Wells and other Los Angeles-based disengagement opponents view what's happening in Gaza as their worst fears coming to pass. Far from acting as a catalyst for peace, they say, Israel's "abandonment" of Gaza has been greeted with Qassam rocket attacks, terrorism and the murder and abduction of Israeli soldiers. The Palestinians have elected a government headed by Hamas, a party committed to Israel's destruction and classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. Israel last week re-entered Gaza to quell violence emanating from a crowded and impoverished territory teeming with Islamic extremist and other terrorists.
"We had people who were willing to be the front line in Gush Katif, and now the front line has moved into Israel proper," Wells said. "And what did Israel get for [the unilateral withdrawal]? Hamas is in charge, and Israel is being shelled daily."
Disengagement proponents respond that terrorism has been an ongoing problem and did not suddenly appear after Israel's evacuation. They also dispute the argument that Palestinians voted for Hamas as an endorsement of the group's terror tactics. Instead, they say, Palestinians had tired of the then-ruling Palestinian Authority's corruption and turned to Hamas to send a message of frustration and as a signal of the need for a government they believed would be more responsive and competent in serving their needs.
Leaving Gaza also made sense morally, said Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.
"For Israel to remain a democratic and Jewish state, it cannot occupy and control millions of Palestinians indefinitely," he said.
The Israeli consulate in Los Angeles declined to comment for this article.
The majority of Israeli and American Jews believed that the occupation of Gaza came at an unsustainable political, economic and moral price. And despite the "I told you so implications" of some who opposed the move, there is no widespread public support for going back into Gaza.
Nevertheless, many opponents of the withdrawal here in Los Angeles and elsewhere look upon the unfolding events in Israel as a tragic consequence of last year's pullout.
Jon Hambourger, founder of L.A.-based SaveGushKatif.org, at one time the biggest U.S. organization committed solely to keeping Gaza in Jewish hands, believes that nothing good has come from the withdrawal. He believes it has boosted the standing of Hamas and other terrorist groups in Palestinian society, which claim that suicide bombers and Qassam rockets forced the Jews to retreat in fear. With Israel out of Gaza, new terror groups have moved in to fill the vacuum, including Al Qaeda, Hambourger said.
"The unilateral withdrawal didn't bring peace, it brought war," he said.
Hambourger, like many of the mostly Orthodox Jewish members of his organization, believes God entrusted the Jews with stewardship over Gaza and the West Bank, which they call Judea and Samaria. As such, Hambourger largely opposes the concept of trading land for peace, especially since he so distrusts the Palestinians.
Still, he thinks Israel made a terrible strategic mistake by giving away Gaza without demanding anything in return. At the very least, Hambourger said, the Jewish state should have insisted that the Palestinians cease publishing officially sanctioned newspapers and school textbooks brimming with anti-Semitic invective.
Wells, the L.A. resident and SaveGushKatif member who moved to Gaza, believes an Israeli school where she spent some time during her stay in Gush Katif has since become a terrorist training camp.
For settler advocates, the aftermath of the Gaza pullout has only intensified their opposition to ceding another inch of Israeli territory -- disputed or otherwise -- to the Palestinians, whom they consider an implacable foe bent on Israel's destruction.
"The lesson is obvious: A pullout from Judea and Samaria will result in another terrorist state within Israel," said Larry Siegel, a SaveGushKatif member, who in 2003 raised $140,000 for Israeli terror victims.
"The Israeli government is basically in a state of war right now for having given away Gaza," added Shifra Hastings, another SaveGushKatif partisan. "There is no justification for giving away any more."
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