Are Israel's critics correct? Does the "occupation" of the West Bank and Gaza cause the Palestinian Arabs' anti-Semitism, their suicide factories, and their terrorism? And is it true these horrors will end only when Israeli civilians and troops leave the territories?
The answer is coming soon. Starting August 15, the Israeli government will evict about 8,000 Israelis from Gaza and turn their land over to the Palestinian Authority. In addition to being a unique event in modern history (no other democracy has forcibly uprooted thousands of its own citizens of one religion from their lawful homes), it also offers a rare, live, social-science experiment.
We stand at an interpretive divide. If Israel's critics are right, the Gaza withdrawal will improve Palestinian attitudes toward Israel, leading to an end of incitement and a steep drop in attempted violence, followed by a renewal of negotiations and a full settlement. Logic requires, after all, that if "occupation" is the problem, ending it, even partially, will lead to a solution.
But I forecast a very different outcome. Given that about 80% of Palestinian Arabs continue to reject Israel's very existence, signs of Israeli weakness, such as the forthcoming Gaza withdrawal, will instead inspire heightened Palestinian irredentism. Absorbing their new gift without gratitude, Palestinian Arabs will focus on those territories Israelis have not evacuated. (This is what happened after Israeli forces fled Lebanon.) The retreat will inspire not comity but a new rejectionist exhilaration, a greater frenzy of anti-Zionist anger, and a surge in anti-Israel violence.
Palestinian Arabs themselves are openly saying as much. A top Hamas figure in Gaza, Ahmed al-Bahar says "Israel has never been in such a state of retreat and weakness as it is today following more than four years of the intifada. Hamas's heroic attacks exposed the weakness and volatility of the impotent Zionist security establishment. The withdrawal marks the end of the Zionist dream and is a sign of the moral and psychological decline of the Jewish state. We believe that the resistance is the only way to pressure the Jews."
A Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri says likewise that the withdrawal is "due to the Palestinian resistance operations. … and we will continue our resistance."
Others are more specific. At a mass rally in GazaCity last Thursday, about 10,000 Palestinian Arabs danced, sang, and chanted, "Today Gaza, tomorrow Jerusalem." The commander of Gaza's Popular Resistance Committees, Jamal Abu Samhadaneh announced Sunday, "We will move our cells to the West Bank" and warned "The withdrawal will not be complete without the West Bank and Jerusalem." The Palestinian Authority's Ahmed Qurei also asserts, "Our march will stop only in Jerusalem."
Palestinian Arab intentions worry even Israeli leftists. An Arab affairs specialist for Ha'aretz, Danny Rubinstein notes that Prime Minister Sharon decided to leave Gaza only after anti-Israel carnage there had escalated. "Even if these attacks were not the reason why Sharon came up with the idea of disengagement, the Palestinians are certain that that is the case, and this has reinforced their belief that Israel only understands the language of terror attacks and violence."
· A former justice minister and chairman of the Yahad/Meretz Party, Yossi Beilin: "There is a concrete danger that following the disengagement, the violence will greatly increase in the West Bank in order to achieve the same thing as was achieved in Gaza."
· A former Labor Party foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami: "A unilateral retreat perpetuates Israel's image as a country that runs away under pressure ... In Fatah and Hamas, they will assume that they must prepare for their third intifada - this time in [the West Bank]."
· A former General Security Service chief, Ami Ayalon: "Retreat without getting anything in return is liable to be interpreted by some of the Palestinians as surrender. ... There is a high chance that shortly after the disengagement, the violence will be renewed."
· A former air force commander, Eitan Ben-Eliyahu: "There is no chance that the disengagement will guarantee long-term stability. The plan as it stands can only lead to a renewal of terrorism."
Events, I predict, will prove Israel's critics totally wrong but they will learn no lessons. Untroubled by facts, they will demand further Israeli withdrawals. Israel's one-car crash is dismally preparing the way for more disasters.