The withdrawal

Posted: Aug 18, 2005 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- What we are seeing this week in the withdrawal from Gaza of 8000 Israeli citizens is as noble an act on behalf of peace as has been recorded in modern history. No peace demonstration on record has involved so much personal sacrifice. Nor has any peace demonstration involved so much trust. The trust, for the most part, comes from Jerusalem, and the Sharon government, believing as it does, that after Israel vacates Gaza the Palestinian Authority will hold elections, establish a peaceful government, and control those terrorists intent on destroying Israel. Sharon is a general of proven prowess. Yet he is now, as the phrase has it, giving peace a chance. This withdrawal is his plan. So much for the claptrap that generals only want war.

 Yet I am skeptical that this withdrawal will lead to peace. 80 percent of the Palestinian Arabs deny the right of Israel to exist. Most swallow the historically inaccurate line that the Jews "stole" the lands they now inhabit -- and their Gaza settlements too -- from what are now called the Palestinians. Scholars, whether they be historians or archaeologists, have demonstrated that this is hooey. Jews have inhabited these lands since the time of Abraham. Writers as diverse as H. L. Mencken and Winston Churchill a century ago when visiting these lands remarked on the peaceful Jewish villagers cultivating their fields and living civilized lives. The land of Israel is rightfully the land of the Jews. After World War II the Jews accepted the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan to live with Arab indiginae and others in the region in peace. Yet neighboring Arab states attacked these Jews to rid them from the region, setting off Israel's War of Independence.

 The Arab armies were beaten. Israel was established, and very cruelly the Arab nations allowed uprooted Palestinian Arabs to collect in refugee camps where they became angry pawns of the irredentist Arab states hoping to eliminate Israel. That is the origin of the present hostilities. Arabs live in Israel with full citizenship. Arabs live too under the Palestinian Authority outside of Israel and in areas that it is hoped will become a peaceful Palestinian state. What the Sharon government intends is that this withdrawal will lead to peace between these two nations.

 As I say, it is a noble gesture and one that places great trust in the Palestinians. Yet there is plenty of evidence that firebrands from the Islamic Resistance Movement known as Hamas, among others, will be emboldened by Sharon's generosity to see his withdrawal as a sign of weakness or worse a sign that Hamas' terrorist violence has caused an Israeli defeat and could cause still more Israeli defeats. Already the Washington Post is reporting the head of a Gaza branch of Hamas as saying that "Without jihad, without attacking the settlements, digging the tunnels, launching the rockets, the Israelis wouldn't have moved." Thus Sharon's noble gesture could encourage more violence and legitimatize in the eyes of Palestinian voters the most militant of Israel's enemies.

 If all goes well for now, Gaza will be peacefully resettled and the Palestinian Authority will govern in harmony with its Israeli neighbors. Yet elections among the Palestinians lie ahead. On January 21 Hamas will field candidates against other less violent Palestinian groups, mainly Fatah, Yasser Arafat's old political organization. What if this withdrawal by the Israelis actually is seen by the Palestinian electorate as a vindication of terror and leads to Hamas' victory at the polls? This whole policy of magnanimity could backfire on Sharon and leave him with a more dangerous situation than before.

 Yet I write as an American, comfortably living thousands of miles from this vexed part of the world. Whether my skepticism is right or wrong I shall not have to pay any price. It is the Israelis who pay the price. For now they support Sharon and withdrawal. Thousands of their countrymen who settled Gaza out of religious conviction and the sense that they were fortifying Israeli democracy are now being summarily uprooted and denied the land in which they invested their hearts and their labor. The price they pay in beyond simple calculation.

 All in all, this is an enormous effort on behalf of peace made by a noble leader and a noble nation. If it is repaid by continued terror let the critics of Israel shut down. On behalf of peace this time the Israelis have done all they can -- and Sharon's Nobel Prize for Peace should await him either way.