With its lightning operation in Gaza — nearly all Jewish settlers evacuated in just 55 hours — Israel has shown the world that it can dismantle such enclaves with relative ease, despite the settlers’ tears, anguish and occasional violence.
Having set this precedent, Israel will likely come under increasingly intense pressure to do the same in the West Bank — though Israeli officials insist it could be years before settlements there even come up for discussion.
On the Palestinian side, leader Mahmoud Abbas’ success in preventing deadly attacks by militants during the pullout has boosted his image as a peace partner and given new weight to his demand that Israel resume negotiations.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has repeatedly said his decision to withdraw from Gaza was the hardest he ever made, and the events of the past few days seemed to back his claim that Israel was making a painful concession.
With the world watching via live TV broadcasts, troops dragged sobbing settlers from homes and synagogues and battled rioting youth on rooftops. Soldiers and police often broke down in tears themselves as they carried babies out of nurseries and endured abuse from settlers who called them Nazis and traitors.
Not as powerful as they seemed
By Friday, 17 out 21 Gaza settlements had been evacuated, or 85 percent of the settler population. And while some say these agonizing scenes will eventually be forgotten, the swiftness of the pullout will not.
“If we can withdraw from Gaza in two days, speaking about the West Bank is now possible,” said Yossi Beilin, leader of the dovish Yahad Party. “The biggest victory of the past two days is the feasibility of withdrawal.”
Amnon Dankner, editor of Israel’s mass-circulation Maariv daily, said the uprooting of settlers has shattered the widespread Israeli belief that the settlement movement is so powerful that it can veto any land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians. “The resistance (of the settlers) was squashed on first day,” he said.
Shaul Goldstein, head of the Yesha council of settlements, acknowledged defeat, despite months of bitter struggle on the streets and in parliament.
Settlers focus on drawing the line
He said settlers would now return to political lobbying to make sure the evacuation of four small West Bank settlements next week — also part of Sharon’s “disengagement” from the Palestinians — will be the last time any of their enclaves are taken down.
Israeli security officials fear one of those West Bank enclaves, Sanur, will be a bastion of resistance, and that violence there will be much more intense than the worst of the Gaza clashes, when rioters threw paint, chemicals and sand at troops trying to haul them off the roof of a synagogue in the Kfar Darom settlement.
Goldstein said he was resigned to the loss of the four West Bank settlements and even pessimistic about the settlers’ political prospects. “We are very frustrated and disappointed in the whole political system,” he said.
Early Israeli elections could be held in the spring. However, it appears unlikely a pro-settler candidate, such as former Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will defeat the popular Sharon.
West Bank 'not on the agenda' for now
Zalman Shoval, a foreign policy adviser to Sharon, said the prime minister is in no rush to start negotiating with the Palestinians over the fate of the 122 West Bank settlements. “The West Bank is not on the agenda right now, and it will probably not be for a very long time,” he said.
Sharon says that after the Gaza pullout, the Palestinians must work hard to prove themselves worthy as peace partners by dismantling militant groups and carrying out government reform. Only then could the two sides get started on the “road map” — the internationally backed plan that would eventually lead to Palestinian statehood.
Shoval said negotiations on the terms of Palestinian statehood “may be years ahead.” He also bristled at the idea that the Gaza pullout sets a precedent. “This is an isolated step taken by Israel,” he said.
Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suggested that Israel must keep going. “Everyone empathizes with what the Israelis are facing,” she told The New York Times, referring to the Gaza pullout, but added that “it cannot be Gaza only.”
Taboo is broken
Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi said that “a certain taboo has been broken” with the removal of settlers, and that it is important the two sides now keep going and negotiate a final deal.
She noted that many Palestinians were amazed at the patience of Israeli troops with the settlers. “They (Palestinians) are used to the Israeli army shooting at them, giving them two minutes to leave their homes,” she said, referring to Israeli army actions during nearly five years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.
In Gaza, Abbas’ security forces were working hard to keep Palestinian militants from disrupting the pullout by opening fire on soldiers or settlers.
Throughout the week, various militant groups staged “victory” marches toward the Gush Katif settlement bloc, with crowds led by masked gunmen. Initially, Palestinian police were ill-prepared to stop the marchers but in recent days deployed rows of riot police.
On Friday, Abbas was quick to ride the growing wave of joy over Israel’s departure, and promised fenced-in Gazans freedom of movement, jobs and housing.