Q: Israelis fear that Gaza could become "Hamasland" after the withdrawal.
A: Let Israel die.
—Hamas spokesman, in an interview with the Saudi daily Asharq Al-Awsat, on August 18th.
The heartbreaking scenes in Gaza show us what the managed exodus of hundreds of families looks like. It means tearing down synagogues and kindergartens, exhuming graves, and ordering an armed force to resettle its own civilians against their will — at a cost of billions of dollars and what seems like as many tears. But Ariel Sharon's abandonment of Gaza is the act of a statesman.
For disengagement is in Israel's interests. Israel has no partner for peace among the Palestinians, nor any interest in waiting for one. Sharon began arguing in recent years that his country had better options than the continued occupation of lands crowded with 3.5 million Palestinians, the price for which Israel paid in terms of military, economic, and moral well-being. He observed, too, that if Israel didn't act to exclude Arabs, whose birthrate is fourfold that of Israeli Jews, Jews would, within decades, become a minority in lands under Israeli control. Sharon will withdraw settlers and soldiers from the conquered territories — Gaza first and parts of the West Bank (much) later — while finishing a fence to seal a favorable border.
It is, or should be, in Israel's diplomatic interests. The commitment to peace on the part of the "international community" is being tested: as Israel accedes to the decades-long demand of the United Nations and European and Arab states, will these groups pressure the Palestinians, too, to act for the sake of peace, as demanded by every Middle East peace text since Middle East peace texts began? We will see.
And disengagement is in the interests of Palestinians, who will soon have their chance to build a state. Theoretically, that is. There is little to suggest that Palestine will avoid the fate of its Arab neighbors: poverty, misrule, nepotism, and violence. But they won't have occupation to blame. The impending disaster of Palestine belongs to them, not Israel.
* * *
From the 1991 Madrid conference to the 1993 Oslo agreement to the 2003 "road map" and Geneva Accords, the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was always premised on a negotiated give-and-take. For this reason, diplomats and editorialists alike chorused that "painful concessions" were essential. Disengagement is precisely this. But it is outside the old framework of reciprocal concessions. Only by understanding that the logic of negotiation is irrelevant here, i.e., that Israel is acting unilaterally in what it perceives as its best interests, can the unrequited abandonment of a key asset make sense. "We have not conceded on assets that give us an advantage, rather we have rid ourselves of a burden that it was not within our power to bear," writes Yediot Aharonot, an Israeli daily.
The Israeli sin is occupation and the Palestinian sin is terrorism. But now Israel makes redress. What have the Palestinians done? Nothing. Actually, that's not true: they've been busy partying. And praising themselves: "This pullout is the result of our sacrifice, of our patience," said President Mahmoud Abbas. In another speech: "The credit [for the withdrawal] goes to the martyrs." Abbas has no plans to confront the terrorists under his dominion. (Nor has a single terrorist been arrested during his tenure.) On the contrary, the martyrs are gearing up for a new round of holy war. Critics of the withdrawal warned that its greatest peril was that Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Fatah would interpret Israel's sacrifice as their victory.
The critics were right. As Palestinian groups celebrate carnival-style, basking in praise from across the Arab world, one doubts that many of them actually believed that the end of occupation meant the end of fighting. Were that true, last week's events would be cause to lay down their rifles; instead, they seem readier than ever to discharge them. Unless, of course, occupation referred not to the '67 ceasefire borders, but to Israel proper. A newly-bold Hamas spokesman explains: "We do not and will not recognize a state called Israel. Israel has no right to any inch of Palestinian land."
The cutthroats of Hamas, like Jack the Ripper in his infamous letter to a London paper, have informed their pursuers that they shan't quit ripping till they do get buckled. Islamic Jihad took potshots at departing settlers, and even attempted a suicide bombing on the first day of evacuations, which Israel intercepted. But another bomber did make it through on the Sunday after withdrawal, maiming 10 in the city of Be'er Sheva. With these groups there is no "peace process." There is a war process. Israel must meet the next wave of Palestinian shootings, stabbings, rocket attacks, and suicide bombings with retaliation swift and fierce.
But this time around, after withdrawal, Israel need only concern itself with attacking, not defending, in Gaza. Nor can Palestinian aggressors dupe anyone with claims about "resistance to occupation." (Or maybe they can.) Masked Palestinian "fighters" parade in the streets as if disengagement was prompted by their labors. Let them turn their guns on Israeli soldiers and see what ensues.
* * *
At this turning point in Middle Eastern history, with a frightening and uncertain year ahead, it's worth reminding ourselves once more that we deal with two very different societies.
Both sides fight, but not for the same reasons. Israel fights to preserve its democracy; Hamas fights to establish theocracy. Israeli politicians seek public support by promising solutions and calm; Palestinian leaders do so by pledging struggle and martyrdom. Israelis are saddened when their army causes injury to innocent Palestinians and prosecute their soldiers who violate the law. Palestinians greet atrocities carried out in their honor with cheers, rationalization, and fireworks (or, as on 9/11, they hand out sweets). If Israelis march in the streets, they brandish placards; if Palestinians pour into the streets, expect automatic weapons.
If there wasn't a profound cultural asymmetry not only between Israel and Palestine, but between Israel and its neighbors, how else do you explain the absence of a single group sympathetic to Israel among 300 million Arabs? Why do only 2 out of 22 Arab states diplomatically recognize Israel? Why was "I Hate Israel" a major pop hit in Egypt, while the reverse could never be true? Why do the chief imams in Saudi Arabia preach racist hatred against Jews on a weekly basis, calling them "the sons of pig and monkeys," but chief rabbis in Israel never reciprocate? Where are the Palestinian peace marches? Is it that Palestinians have nothing to apologize for, nothing to concede, and no Israeli justice to recognize?
For Israelis, peace means not being searched at restaurant entrances, or having your blood turn cold at the sound of sirens, or spending 10% of your nation's GDP on defense. Above all it means not being killed in the midst of life's domestic harmonies by teenagers. If Palestinians behaved like Israelis, reconciling themselves to compromise, peace would be at hand. But if Israelis behaved more like Palestinians, prizing victory above peace, they might learn a valuable lesson. For disengagement cannot bring peace; the withdrawal is from the land, not the struggle. Nothing can bring Israel peace until Palestinian terrorism is routed. Victory precedes peace, and it is on victory that Israel must now concentrate.