|Gaza first ?|
|By Roland S. Süssmann|
“We must absolutely leave Gaza” – “by September 2005 there will no longer be a Jewish presence in the Gaza Strip”. This type of slogan and many others are repeated daily in every political statement and conversation, ever since Ariel Sharon announced his intention to carry out a unilateral withdrawal from Gush Katif, this miniscule parcel of land on the Mediterranean coast of the Gaza Strip. It will also be a question of expelling the Jews who live in Gush Katif from their homes, by force if necessary. Obviously, nobody wants to reach that situation.
On the ground, what is being said is moderate but determined. Yet it should not be forgotten that the Jewish settlement movement of Judea-Samaria-Gaza (known by its Hebrew acronym, Yesha), has remarkable organizational abilities. Ariel Sharon suffered a first defeat in a Likud referendum, and only because of the extremely capable political action of the Yesha leadership. This is enormously motivated, with an unwavering ideology, a strongly based religious faith, popular support and the strength of the weak who have been ostracized by society. All these come together in order to retain every inch of the Land of Israel. Handled properly, these energies will probably cause the idea of a unilateral withdrawal to fail. It is not just what is being said that is moderate, but so too are the plans for civil disobedience, everything is being done to avoid violence and to ensure that this dispute is conducted democratically, within the Knesset.
But who are the men and women who have made Gush Katif a success, and who today so to speak are being led to the scaffold for the sake of peace or a period of hypothetical calm?
From a purely statistical point of view, the area today has about 8,000 inhabitants, of whom the large majority are children. In respect of the human quality of the residents of Gush Katif, certain observations must be made. Firstly, the Jewish presence in this area has always been the leading issue of the Left in its struggle to marginalize and ostracize the Jews living in Judea-Samaria-Gaza. Pointed out as “obstacles to peace”, the Jewish inhabitants of what the Left calls “the occupied territories” have become the universal panacea for achieving peace in the Middle East and throughout the world. This can be summarized in two simple ideas: once the Jews have left these places and destroyed their infrastructure, the “oh so docile” Arabs will have been mollified and will want to live in peace with Israel ever after. The fact that such an initiative, which denies Jews the free choice of where to live in their own country, could on the contrary encourage terrorism, is simply not taken into consideration. The truth is that those viewed by the Israeli Left, by a portion of the international press and by many governments, as “obstacles to peace”, are in fact the true Zionist pioneers of our times. This a group of courageous Jews, who have disregarded all the pernicious attacks to which they have been subject, and who for years, day in, day out, have paid the heavy price for living in these remote and inaccessible areas, just to ensure a Jewish presence on this land and to take part in the effort to make Israel safe. The population of Gush Katif is no exception and despite the new disengagement plan, its determination is unwavering and even reinforced. It must be understood that there is no political idea, which at the purely technical level seems unrealizable and of which it is not even certain that the Prime Minister himself is convinced, that can call into question the valor, resolution and tenacity of the inhabitants of this magnificent, miniscule strip of territory on the Mediterranean. We should not forget what these men and women have endured since September 2000, from when the attacks by Arafat’s PLO recommenced: more than 4,000 military and homemade rockets have rained on their homes, gardens, schools and kindergartens, to which can be added an uncountable number of shootings by machine-gun, stones thrown as weapons, infiltrations and terrorist attacks, often with hostage taking, which often culminate in the cold blooded murder of women and children, and many other outrages.
To better understand how the inhabitants of Gush Katif are facing up to the threat of expulsion hanging over them, we went down there and met leaders and residents, who all gave us the same message, “We will not leave here”. At this point one cannot tell if these are empty words, some sort of politicized autosuggestion along the lines of Emile Coué, or the expression of strong determination. We met the Council Head of the Gush Katif district, AVNER SHIMONI, who explained to us how he intends fighting the government’s decision of unilateral withdrawal and the total demolition of his region.
Today you are in quite a difficult position, since you have to fight a government decision while remaining within the bounds of the totally legal. How are you going to handle it?
Before replying to the actual question, I would like to remind you that for four years we have been on the front line of the war that the Arabs are waging against Israel. During this period, our people here have been victims of thousands of shells and every sort of bloody, murderous attack, which have not spared women, children or the elderly. You have to realize that some of our homes are only 50 meters from Khan Yunis, one of the large population centers in the Gaza Strip under Arab rule. Anyone can set up a homemade rocket in his back garden or on his roof and fire it in our direction. Since the separation fence exists we have had less infiltrations, which is why the number of rockets fired has increased so much. When I say that we are on the front line, it is because the experience of the last few years has shown that what happens to us inevitably spreads first to Judea-Samaria and then to the rest of the country. It is just a question of time. What is striking is that throughout these last four, difficult years, not a single family has left our area for security reasons. The few who have moved have done so for economic or professional reasons. Despite these departures, we have enjoyed consistent growth, and over the last four years have expanded by 13%.
Regrettably, for six months now we have had to devote a large part of our energy to confronting the consequences of the government decision to expel us from Gush Katif. I will not hide that we are facing a large number of difficulties, starting with government aid for construction having totally dried up. At the political level we had a great success with the vote in the Likud, where the unilateral evacuation plan was massively rejected. This victory was not won quickly and easily, but by going from house to house to explain to voters what was at stake and the plan’s dangers. True, this victory did not change Ariel Sharon’s mind, just as he did not want to pay attention to the mass demonstration we held at the end of July 2004, in which a human chain made up of 150,000 people covered the 80 km from Nitsanit to Jerusalem. Thus we are faced with an enormous challenge, how to convince Israeli public opinion. It has been fed for the last four years, and especially over the last four months by the refrain, “We must leave Gaza”. Now when we ask most Israelis, they admit that they do not know the facts on the ground, they think we are a sum total of “three Jews in a couple of caravans with a mangy dog”. As for the mantra, “we must get out of Gaza”, I would recall that we already left Gaza in 1994-95 as part of the implementation of the Oslo Accords. Our district is not in a region inhabited by Arabs and the Prime Minister’s plan is thus unjustified. On a legal point, I would add that we settled here following an Israel government decision, and we haven’t stolen anything from anyone. What’s more, it is completely wrong that for purely political reasons a government can decided to move us like pawns, whether unilaterally or as part of a negotiated agreement.
Basically, everyone understands your position and your refusal to be evacuated, for good or bad reasons. But in practical terms, as you yourself have stated, up till now no form of rebuff, including the Likud referendum, has managed to change the government’s position. The question that must be asked is therefore, how far are you prepared to fight? Not to put too fine a point on it, are you or are you not going to incite the local population to take up arms against the legitimate forces of law and order?
Firstly I must say that up to now there is only one person has genuinely signed up body and soul for the unilateral withdrawal program, and that’s Ariel Sharon. Even the ministers who voted in the cabinet for this program did not enjoy doing so. I believe and I hope the day Ariel Sharon leaves his job, that he will be replaced by a minister from the Right who will put an end to this idea, at least in respect to unilateral withdrawal. As far as a withdrawal as part of an agreement is concerned, experience has shown us that up till now the Arabs have never honored their commitments, which in a certain sense is encouraging. In my opinion, the final battle on this issue will only be played out on the political stage, which is already happening today, and we will not reach physical confrontation. As of today, 95% of our inhabitants want to stay here, and I do not sit in judgment on those who are tempted to leave. That having been said, I say clearly to my constituency not to leave, that Israel’s army is there to fight our enemies and not our fellow citizens. During the Shoah in Hungary, my parents were expelled from their homes, but no one will expel me. Let me add another very important point: the Israeli Parliament has not yet taken any decision about our expulsion. So for the army to act against us, at the very least this program must be made law. I’ll go further and say that if the Knesset’s decision is passed by a majority of eight votes, effectively those of the Arab members, it will be unacceptable for the population, and will be unimplementable on both moral and legal grounds.
If we agree that this is the case and that in the final analysis there will be no withdrawal, why are you so heavily involved against this plan?
You must understand that this represents a most dangerous precedent. Effectively, the way things are being presented today, one might think that the withdrawal concerned Gush Katif only and that after our evacuation, all forms of expulsion of Jews will be stopped. But that is not the case. Looking at the map, you will note that the north of the Gush Katif region is only populated by three Jewish villages and there isn’t a single Arab village there. This initiative is meant to create a precedent: if Israel evacuates the Jews from along the pre-1967 border with Gaza, this will open up the way to concessions of a completely different order, and more importantly, firstly in Judea-Samaria, and then a few years later in the Galilee, where we will be obliged to withdraw to the 1948 frontier line, and that’s not to talk about Jerusalem.
In summary, I would say that the unilateral withdrawal plan is dangerous not only for those of us who live here in Gush Katif, but also for the entire Israeli population, and I will do everything to prevent it happening. I am totally opposed to the use of violence by civilians against the forces of law and order, but I believe we will not get to that level of confrontation, and in the end this plan will end up in the dustbin, unfortunately at the price of many difficulties and unnecessary suffering.
HISTORY AND FACTS
The Jewish people have always had a deep relationship with Gaza region. Firstly, it is part of the Land of Israel that was given to the tribe of Judah. There we find the traces of some of the most important personalities in the Bible, such as Abraham, Isaac and Samson, to mention just the best known. The Hasmoneans founded a large Jewish quarter in the town of Gaza, and throughout the period of the Second Temple there was a vibrant, flourishing Jewish life there. Many archeological findings prove a Jewish presence spread over several thousand years on this disputed territory. At the time of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, many refugees settled in Gaza, where a large number of wealthy Jews had built vacation homes. It is thus reasonable to state that there has been a Jewish presence in Gaza for almost 2,500 years up until 1929, when they were expelled from the city, and up until 1948, when they had to leave Kfar Darom. Shortly after the Six Days War, the Israeli Labor government took the initiative of reviving the ancient Jewish villages of Gush Katif, where a young Jewish community was progressively set up. Despite enormous difficulties, these men and women were determined to transform this large stretch of sand into a source of agricultural abundance and into a flowering garden. Incidentally, the Hebrew word “katif” means “harvest”. Between 1948 and 1967, the Arabs so neglected this area known for its fertility, that when the Jews resettled it they found nothing but an empty, desolate desert. Today, the techniques employed and in part invented by the Gush Katif agriculturalists are among the most advanced in the world. There is a large variety of greenhouses, nurseries, plantations of spices and vegetables, in particular tomatoes, the famous cherry tomato, of which 75% of world production comes from Gush Katif. In addition, there is a large herd of livestock, also raised using modern, innovative techniques. Geographically, it should be borne in mind that this area is just a stone’s throw from Ashkelon and Beer Sheva, where some of the children go to school. The local education system includes nursery schools, kindergartens, all classes through to the end of High School, several teacher-training colleges, a Yeshiva, study centers and others. To this may be added that currently 500 young people from all over Israel are studying in various educational institutions in Gush Katif. Several places combine studies and the army, in elite combat units.
The extraordinary actions of the Israeli Army in the fight against terrorism serve as an example for the whole world. Despite all its efforts, the IDF cannot be everywhere all the time. For this very reason, the Gush Katif Local Council has created a group of volunteers who operate in conjunction with the army and whose objective is to protect Israeli citizens living in the area. Under Ami’s direction this organization has many functions: saving the wounded, setting up security installations, building security barriers, and more. It’s motto is, “Save life everywhere, on every road, unconditionally and irrespective of the price”. Because of their mobility this security group in general reaches the scenes of attacks or other forms of Arab aggression well before the army, and takes all the steps necessary to save lives and fight the attackers. This small, independent unit is divided into twenty-five security centers and has fifteen permanent employees who direct some two hundred volunteers. It has eleven ambulances, of which four are armored, as well as about twenty transport vehicles for the local population, also mainly armored. It is not at all rare that Ami’s men also save soldiers. They get involved within the first twenty minutes following a crisis, which is the time the army requires to reach the spot. Financing of this group is partly covered by the government, but the requirements are considerably higher than the sums allocated to and received by the residents of Gush Katif, who take part directly. During a brief, informal chat, we asked Ami the question everyone is asking. “You have a lot of weaponry. In the event of forced evacuation, do you intend to turn it on the Israeli army?” Ami’s response is simple, “First, you have to make a small calculation. To evict the inhabitants of a single house in Yizhar, the army and police mobilized 1,600 men. Here we have two thousand houses, all lived in by people determined to stay in their homes. But I’m convinced that we won’t get to that stage, and that public opinion and the political leadership will reach the conclusion that this plan just isn’t viable. Until that time, we shall continue to do our duty here, on our home turf and for the well-being of our fellow citizens. The group that Ami runs regularly organizes training courses for young people from the age of 14 upwards, so that they too will be able to assist effectively to save Jewish lives.