When Ariel Sharon undertook the evacuation of the Gaza Strip in 2005, I noted that he was taking a big risk–”the risk of creating a Hamastan where terrorism will flourish.” But, “on balance,” I concluded in the Los Angeles Times, it was the “the right decision.”
Part of my reasoning went as follows: “Even if Palestinians want to attack Israel — and they do — they will be hard-pressed to do so. All of Gaza is fenced in and so is most of the West Bank, reducing opportunities for suicide bombers to penetrate Israel. If the Palestinians fire rockets from Gaza, Israel will be free to mount a military response — more free, in fact, when the threat comes from a sovereign Palestinian state than when it emanates from Israeli-occupied territory. The Palestinians will no doubt stockpile heavy weapons in Gaza but, as is the case with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, they can be deterred from using them.”
I was, it seems, being overly optimistic. It’s true that Israel has managed to all but eliminate the threat of suicide bombers from Gaza. The rocket threat, however, has proved harder to eradicate. And contrary to my expectation, Israel’s right to respond to the threat of rockets raining down on its territory appears to be no better recognized today by the international community than in the days when Gaza was formally “occupied territory.” Indeed, the current use of force by Israel is meeting the same level of international condemnation as pretty much every such instance since 1973.
So was I – and were so many others – wrong to applaud the Gaza pullout in the first place? I admit the arguments against it are stronger today than they were three years ago. I still think, however, that it was untenable to continue to allow 8,500 Jewish settlers to live among 1.3 million Palestinians. But while the settlements had to go, on balance it appears to have been a mistake to eliminate the entire Israel Defense Force presence in Gaza. Without Israeli patrols on the ground, as there still are in the West Bank, it has proved impossible to keep the Gaza Strip from becoming the Hamastan I feared.
Now the likelihood is that Israeli troops will have to go in at least temporarily to Gaza in order to restore a modicum of security to southern Israel. The danger will rise again once the IDF pulls out, which suggests that the IDF will have to consider an extended presence or at least future raids into Gaza. That, I realize, is not a terribly palatable outcome for an Israeli public sick of being an “occupier,” but it is hard to see how the rocket attacks on Israel can be stopped otherwise.