After the dust has settled and Israel concludes its unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, a key issue will be whether the move will enhance its security or not. Will it be perceived as a "victory for terror" as the right wing has claimed, or a "base for Islamic terror" as former Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has said? Or will it enhance Israel's overall security posture? There is absolutely no question at all that from a security perspective this move will in the short, medium and long run only enhance Israel's security.
The Gaza settlements were a strategic dinosaur. They were built in the early 1970s as a buffer between a hostile Egypt and a hostile Gaza. Israel has been at peace with Egypt for almost three decades. The nearest Egyptian gun or tank to the border with Israel is on the other side of the Suez Canal, hundreds of kilometers away. Given the massive military outlay in protecting the 8,000 or so settlers, Gush Katif had turned from a strategic asset to a strategic burden.
Only about 800 of the 8,000 people living in Gush Katif were involved in agriculture, with all the actual work being done by Thai laborers and a few Palestinians when the security situation allowed. Many of the others were either yeshiva students, regional council officials -- many jobs were created specifically to bring people to live in the area -- or people who worked in Israel proper and came back home to a nice, almost rent-free home by the sea.
These 8,000 lived as an island in a sea of 1.3 million Palestinians. The settlements themselves took up 30 percent of the land and 50 percent of the water in the most populated piece of real estate in the world, which also has one of the fastest-growing populations on earth. In order to ensure the safety of the Jewish settlers as much as possible, special roads were built and patrolled, and thousands of Palestinian homes were bulldozed 30 meters to either side of the road, causing Israel's international image enormous damage, not to mention the human suffering to those who lost their homes, which can only lead to deeper hatred for Israel and the creation of new potential suicide bombers.
There are those who argue that by pulling out of Gaza unilaterally, Israel has damaged its deterrent image. The opposite is true. The last thing the Palestinians wanted was this unilateral pullback that sheds Israel of 1.3 million Palestinians, muting the demographic clock and its potential threat to Israel as a Jewish democratic state. The pullout leaves Palestinians with no independent state. By acting unilaterally, Israel has demonstrated that no matter how complicated the move -- and uprooting 8,000 people from their homes is no easy matter -- it will do what is in the country's best interests.
Having thousands of troops in Gaza protecting, for example the tiny settlement of Netzarim, which is almost in the middle of Gaza City, was sapping the country's security mechanisms; they were already overloaded fighting a four-year war against terror. Israel's security forces were needed on the streets of Jerusalem and Netanya and Tel Aviv -- not in Gaza.
As for the claim that Gaza will become a terror base: It always has been. The settlers in Gush Katif were pounded with thousands of mortars and Kassam rockets, incidents happening almost every day. Kassam rockets have been fired at the Negev town of Shderot periodically. Even Netanyahu would agree, one supposes, that it is much easier for the Israeli army to deal with the terror threat in Gaza without 8,000 Jews running between their legs. If it does become a base of terror attacks against Israel in a significant way, Israel has the force to deal with it.
Another very important consequence of the move is that now Gaza and Egypt have a joint border without Jewish settlements separating them. Many fear that this will lead to a massive smuggling in of weapons once the Israeli forces leave what is known as the Philadelphi Axis, which separates Palestinian Gaza from Egypt.
The truth is that Israel was never able to stop the smuggling of weapons into the Strip, as witnessed by the almost daily mortar and rocket attacks. While the Jews were in Gaza, the several dozen Egyptian policemen guarding the Egyptian side of the border were always open to a little baksheesh (bribery), and Egypt had little or no incentive to do much about the situation. Now Egypt, faced with a huge problem of terror against its tourism infrastructure in the Sinai, has every interest in ensuring that the border is as hermetically sealed as possible. The police have been replaced by several hundred crack troops and the Egyptians, Israelis and Americans have cooperated well in working out mutually acceptable security arrangements.
A final reason why Israel has come out of this experience stronger is that democracy won over theocracy. Less than 100 of the 15,000 Israeli troops and other security personnel employed in enforcing the pullback heeded the call of some West Bank rabbis to disobey orders, and chose instead to do the will of the majority. Thirty percent of the Israeli officer corps is Modern Orthodox, many of them from West Bank settlements themselves, and had they listened to the rabbis, Israel would be a very different country today. It would have started being destroyed not by the enemy in Gaza, but by the enemy within.
That the enemy from within has been defeated is probably one of the most important consequences of this whole painful -- but eminently worthwhile -- exercise.
Hirsh Goodman, a senior fellow at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, is the author of "Let Me Create a Paradise, God Said to Himself: A Journey of Conscience From Johannesburg to Jerusalem" (Perseus Books, 2005).
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