Well, oddly enough, Israel is complying. As a result of dangers to Israeli civilians inhabiting remote portions of the Gaza Strip-and the consequent toll upon the soldiers assigned to protect them from terrorist attacks-the typically right-wing Sharon adopted a leftist policy designed to save lives and remove a bit of the pressure from the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). The plan passed through Sharon’s coalition cabinet last week after being ratified by Israel’s Knesset in January. Under the current evacuation plan, thousands of Israelis will be removed from Gaza and parts of the West Bank and relocated to the friendly confines of Israel proper between July and October. As a result, IDF presence in Gaza will virtually disappear.
But what are we to make of Sharon’s bold, leftist withdrawal? Israel is set to hand over full control of certain territories-including international borders with Egypt and the Mediterranean coastline-to whatever group of Palestinians can control it. The evacuation will not only save lives, but is a powerful statement that Israel is, as always, ready to move towards a final peace agreement. Am I in favor of the plan? Yes.
But if only it were that simple. First of all, it is not easy to ask your fellow countryman to abandon the cemetery where loved ones are buried. It is not easy to ask him to leave the home where his children were born and raised. Apart from that, Israel surely recognizes the similarities between the current evacuation plan and the withdrawal of troops from Lebanon in 2000. Five years ago, the IDF pulled out of Lebanon, where it had established a nine-mile buffer zone to protect Israel’s northern border from Hizbollah terrorists. That, coupled with former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s unprecedented offerings to Yasser Arafat at Camp David three months later, were taken in the Arab world as signs of weakness.
Lo and behold, September 2000 marked the beginning of the al-Aqsa intifada, the Arafada, the second intifada or whatever you want to call it. Whatever its name, this wave of terrorist attacks was a direct result of the perceived weakness of the Israelis. Mostly dormant for a few years, a number of pan-Arab terrorist organizations like Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade and the aforementioned Hezbollah were encouraged to redouble their efforts in pursuit of Israel’s ultimate destruction. If it was this easy to get them out of Lebanon, they thought, why not go after more? If Israel would offer 97 percent of the West Bank after the Palestinians broke the Oslo Accords, how much would the Israelis cave with even more violence?
All of this establishes a few key points. Contrary to popular belief, terrorist acts have not been in response to Israeli aggression, but rather just the opposite. There has been no cycle of violence: Gestures of peace from the Israelis have directly resulted in Arab terror. In an effort to protect its citizens, the IDF has adopted a hard-line defense stance: arresting plotting terrorists, crippling the leadership of terrorist organizations through select assassinations and defending Israel’s borders with fences and soldiers.
Disagree with her policies all you want, but Israel is merely protecting her citizens. Although some tactics are questionable, claims that Israel’s actions fuel further terror are unfounded. In fact, the opposite is true: For example, since 2002 there has been a drastic reduction in suicide bombers crossing Israel’s borders. Negotiating when there is no credible partner or even adopting unilateral gestures of peace has proven to be counterproductive. Not allowing terrorists to kill you tends to work, however.
The Gaza withdrawal lends credence to the absurd double standard that Arabs are allowed to live in Israel, but under no circumstances should a Jew be allowed to live in an Arab-majority territory. The evacuation is a reward for terrorism-an unequivocal statement that terrorism does pay off sometimes. Israel surely realizes that she risks reinvigorating the terrorists’ morale. So why would I come out in support of such a plan? What is the difference this time around? Though the evacuation is a small victory for terrorists, they would be remiss to think that East Jerusalem or any other part of Israel proper will ever fall into their hands. Though the evacuation was conceived when Yasser Arafat still ruled, the withdrawal has been transformed into a vote of confidence for the new democratically-elected Palestinian leadership-an even more powerful statement.
Understanding the risks of being overly dovish, the Israelis are coupling the evacuation with the passive yet effective plan of completing the West Bank security fence. Despite rewarding terrorism, Israel is simultaneously asserting her inviolable right to defend herself as she sees fit. With only fractions of the barrier completed thus far, a remarkable decrease in infiltrations has occurred. Its completion will surely reduce illegal border crossings even further.
But Israel must have the well-being of the Palestinians in mind as well. Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others will continue to repress the Palestinians by spending their resources on bombs and murdering their youth by convincing them to martyr themselves. This is where the new Palestinian leadership must come in. Mahmoud Abbas (who, despite being a Holocaust-denier, does not sign checks to terrorist organizations like Arafat did) now finds himself in a position to influence real change, courtesy of Sharon. He must help Israel in the war on terror and convince a generation of Palestinian youths that martyrdom ultimately achieves nothing.
What better example for the Palestinian people than the residents of the West Bank town Beit Sourik, who won a lawsuit in the Israeli Supreme Court last June after challenging details of the security fence’s route? This sends a clear message that democracy works, and that the best route may be to follow in the footsteps of the Israelis.
Meanwhile, kassam rockets are regularly fired over the existing security fence surrounding Gaza into Israel proper. There is no reason to think that such attacks will cease or that West Bank terrorists will not resort to this form of murder. Israel tried to do her part through concessions back in 2000 and it backfired. As a result, Israel is now coupling concessions with increased self defense. Only time will tell if this revised strategy works or not. In the meantime, Israel is placing a great deal of trust in the hands of Mahmoud Abbas and his newly formed cabinet. Yet again, Israel is putting herself on the line in the name of pursuing peace, taking the first bold steps and placing a bit of trust in the Palestinians. It is my hope that this time, for the first time, Israel has a capable and willing partner.
Epner can be reached at [email protected]