For Many Israelis, Gaza Is a Place to Leave
Analysts say Sharon is determined not to allow Palestinians to draw the same conclusions from a Gaza withdrawal, hence the aggressive military effort in recent weeks to assassinate leaders of the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, and to root out militants and eliminate weapons sources. Sharon, they say, is determined to leave Gaza on his terms, not those of the Palestinians.
Many Israelis say Sharon had hoped that while disengaging from Gaza, he could tighten Israel's grip on most of the West Bank. "His initial purpose was to sacrifice the queen in Gaza to save the king in the West Bank," Burg, the former parliament speaker, said. "But he was carried away by his own weakness and by the strong public reaction."
One way to gauge the atmosphere during stressful times is to examine the attitudes toward Israel's citizen army. Right now, analysts say, the army is undergoing a period of intense external criticism and self-doubt. The recent Israeli offensive in Rafah, Gaza's southernmost city and refugee camp, in which more than 50 Palestinians were killed, was widely judged to be of dubious success, with large numbers of soldiers and equipment deployed for a limited payoff and widespread international condemnation.
At the same time the Rafah operation was occurring, a new survey of Israeli teenagers by the Israel Democracy Institute reported that 43 percent were sympathetic to two positions: Soldiers should be allowed to refuse to serve in the West Bank and Gaza and should also be allowed to reject an order to evacuate Jewish settlers. The common thread in the positions was support for the right of conscripts to make moral judgments based on conscience.
"What's revealing here is that the army as the embodiment of Jewish force is undergoing an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy," said political scientist Yaron Ezrahi, who cites what he says is constant tension between senior commanders and the government over the size and nature of military operations, plus even louder criticism from the Israeli media.
The fundamental covenant between Israelis and the state allows the government to dispatch their youngsters to war only when vital security interests are at stake. Most Israelis no longer believe this is the case in Gaza, said military historian Michael Oren, who has a son in an army combat unit. "For a lot of Israelis, Gaza has become the final straw," he said.
Another place to measure the shift is the political middle, most clearly embodied these days by Shinui, a moderate, secular party poised between hawks and doves that surprised most analysts by finishing a strong third in last year's elections. It is the second-biggest party in Sharon's government and is pressing him to follow through with disengagement.
Shinui's leader, former TV talk show host Yosef Lapid, stunned some of his own supporters a week ago by comparing the image of an elderly Palestinian woman in Rafah -- sifting through the rubble of a house for her medication -- to the suffering of his own grandmother during the Holocaust. Most Shinui members support the disengagement plan but for much less emotional reasons.
"My approach to this is strictly rational," said Reshef Chayne, chairman of Shinui's parliamentary faction, who places himself squarely in the middle of the centrist party. "Of course you'd have to be inhuman not to feel compassion for the individual Palestinian child or woman or elderly person, but basically I believe that the Palestinians are to blame for what they get.
"So what I'm looking at is what's good for Israel -- and what's good for Israel is to get out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company