As Israel faces the prospect of renewed negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, including discussions on final border issues, the trauma of the forced evacuation from Gush Katif still remains an open sore.
No less than seventeen settlements were abandoned in the Gaza Strip and some 8,600 Jewish residents expelled by their own army in what was termed a unilateral disengagement. Four of the synagogues in Gush Katif were subsequently ransacked and burned in spite of signs indicating that the buildings were religious sites, and Palestinians scavenged the remains of what had once been Israeli homes and greenhouses.
Although five years have passed since then, the wounds remain fresh. A State Commission of Inquiry under the chairmanship of Retired Judge Eliahu Matza reported that the unemployment rate among evacuees continued to be about double that of the rest of the population and that many of those expelled still lived in inappropriate temporary housing.
Had the disengagement resulted in improved relations with the Palestinians, many would have considered the price to have been worth paying. However, the area was to be taken over by the Hamas in a violent putsch against the Palestinian Authority. The subsequent rocket and mortar attacks on Israeli towns and kibbutzim finally led to Israel launching “Operation Cast Lead” in which over 700 gunmen belonging to Hamas and affiliated factions would be killed. Israel’s act of self-defence would subsequently be heavily condemned by the international community and criticized as being “disproportionate”.
Given that experience, Israelis are naturally wary about the anticipated negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and anxious about the territorial and human price that we shall once again be forced to pay. Understandably, there is deep concern that the West Bank could become another Iranian protégé, adding to the threats with which Israel already has to contend from the Hizbollah to the north and the Hamas to the south.
However, there is a further complication in evacuating West Bank settlements that was not a feature of the Gaza disengagement. The prospect of evacuating Hebron and dividing Jerusalem raises religious issues and stirs up emotions that could set Jew against Jew in a manner that could potentially threaten the very survival of the State of Israel.
Bringing Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas to the negotiating table will be a worthy achievement of itself, but the path ahead will nevertheless be formidable.