For Many Israelis, Gaza Is a Place to Leave
By Glenn Frankel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 30, 2004; Page A24
JERUSALEM, May 29 -- Boaz Yemini has two sons in the Israeli army and an 18-year-old daughter who is about to be drafted. He's a loving father but a hardheaded soul, and his heart doesn't bleed for Palestinians. And when it comes to the Gaza Strip, he says he wants only one thing: out.
"For me, Gaza is hell," said Yemini, a 48-year-old silversmith. "There is no other word for it."
After nearly four years of suicide bombings, military incursions and diplomatic stalemate, many Israelis say they are ready for something new, according to interviews with politicians, analysts and ordinary citizens. Public opinion polls tell the same story. A solid majority of the moderate middle -- the people who send their children to the army, worry about terrorism and security and see Palestinians as more a threat than a partner -- say they are ready, even aching, to pull out of Gaza.
The recent images televised here of Palestinian militants triumphantly displaying body parts of six Israeli soldiers killed when their armored personnel carrier exploded in Gaza City, and of civilians in the Rafah refugee camp searching for their meager belongings among the ruins of homes demolished by Israeli soldiers, have compounded the feeling that Gaza is a cursed land in which Israel has no business and no future. No one wants his or her child to be the last one to die there.
"The public reaction is very simple: Build a high fence and get the hell out of there," said strategic analyst Yosef Alpher, co-founder of Bitterlemons.org, a Palestinian-Israeli Internet dialogue site.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon captured the national mood three months ago when he declared, "I am working on the assumption that in the future there will be no Jews in Gaza."
Sharon's declaration has turned Israel's volatile political scene on its head. Since then, the war hero and self-proclaimed patron of the Jewish settlement movement has faced emotional opposition from former allies who once worshiped him but now contend that his unilateral withdrawal plan is a threat to Israel's security and a betrayal of that movement. At the same time, he has won the grudging and skeptical support of Israeli peace activists, who recently took to the streets in Tel Aviv to show support for the plan of a leader they once reviled as a war criminal.
"The pendulum has swung," said Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Israeli parliament and a longtime political opponent of the prime minister. "I believe Sharon has started something that even he can't control anymore."
The traditional division between hawks and doves remains strong and bitter. The peace camp has undergone a mini-revival, with Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals and prominent politicians coming together to offer two similar proposals for a comprehensive peace settlement -- the Geneva agreement and the People's Voice initiative. The other side, buoyed by the defeat of Sharon's disengagement plan in a referendum of his Likud party this month, is maneuvering to deny him a majority in the cabinet for the proposal he is expected to present on Sunday.
Ever since the abortive negotiations at Camp David in the summer of 2000 and the subsequent Palestinian uprising, Israelis have complained there is no one to negotiate with on the Palestinian side.
That view has not changed in recent months. What has changed is the willingness of Israelis across much of the political spectrum to proceed unilaterally without a Palestinian partner. And to many of them, densely populated Gaza seems the logical place to begin, with its 1 million poverty-stricken Palestinians and its increasingly fundamentalist religious outlook.
"Israelis hate this piece of land," said Nahum Barnea, political columnist for Yedioth Aharonoth, Israel's most popular daily newspaper. "When Sharon said Israel has no purpose in Gaza, it was like the final verdict: You have a confession, you don't need more evidence."
The precedent for a Gaza withdrawal that proponents and critics cite most often is southern Lebanon. In May 2000, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak abruptly and unilaterally pulled Israeli forces out of Israel's self-declared security zone there and ended 18 years of military occupation. Since then, despite occasional incidents, Israel's northern border has been relatively calm and Israeli casualties have dropped. But many critics -- Sharon chief among them -- contended that the withdrawal looked like a retreat to Israel's enemies and inspired Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to launch their uprising.
"The message we sent when we withdrew from Lebanon was that terror pays," said Yuri Shtern, a Knesset member and deputy minister strongly opposed to the move, "and withdrawing from Gaza could be much, much worse."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company