August 15th marked the seventh anniversary of the commencement of Israel’s “Disengagement” from the Gaza Strip, whereby Israel unilaterally dismantled 21 settlements—in addition to 4 in the West Bank—and withdrew every last of its 9,000 settlers and soldiers in the hopes of separating itself from the entity once and for all. The Palestinian reaction, however, to the demonstration of Israel’s ability and willingness to remove settlements in order to permit Palestinian self-governance underscores that territory and occupation are not the primary drivers of the conflict. Instead of peace, security, and prosperity, Israel has received genocidal terror and unseen levels of international hostility. Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union, and Japan, has been strengthened and the international community has sought to prevent Israel from exercising its natural right of self-defense. Disengagement, as these seven years has shown, is impossible so long as the Muslim world refuses to accept a self-governing Jewish presence in its midst.
The decision to withdraw from Gaza was a soul-searching decision for the Israeli body politic. I was in Israel that summer, imbibing the bitter Israeli debate over the future of the Zionist enterprise. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the once pro-settler Likud hawk who had declared in 2002 that the Gaza settlement of Netzarim would share the same fate as Tel Aviv, bulldozed the plan through the Knesset, triggering the fall of his government and a new coalition with the leftist Labor party. Activists lined every streetcorner in Jerusalem, handing out ribbons and wristbands, blue in support or orange in opposition. Human chains of resistance crisscrossed the country—an impressive feat, but one that also laid bare the Jewish State’s thin waist line of 9.3 miles near Tel Aviv and its total area slightly larger than Maryland. Some protesters had even slicked Israeli highways with oil or launched nails and tacks off of overpasses. Young Israeli hardliners were infiltrating Gaza through car trunks, preparing to battle the military forces of their own elected government. Israeli society was literally tearing itself apart as the Israeli government was doing precisely what it had been created to remedy: making a part of the Holy Land Judenrein.
The operation, however, went smoothly, a testament both to the immense physical, psychological, and emotional preparation by the Israel Defense Forces and the mutual respect and understanding between even the most vociferously-opposed settler leaders and considerate IDF commanders. Scenes of soldiers sobbing uncontrollably as settlers shrieked the ultimate epithets of “Gestapo” tore at the Jewish soul. The 50,000 soldier operation was Israel’s largest non-combat endeavor. Concerned that Palestinian mobs would seek to eliminate any history of the 38-year Jewish presence, Israelis even unearthed damaged Torahs and disinterred their own dead from cemeteries in Gaza in order to be reburied in Israel. One cannot conceive of a more painful undertaking. Sadly, their worst fears were confirmed.
Hours after Israel closed the gates, hoping to be rid of Gaza forever, Palestinians torched the synagogues that the Israelis had not deigned to bulldoze themselves, egged on by cheering mobs and silently overseen by Palestinian security forces. The Palestinian Authority itself had ruled that it would demolish the remaining 19 Jewish houses of worship in the Strip. Following a Muslim prayer session in the synagogue they had just looted, Hamas Senior figure Ahmed Jabri exclaimed that the “withdrawal proves that resistance is the only weapon” reiterating that “jihad and the resistance are the only ways to liberate our homeland, not negotiations and agreements.” Despite a deal brokered by former World Bank Chief James Wolfenson, whereby wealthy Jewish Americans purchased the vast greenhouses built by Israeli settlers for $14 million and bequeathed them to Palestinian farmers, those greenhouses were also set ablaze. If Palestinians truly cared more about creating their own country than of tearing down the Jewish state, then charring the prayer sites of Jews would not have been their immediate order of business.
Moreover, security for Israelis did not improve. Gaza has fired nearly 10,000 rockets and mortars into Israel since 2005, killing Israeli civilians and routinely sending thousands fleeing into bunkers. Whereas 488 projectiles were fired from Gaza in 2005, the number steadily increased in subsequent years: 1,123 in 2006, 2,427 in 2007, and 3,278 in 2008. Only after the Israeli government took action to stem the rocket tide in Operation Cast Lead—for which it was crucified by the international community’s kangaroo court—in December 2008 did the rockets dramatically subside: fewer rockets have been fired in the three and one half years since Cast Lead than in all of 2008 alone. Sardonically, when Hamas rocket attacks kill the occasional Palestinian, Hamas has merely added their names to their long list of martyrs. As the 2009 Goldstone Report, which accuses Israel of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity, and the 2010 flotilla incident demonstrated, Israel has been unable to extricate itself from Gaza as it had hoped because Hamas will not let it live in peace.
Israel is right to insist that in any final agreement Palestinians recognize it as a Jewish state for it is the defining issue of this long-standing conflict. Israeli leaders, and American Jews, have often recoiled from asserting such a condition; shockingly, the word “Jewish” does not appear in the 1993 Oslo Accords from which all subsequent Palestinian-Israeli negotiations have flowed. Only by making Palestinians—and greater Muslim society—accept the Jews’ right to exist and prosper in their patrimony will peace ever set on the Holy Land. For 64 years, Israel has tried to disengage itself from the Muslim hostility towards its existence. Only once the Muslim world acknowledges Israel’s Jewish character will it ever fully accept Israel’s permanence in the region.