As Gaza empties, Israel looks ahead

Israeli troops started the final phase Sunday of clearing out the remaining settlements from Gaza.

After a week of seeing Jews drag Jews from their homes, Israel is waking up to a new reality. Evacuating settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is no longer a peacenik's dream, but an inevitable, if painful, possibility.

While coaxing and carrying nearly 8,500 Israeli settlers in Gaza from their homes, no Israeli fired a shot against another. Despite reports that significant numbers of Israeli soldiers would refuse orders, only two did.

The alacrity of the pullout and its relatively minimal levels of violence showed that dismantling settlements is doable for one main reason. Even if many settlers and their supporters found the idea of forced removal abhorrent, turning guns against one's own troops was even more unfathomable.

"The victory for both sides is that we maintained an open dialogue with the settlers and their leaders," says Major Sharon Finegold, a spokeswoman for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). "The restraint that we showed led to the fact that most people left without a major struggle."

Still, disengagement is hardly over, and formidable challenges lie ahead. And even though the withdrawal is moving ahead of plan, Israel says it does not want the world in general - and the Palestinians in particular - to get the wrong impression.

"We've finished making unilateral, painful concessions," says Ranaan Gissin, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "After the euphoria dies, the Palestinians will have to get down to taking real steps to show that they can stop terrorist activity.

"I would suggest to the Palestinians to hold your horses, because we are much stronger than we were when we sat in Gaza," Dr. Gissin says. "So if anyone has illusions that this means they can force Israel into making further concessions under pressure of violence, they're in for a big surprise."

Gissin's assessment that Israel will become stronger by becoming smaller is based on several strategic conclusions reached by supporters of the pullout.

By no longer having citizens in Gaza, Israel decreases soldiers' and settlers' vulnerability to attacks by Palestinians. But if Israel is attacked from Gaza in the future, it will likely respond with more firepower than before, because it will no longer be facing the complication of fighting people living under Israel's military rule. Palestinian militants, in turn, will find it harder to argue that they are simply struggling against an occupation.

Another important consideration is calculated purely in terms of demographics, which have always been an important factor in the conflict, but have recently become more pressing.

Palestinians have a higher rate of population increase than Israelis. And when the entire population of Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip is calculated, non-Jews now outnumber Jews. But according to a new study published in the left-wing Haaretz newspaper, after the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip Israel can be assured of a Jewish majority for the next 20 years.

In the Israeli discourse, that math adds up to a country that can maintain both a Jewish and democratic nature into the next generation.

On the ground level, however, what is making disengagement work is the approach that Israeli forces took to the job of evicting the settlers.

Oddly enough, the army's patient pace may have been the most disarming of all. In some areas, negotiations between army and settler leaders led to a settlement-wide policy to leave without resistance. In other places, soldiers sometimes listened quietly to hours of abuse and criticism.

Sunday, three more settlements - Atzmona, Katif and Slav - were evacuated after settlers said they preferred to have a farewell ceremony at their synagogues and leave without struggling.

"We told our troops that people will be shattered by our entrance into their homes ... and the thing to remember is that these outcries and insults are not personal," Ms. Finegold, the IDF spokeswoman, says.

While many Israelis are captivated by the discipline exhibited by their soldiers, other sectors are furious that the government is underprepared to house evacuees. For many, the jury is out on the pullout. It will be judged based on whether Mr. Sharon's government is as successful at resettling the settlers.

The Yedioth Ahronot paper reported that the settlers of Netzarim, who are expected to be evacuated Monday, are moving to Ariel, one of the largest settlements in the West Bank. The residents of Shirat HaYam, evacuated at the end of last week, complained that they were dumped in a slum hotel, and moved instead to the West Bank settlement of Kedumim.

But according to Mordechai Nissan, an expert on Israel's right at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the settler movement must now worry about more than taking an extra hilltop or adding a few mobile homes to a settlement. The unfolding lesson of disengagement, he notes, is that decisions are made by the government and implemented by Israel's armed forces. The settler movement, he says, has failed to garner enough nationwide support to alter government policies.

"That really has been the political Achilles heel of the entire settlement enterprise - they just didn't manage to appeal to broader public support for staying in these areas," he says. "The [protesters'] overwhelming numbers were from the religious community," which represents around 20 percent of Israel's population.

The Israeli novelist Amoz Oz, in an article in Yedioth Ahronoth, summed up the reasons Israelis like him wanted, as he put it, "A little bit less of the greater Land of Israel and a little bit more of a State of Israel that is reconciled with itself."

In an essay called "To be a free people" - a take-off on the national anthem - he wrote: "To be a free people in our land means to choose, each person on his own, which parts of the Jewish heritage suit us and which parts of it do not suit us. ... To be a free people also means to recognize that we are not alone on this land - and to demand of the Palestinians that they too recognize that they are not alone on this land."

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