Editor’s Notes: The internal fallout from Gaza

By David Horovitz August 19, 2005

Our political system is in chaos, marked by incoherent, puny factions riven by internal conflict. We need leaders to articulate a long-term strategy, we need to make our electoral choice, and we need to live by it – or risk not living here at all

In Gush Katif two weeks ago, I stood in the small room where the Atzmona religious pre-army academy commemorated its dead: five of its teenage students who were gunned down when a Palestinian terror gang infiltrated the settlement in 2002, and double that number of graduates who, in uniform, have lost their lives in Israel’s defense.

Each of the dead was memorialized with a modest plaque – the name, the dates, a simple photograph.
Standing in a corner, Elisha Peleg, a young bearded man who spoke, appropriately in such a room, so softly as to be barely audible, described the academy’s history – and its future. Well over 100 students had already signed up for next year’s intake, he said.

It seemed callous to offend, in this solemn setting most of all, but ‘next year’s intake’? The evacuation of Gaza’s settlements was only days away.

But Peleg was not delusional. Whether the Atzmona academy was in Gaza or not next year, he explained gently, it would continue to operate. If, or rather when, the Israeli army came knocking on the doors to implement the pullout, the staff and students would depart, sorrowfully but peacefully. Ultimately, he said, it was the will of the Israeli public that would determine the fate of Atzmona and the other settlements, and if the withdrawal went ahead, he sighed, that would prove that, in ‘this round’ of the nation’s history, the would-be builders of Jewish Gaza had not galvanized enough of that public.

And so it proved, immediately after midnight as Tuesday August 16 became Wednesday August 17, and time ran out. Told by the army that they now had to leave, academy principal Rabbi Rafi Peretz and his students held their final prayers and departed.

Peretz, with whom I spoke by telephone on Thursday afternoon, doesn’t know where the academy will be situated next year. He says he’s been told of no alternative locations to date. ‘And it’s not a few people in a tent; it’s 250 students and staff,’ he notes.

The rabbi is convinced that Israel is making a mistake of historic proportions. ‘We are uprooting people, against their will, in the midst of their pioneering activity. These are sand dunes where nobody lived before. Now it is green, flourishing. I hoped it wouldn’t happen. I prayed it wouldn’t happen. I believed that our activity here, our success, proved that the prophecy was with us. I believe the people of Israel will return here. But for now, we will have to find other ways to do God’s work.’

Why the orderly, disciplined departure, given all the uncertainty about the future and the conviction that the pullout is so misguided? ‘I respect the army,’ he says simply. ‘I respect the sovereign authority.

‘My left hand doesn’t fight my right.’

THE PULLOUT from Gaza is not complete, but its contours are clear.

The confrontations between settlers and soldiers have sometimes been appalling – notably at Kfar Darom on Thursday evening – but, mercifully, as I write these lines, they have not been bloody.

Fortunately, too, despite months of relentless sloganeering in a misdirected and dreadfully self-defeating strategic campaign to persuade soldiers that their army lacks legitimacy, there has been no significant incidence of soldiers refusing orders.

The practical complications of persuading several thousand reluctant civilians to leave their homes and neighborhoods, via narrow roads adjacent to murderous enemy territory – while at the same time affording access to the human drama for thousands of journalists moving in the opposite direction – have, however improbably, proved surmountable.

Many, many settlers, like those responsible for the Atzmona academy, have demonstrated a quiet heroism – accepting, however reluctantly, that the Israeli government that encouraged them to build their lives beyond our country’s sovereign borders was now calling them back.

Many of Gaza’s settlers have paid the heaviest price for electing to live there, losing relatives and friends to Palestinian terrorism. Many have now been forced twice to relocate – first from the Sinai settlements to Gaza, in the cause of Israeli-Egyptian peace, and now out of Gaza. For some, who came to Israel from Arab countries, like Elei Sinai’s founder Avi Farhan, this is actually a third enforced move.

Almost all of them, surely, voted for this government in the belief that it represented their best hope of remaining in Gaza. Almost all of them are certain that the pullout is a disaster, a capitulation to terrorism that will only invite further attacks. But thousands of them, nonetheless, emptied out their homes and departed.

The thousands of soldiers and police have demonstrated almost inconceivable heroism, too. We Israelis do not become unthinking automatons when we put on our uniforms. Indeed, ours is the only army in the world that positively requires its personnel to keep on thinking for themselves within the disciplined military hierarchy, and to refuse to carry out an order that is patently illegal. In short, we demand that our troops, from the lowest private up, act as their commanders’ judge and jury, in the midst of conflict, instantly.

And almost without exception, those thousands of troops – many of them insulted, abused, spat upon and, at Kfar Darom, pelted with various objects, and by their fellow Israelis at that – reached the same personal conclusion in the heat of the moment as that articulated in the rarefied atmosphere of the president’s residence by Moshe Katsav on Wednesday: Implementing the pullout – as approved by the government and by parliament, and tested in the Supreme Court – was patently anything but illegal.

Having resisted the natural impulse to flee in the face of so dreadful an encounter with their fellow countrymen, those thousands of soldiers and police – many of them moved to tears, others in stoic silence – soaked up the sometimes hysterical abuse and got on with their mission.

‘The hardest task I’ve ever faced in the army,’ was how a senior educational officer at one of the Gaza settlements described it to journalists on Wednesday morning. Harder, that is, than sending troops into battle, than fighting terrorism – than risking his life.

He was speaking after a young woman had rained invective down upon him, asking him how he could live with himself as he forced Jews out of their homes, what kind of a man he was, what kind of an army he served in. His jaw clenched, he turned his head away from her at times, but he said nothing to her in response.

There has been quiet heroism, too, from rabbis and social workers and ordinary Israelis who have tried, in one way or another, to cushion the blow of enforced departure – doing everything from talking people off rooftops to coming to meet the evacuees with food and drink at their temporary new homes.

But, sadly, there has been no shortage of villains, either – notably those Gaza settlers and their supporters who, for all their pain and trauma, allowed themselves to forget that the soldiers and police now sent to remove them were their fellow Israelis, the self-same people who have risked their lives to protect the settlements year in, year out, without so much as a thought of conveniently refusing orders.

Then there were the parents who elected not to spare young children from the worst of the trauma and who, in some extreme cases, went so far as to use their own toddlers as political bargaining chips, holding them out to soldiers, taunting the troops, daring them to evacuate them.

There were those who, again in extreme cases, tore and burned our flag, the symbol of our rebuilt Jewish nation, of our sovereignty, imitating the act of symbolic national destruction for which we rightly revile our Islamic terrorist enemies.

There were those, a minority too, who again insistently resorted to Holocaust symbolism, despicably equating the mass murder of millions of our people with their own forced relocation to territory within which their government feels better able to protect them. To see a family from Kerem Atzmona walking toward the bus with orange stars on their shirts, hands raised in meek submission, in an evident staged echo of Jews being led to the gas chambers was a nauseating insult to the Jewish collective memory.

And then there were the rabbis who claimed blasphemously to know the will of the Divine and arrogantly asserted that He would not allow this catastrophe to happen; rabbis who misled their people by speaking out falsely, or failed them through silence in the hour of their need.

Twice in recent weeks we have seen the murderous consequences of a skewed determination to prevent the pullout, in the shape of Jewish terrorism that stains and lowers us to the base levels of our worst enemies.

There will be wider, if less immediate, consequences, too. Many, many God-fearing people truly believed that settlement in Gaza was a Divinely-ordered mission and, as such, simply could not fail. Its cessation, therefore, will represent for many the collapse not only of a lifestyle, but of a guiding ideology. How that ideological meltdown is contained will depend in large part on how those same influential rabbis act now. This is a profound test of the partnership between democratic Israel and parts of religious Zionism. And it is a veritable crisis for religious Zionism itself.

AND, FINALLY, to our politicians – those we have chosen and those we should choose.

Israel’s political leadership has failed its people since the 1967 war by neither pursuing, nor even articulating, a consistent vision of the strategic borders of this country. First we send Jews to live in the Sinai, then we pull them back. We send them to Gaza, then order them out. These are real people with real lives and real emotions, not political playthings.

Now we are building a security barrier that takes in 7 percent of the West Bank. Are the dozens of settlements on the far side of that barrier crucial to the national interest, or not? Is it vital that we extend sovereignty beyond the barrier to encompass some or all of them? Do we seek international support for extending sovereignty throughout the 7 percent? In part of the 7 percent?

We all have our own positions on these and similar territorial questions. What we lack as a nation is a political leadership that sets out its positions on them – practical, real positions, not rhetorical stances. Without that, we are denied the opportunity to accurately discern which political grouping will genuinely represent our interests. Without that, government after government stands accused of playing tactics rather than strategy, and of misleading the voters when it adopts policies subtly or significantly at odds with those it has purported to champion.

Without that, furthermore, to our immense damage, we spend year after year misleading our own people and presenting an unfathomably muddied picture of our vital interests to the world. The Palestinians have long since embedded in the international consciousness their insistence on a state throughout the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, and much of the international community has already moved on from there to the discussion of whether Israel has any right to exist at all.

But Israel? What vital interests have our leaders consistently hammered home? What position have we sought to establish as our bottom line? What are the contours of the Israel we want our supporters to champion?

As we struggle through this wrenching departure from Gaza – a relatively small 8,000 people, remember, required to leave an area that has not been central to the Jewish historical narrative – the need for clear and consistent thinking and leadership on the permanent dimensions of our country has never been more apparent.

The waiting game is deeply debilitating internationally, and cannot be sustained internally. Our political system is in chaos, an over-abundance of incoherent, puny factions riven by internal conflict. We need leaders to articulate a long-term strategy, we need to make our electoral choice, and we need to live by it – or risk not living here at all.

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