EDITORIAL: Israel's agonized exit from Gaza

The Toronto Star, August 19, 2005


Grace under fire. That's what Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the women and men of the Israeli army have shown during the wrenching process of emptying Gaza of settlers to better ensure their nation's security. Sharon's political courage has never been more evident than in the past few trying days. And the army's restraint has been exemplary.

Sharon himself, once hailed as the settlers' most powerful ally, has been likened to Adolf Hitler, and troops to Nazi death-camp collaborators. Some settlers paraded their weeping children wearing Holocaust-style Stars of David. Others spoke of a Jewish pogrom against Jews. "It's very complicated, operationally and emotionally," said Maj.-Gen. Moshe Kaplinski, grimly understating the psychic trauma.

Sadly, the process of winding down four decades of Israeli occupation has not been without bloodshed. In the West Bank, a settler killed four Palestinians. A woman protestor set herself on fire. Yesterday, fierce clashes between the security forces and a relatively small number of extremists left scores injured, and raised fears of worse to come.

But removing 8,500 settlers and 5,000 supporters from an area many felt God had given them was not going to be easy. That so many have been moved, without more loss of life, is a tribute to the security services' professionalism and their sense of duty in the greater national good.

What now, as the pullout continues? One settler had the right thought: "We need to find a new life." That's a sentiment Palestinians should also embrace. If the Gaza withdrawal is to be but the first step in a wider process of handing back occupied Arab land, as international commitments and law require, Israelis must have confidence that Palestinians are themselves prepared to turn the page on violence.

Israelis can help, of course, by signalling that Gaza is not a dead end but rather the first step toward a Palestinian state encompassing Jerusalem's Arab areas and most of the West Bank. The coming evacuation of a few West Bank settlements can be a sign of good faith in that regard. Israelis can help, too, by letting Gazans open an airport and seaport, travel freely to Egypt and the West Bank, and ship goods across borders. People must have a chance to build Gaza into something better than an arid prison compound encircled by Israeli barbed wire.

But Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in turn, must prevent Gaza from becoming a cradle of violence, and must warn his people against launching a "third intifada" in the West Bank. That would only stiffen resistance in Israel to ceding sufficient land for a viable Palestinian state. The Palestinian Authority must move swiftly to control Gaza and to suppress attacks from its soil. International donors like Canada must make that a condition of support.

Israelis are crossing an historic psychological line by quitting Gaza and by dismantling West Bank settlements. A majority have broken with the nationalist/religious myth that settlements equal security. That means hope for the Middle East after decades of strife. If the Gaza pullout merely triggers a third intifada, hope will again be put on hold.


Copyright 2005 Toronto Star Newspapers, Ltd.