D-day arrived on Wednesday. Following two intense years of preparation, political struggle, popular doubts and soul-searching, Israel's military and police were ordered to carry out Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to evacuate the Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip. Thirty-eight years of Israeli settlement in the midst of a densely populated Palestinian area reached their end in an emotional scene of unarmed soldiers and officers, wearing blue caps and vests with Israel's flag and national emblem, carrying the remaining settlers, one by one, to the waiting buses under the scorching August sun.
The first day of forced evacuation -- the settlers were allowed to leave on their own until Wednesday -- went better than planned. The massive concentration of force decided the battle even before it began, and both settlers and soldiers have shown remarkable restraint. There was almost no physical violence, only verbal abuse by angry settlers, who equated the government's forces to Nazis deporting Jews to their death in the Holocaust.
The news from Gush Katif, the heart of the Gaza settlement enterprise, focused on the tears of uniformed soldiers and orange-clad settlers. These were not easy images for the Israeli public, whose national identity has been built around the army as the "melting pot" of an immigrant society. Nevertheless, the unity of emotions did little to hide the visible gap between the representatives of the state, and the religious fanatics on the other side. A senior official, involved in the decision-making process before the withdrawal, watched the pullout on TV and wondered aloud, "Who are these people?"
Half of the 21 Gaza settlements were empty by Wednesday evening; the toughest points of opposition, where hundreds of "infiltrators" - mostly from West Bank settlements -- holed up inside synagogues, were left for the next day. The military expects to fulfill the mission before the Sept. 4 deadline. Most of the scary scenarios that were floated in the previous months, anticipating a breakdown of Israeli democracy, have turned out to be false, at least for now. The military isolated several dozens of refuseniks, but there was no massive defection of religious soldiers and officers, despite the calls of prominent rabbis to disobey the evacuation order. The military kept its discipline, and the rule of law prevailed.
Alas, one bleak scenario did mature: Jewish terror against Palestinians, meant to stir a reaction that may halt the Gaza withdrawal. Asher Weisgan, a driver from a small West Bank settlement, snatched a rifle from a security guard and murdered four Palestinians near another settlement. It was the second incident of Jewish terror connected with Sharon's "disengagement." Two weeks ago, Eden Natan Zadah, an AWOL soldier, used his gun to murder four Israeli Arabs on a bus and was soon lynched by an enraged crowd.
The authorities expected such attacks but failed to intercept the perpetrators. Sharon was quick to denounce them as terrorists and acted to avoid an escalation. The Palestinians, who pledged to keep quiet during Israel's Gaza withdrawal, agreed. Both attacks expose the violent nature of Jewish extremism and serve as a warning sign for the future. They erode the Israelis' sense of moral superiority over the "murderous" Palestinians. Worse, they threaten to drag both peoples back to the bloodshed of the past five years.
For most Israelis, Gaza has been hell on earth, a poor, dangerous area to be avoided. Few could understand the motivations of the settlers, who lived under a rainfall of mortar shells, rocket attacks and shootings during the recent Palestinian intifada. Everybody knew that those places had no future, given the unbearable demographic balance vis-à-vis the Palestinian neighbors. (Nine thousand Jews lived next to 1.3 million Palestinians.) All Israeli governments, however, had been paralyzed when discussing what to do with them. Sharon's predecessors were afraid to confront the strong settler lobby and therefore decided to leave all settlements in place until final status agreements were reached.
Hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians were killed in recent years in the fighting around the Gaza settlements; thousands of Palestinians were left homeless by Israel's counterterrorism operations in the area. Hundreds of millions of dollars were wasted on the infrastructure and defense of Gush Katif and several isolated settlements. All were sacrificed in vain, the price of Israel's shortsighted settlement policy during the 1970s and 1980s. Only Sharon, who originally planted these places in the sand, who once proclaimed that "Netzarim [a Gaza settlement] is the same as Tel Aviv," eventually had the political guts to turn against his erstwhile allies and to remove the hopeless villages and bring their inhabitants back to Israel proper, with full compensation and alternative housing.
The settler lobby has been the most effective pressure group vis-à-vis the Israeli governments, which designated the towns and villages beyond the "Green Line" (Israel's pre-1967 border) as a "high national priority" and cushioned them with tax breaks, generous subsidies and security provided by the Israeli army. But the settler movement, viewing itself as an elite group of pioneers, failed to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Israelis, which it regarded as pleasure-seeking softies. That is why, despite their impressive organizational capabilities, strong motivation and powerful leadership, the settlers have failed to recruit support beyond their immediate group of the "national religious." Only their own attended their massive demonstrations. Many Israelis decorated their cars with orange anti-disengagement ribbons but satisfied themselves with this passive protest. Despite their dislike of withdrawing unilaterally, with no Palestinian quid pro quo, they were more interested in their summer vacation than the evacuated Gaza settlers.
After all, the summer of 2005 is the best one in Israel since the outbreak of the intifada five years ago. With Palestinian attacks reduced to almost zero, Tel Aviv's beaches and hotels are full of tourists, mostly French Jews. Economic indicators are rising rapidly. And despite the massive concentration of the military and police near Gaza, and the touching newscasts from the evacuation, life elsewhere in Israel has proceeded at its usual summertime pace.
Sharon has shown a combination of cold-blooded leadership and political shrewdness, using the long preparation period to convince the public of his seriousness and determination, to replace reluctant military and security chiefs, and to push the settlers to accept the inevitability of the pullout.
Nevertheless, even after the Gaza evacuation (plus four settlements in the northern West Bank) is complete -- and assuming there are no "extreme scenarios" of violence -- the domestic confrontation will not be over. Israel is gearing up for elections, probably in early 2006, and Sharon is facing a tough political challenge, having lost the support of his Likud Party.
Since initiating the formation of Likud in 1973, shortly after his retirement from the army, Sharon has been weak on ideology. Always the pragmatist, he is a keen believer in power, rather than ideas and beliefs. Since ascending to national leadership in early 2001, Sharon has remained highly popular with the general public, knocking out his rivals in two consecutive elections, while treating the Likud as a nuisance. The party crowd favored his challenger, Binyamin ("Bibi") Netanyahu, but respected Sharon's high ratings, which eventually translated into a larger parliamentary faction. This time, however, the Likud membership turned right, with many enraged at Sharon's disengagement policy and his arrogant behavior. On Aug. 7, Netanyahu suddenly resigned from his finance minister post, citing his opposition to the Gaza disengagement. Netanyahu, who voted for the plan last year, now proclaimed that it would endanger Israel's security.
Netanyahu's resignation was an invitation to a duel, and the de facto start of the campaign season. Sharon, who had half expected Bibi's resignation, handled the crisis well at first. But then came the polls indicating that Sharon would lose in a Likud primary, but would win if he left Likud to form a "big bang" party with his fellow elder statesmen, Labor leader Shimon Peres and Tommy Lapid, chairman of the centrist Shinui party. Sharon has vowed to remain in Likud and fight Netanyahu for its leadership, but no political analyst in Israel is betting on it, despite the poor track record of politicians who have left the major parties to launch competitors.
Will Sharon succeed in keeping his job? It is too early to tell. In assessing the possibilities, one should remember that no Israeli prime minister has ever retired happily. Of Sharon's 10 predecessors, two died while in office, and all the rest were humiliated by electoral defeats, an angry party, public rejection or self-imposed exile. Even David Ben Gurion, Israel's founding father and Sharon's mentor, was eventually expelled from his party. On the other hand, Sharon has shown unmatched ability to rise from excruciating defeats in his military and political careers.
The coming political season in Israel, and the parallel January election for the Palestinian Legislative Council, mean that the Gaza withdrawal will be followed by an impasse. While most of the world expects Israel to follow suit in the West Bank, they will have to wait, as election campaigns are traditionally full of nationalistic propaganda and right-wing posturing. Only when the political picture on both sides is clarified will there be a new opportunity for progress. Needless to say, if Sharon loses or his disengagement is perceived as a failure, the chances of Israel's making another move will be severely diminished.