Historian on Gaza: Israel winning the peace for once

Israeli Michael Oren doesn’t care much for the term “disengagement” when referring to Israel’s recent pullout of the Gaza Strip.

“Oh, we’re engaged,” he says emphatically. “We provide the Gazans with electricity.”

As a historian, Oren sees all kinds of interweaving threads in the complex tapestry that is the modern Middle East.

He visited U.C. Berkeley on Tuesday, Nov. 8 to give a lecture titled “Lessons from Gaza.”

If anyone is qualified to teach those lessons, it is Michael Oren.

He authored “Six Days of War,” widely considered the definitive history of Israel’s watershed 1967 war. But he is more than a detached historian. Oren is also a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces, served in many dangerous military operations and has a son who was wounded in a West Bank raid. A suicide bomber blew up a restaurant next door to his Jerusalem home.

Speaking to an overflow crowd, the American-born Oren couldn’t hide his abiding love of Israel, but he also sought to put the Gaza pullout in context.

With the relentless suicide bombing campaign launched by Yasser Arafat after the collapse of peace talks in 2000, Israel found itself facing something new. “No one before thought terror could pose an existential threat,” said Oren. “We were unable to react forcefully.”

With the country in a tailspin, its tourism industry on the ropes and its standing in the world community lower than ever, Israel elected Ariel Sharon as prime minister.

But, noted Oren, the old warrior kept his powder dry.

“Sharon came away from the Lebanon fiasco with two lessons,” he said. “Before going to war, the government would need the support of the Israeli mainstream and the full support of the U.S. So he held his fire until March of 2002, when he had both. Then he struck back.”

Israel’s strategy of targeted assassination of terrorist leaders, raids on homes of suspected terrorists and construction of the separation barrier dramatically reduced the incidence of terror attacks and set the stage for Sharon’s masterstroke: withdrawal from Gaza.

Oren himself was in Gaza last summer, called up to serve in his army reserve unit.

“In my 30 years [with the army], nothing came close to the difficulty and trauma of the disengagement,” he said. Oren described how his unit had to break into a Gaza synagogue where dozens of settlers had holed up.

“People were writhing on the floor in agony,” he recalled, “clutching Torah scrolls, pews. I saw soldiers drop as if hit by bullets. It took hours to peel these people away.”

But leave they did, and since then, said Oren, Israel has gone through “an immense transformation.”

“Today Israel acts [against terrorists] with almost complete impunity,” he noted. “Foreign investment has skyrocketed. The stock market is up 30 percent. The hotels are bursting. Who would have imagined two years ago that Ariel Sharon would be addressing the U.N. General Assembly in Hebrew? Israel is winning the peace for once.”

Among the lessons from Gaza and the rampant chaos there following disengagement, “The Palestinians have proven unwilling or unable to develop strong national institutions,” he said.

In a question-and-answer period, Oren fretted about Iran’s increasing influence in the region, its nuclear ambitions and its open goal to destroy Israel. “The Iranian nuclear threat threatens Europe, too,” he said. “We cannot permit Iran to go nuclear.”

He also commented on the unrest in France. “France is refraining from bringing Israel into what’s going on. We’re not being blamed. Isn’t that nice?”

The most emotional audience response came when Oren recounted a recent interview he had with an Italian newspaper. “How does it feel to be hated by the whole world,” he was asked.

“Oh,” Oren responded, “do you mean the 1 billion Hindus in India that love us? The 2 billion Chinese that really like us? Or the 75 million American evangelicals that love us?”

Attendees gave Oren a warm ovation. Afterwards, U.C. Berkeley student and Hillel member Michele Margolis said, “He is dynamic and didn’t mind going against the grain.”

Added Jonathan Blake, 20, also a U.C. Berkeley Hillel member: “He had a bag of facts he could pull from. He was tremendous.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.