When Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon withdrew 8,000 residents and all of its defense forces from the Gaza Strip in the late summer of 2005, he offered several rationales to support what he called "disengagement." Regrettably, all but one have proven to be illusory. The result has been disastrous -- leading to the creation of a lawless terrorist haven in the Gaza Strip from which the controlling Hamas faction has lobbed thousands of crude rockets indiscriminately into southern Israel, precipitating a new generation of terror attacks against the Jewish state.
One argument cited was the need to take the teeming Gaza Strip out of the Israeli-Palestinian demographic equation. It was estimated that some 1.5 million Palestinians live in Gaza, 2.5 million Palestinians live in the West Bank, and one million Arabs lives inside Israel's green line. This population of 5 million Arabs roughly matched Israel's Jewish population of 5 million. Thus, Sharon reasoned, with just the West Bank under Israeli control, the concern that Israeli Jews would soon be a minority between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River appeared less foreboding, or at least not for several decades.
In retrospect, the Gaza withdrawal may have lifted the Jewish percentage in the remaining areas under Israeli control, but the move was premature if not completely unnecessary.
A second rationale was that if Israeli settlers were removed from Gaza, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) would have no civilian population to protect, thereby relieving the army of the need to remain. Gaza, after all, had never been a major source of the suicide bombing attacks that had occurred inside Israel's green line. In fact, throughout the "al-Aqsa intifada" that began in 2000, only one such attack originated in Gaza, when foreign nationals traveling to Israel from Gaza with British passports devastated Mike's Bar, a popular pub near the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv in 2003. The IDF had simply erected a fence to surround Gaza, preventing untold numbers of suicide attacks.
In the years since its 2005 withdrawal, the IDF has learned a difficult lesson: suicide bombing is not the only way for terrorist to inflict harm upon Israeli civilians. Indeed, a fence cannot prevent projectiles such as rockets, missiles, or mortars aimed at close-by Israeli communities.
It is unclear whether Israel assumed that the Palestinian Authority would want to keep a lid on rocket fire from Gaza, since a period of "quiet" might encourage further Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank. If this ever was the case, things certainly changed in June 2007, when Hamas' one week military coup decimated the PA's grip on power in Gaza. Since then, rockets have been landing at an increasingly rapid rate.
A third rationale for Gaza disengagement was that Israel, often maligned in the mainstream media, would win a public relations victory from its unilateral withdrawal. This was wishful thinking. While the media has occasionally heaped scorn upon Hamas for its indiscriminate rocket attacks, the disengagement has done little to improve Israel's steady drubbing when it defends itself.
Sadly, the occasional criticism of Hamas violence seems to suggest that indiscriminate attacks on Israeli civilian targets were somehow more justified during the period when Israel controlled Gaza. Meanwhile, Israel is still castigated by the United Nations, left-leaning Human Rights groups and NGOs, and, of course, the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. These groups can no longer castigate Israel for occupying the Gaza Strip so they now level new charges of collective punishment against Palestinian civilians in Gaza, when Israel responds with military operations in the areas where the rockets are launched.
A Gesture For Peace
A fourth rationale for the Gaza withdrawal was that it would lead to an improved atmosphere between Israel and the PA, and perhaps nudge both parties towards negotiating peace. The Olmert and Abbas governments are now busy negotiating a "shelf" agreement, but it is one in which even the most ardent peace pundits have little to no faith. There are currently two Palestinian entities: Hamastan in Gaza, and the PA under Mahmoud Abbas, which maintains only tenuous control in the West Bank. If not for a steady IDF presence, analysts believe Hamas could easily take over. The PA is negotiating with Israel as if it controls Gaza , and Israel plays along. Only, Hamas is as much at war with the PA, as they are with Israel.
Let Gazans Control Their Destiny
The final rationale for the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 may prove to be the only one with validity. Optimists viewed Palestinian "sovereignty" in Gaza as a way for the Palestinians to demonstrate that, once in control of their own destiny, Gazans could take responsibility for their quality of life and their economic condition.
At least in one way, this has been a successful experiment. Hamas has demonstrated ingenuity in two areas: construction of smuggling tunnels under the border crossing between Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and Gaza, and mass-producing rockets with more precise targeting ability, greater firing range, and more destructive capability. While both endeavors have increased Hamas' ability to strike at Israeli civilians, they have done little to help the Palestinian national cause. By their own admission, Gazans are awash in misery and poverty.
Before its landslide electoral victory in 2006, Hamas was described by naïve observers as the one Palestinian group free of corruption. Compared to the ossified and corrupt Fatah party, Hamas could claim that it was the good government party, particularly since it had been providing social services to Palestinians through its da'wa (outreach) system for years.
Since the election Hamas has proven that feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, and providing medicines to the sick are among its lowest priorities. Rather, Hamas has focused all of its resources on attacking Israel - and even Fatah.
There are two painful lessons that can be learned from the daily rocket fire on Sderot, Ashkelon, and other population centers in Israel's south. First, Israeli gestures of good will signal weakness, and can lead to greater Palestinian hostility and violence. Second, half measures never solve any underlying problems.
Indeed, every one of the rationales for the 2005 disengagement envisioned a quiet border, and an improved security situation. Hopefully, the Israelis have learned two more lessons from the Gaza situation: know your enemy, and no more wishful thinking.
Richard Baehr is political director of American Thinker.