Israel is better off staying out of there

A consensus seems to have formed in Israel that the disengagement from Gaza was a deadly mistake — that it caused a steep increase in the number of Kassams falling on Sderot and allowed Hamas’ recent takeover of the Strip. In all, according to the new Israeli wisdom, the removal of Israeli settlers and soldiers from the Gaza 21 months ago has badly weakened Israel’s security.

This consensus, for the most part, is a crock.

The IDF Spokesman’s Office says about 1,550 Kassams have landed on Sderot and its environs since the disengagement in mid-September 2005. But the Kassams started landing on Sderot four years earlier, when the IDF was dug in the Strip and Israeli settlers were living in Gush Katif. In those last four years before disengagement, Palestinians in Gaza fired some 4,600 Kassam rockets on Sderot.

So nothing’s changed on that score. No more rockets are hitting Sderot now than in the “good old days.” The number of Israelis killed by Gaza Palestinians, however, has changed dramatically since disengagement — for the better. Since the last IDF soldier left the Strip, eight Israelis have been killed by Palestinians in Gaza: four civilians in Sderot and four soldiers, according to the Foreign Ministry’s Web site. Another soldier, Gilad Shalit, was kidnapped.

By comparison, in the five years from the start of the second intifada until disengagement, 148 Israelis were killed by Gaza Palestinians: 91 soldiers and 57 civilians. In addition, 11 foreign civilians were killed by Gazans in that time.

So in terms of bloodshed, there’s nothing to discuss. Gaza was far more deadly for Israelis before the disengagement than it’s been since.

Although people seem to have blocked it out of their memories, Gaza, when we were occupying it, was a local synonym for hell. Gaza, after all, was where 8,000 Israeli settlers and thousands of Israeli soldiers were surrounded by 1.4 million Palestinians. That’s why we got out of there, and that’s why everybody except the hard-line right was deeply relieved and grateful to Ariel Sharon for making it happen.

Regarding Hamas’ recent “coup,” does anybody remember which Palestinian organization in the Strip was the strongest on the eve of Israel’s departure? Was it the Khan Yunis branch of Overseas Republicans? Was it Yisrael Beitenu? No, it was Hamas.

What happened in Gaza last week wasn’t a coup at all. It was more of a Hamas mopping-up operation against Fatah. The status quo in Gaza was hardly affected. Now Hamas is 100% in control instead of only 98%. The outcome of that brief, almost completely one-sided civil war only formalized Hamas’ position. Officially, Hamas has been ruling the Strip for years, even under the guns of the IDF.

The disengagement isn’t to blame for Hamas. This is just nature taking its course in Gaza — and thank God Israelis are outside the killing fields instead of in the middle of them.

I agree, Hamas’ dramatic victory is fearful. It’s fearful for Israel, Egypt, Jordan and everyone in the world who isn’t an Islamic militant. And for the militants, it’s a shot in the arm. It could be disastrous, it could also be the start of something better — a more urgent approach by Israel and Egypt to deal with the smuggling of weapons from Sinai, through the tunnels dug underneath the Philadelphi corridor, into the waiting hands of Gaza’s Palestinians.

Weapons smuggling is the one thing that clearly has become worse since disengagement. The intifada in Gaza didn’t run on homemade weapons, nor did it run on the “Oslo rifles.” It ran on the arsenal transported through those tunnels, which have been there for the last 20 years, and which the IDF never succeeded in shutting down.

But it’s worse since the IDF left, and Israel is putting the blame on Egypt. A recent story in The New York Times, though, says Egypt has been working steadily harder over the years to cut off the flow of arms, but finds the Bedouin smugglers nearly unstoppable. Bedouin smugglers are also nearly unstoppable for Israeli Border Police patrolling the Egyptian border for prostitutes, drugs, stolen cigarettes and other valuable “items” on their way to Israel.

So, maybe it’s time for Israel to stop blaming and start taking the steps necessary to block the weapons from reaching Hamas. Egypt, according to a recent Jerusalem Post editorial, wants to increase its anti-smuggling forces at the Gaza border from 750 to 6,000. But Israel objects because this would relax the rules of demilitarization in the Camp David peace treaty, and, anyway Israel thinks the real problem is that Egypt isn’t trying hard enough.

But maybe the Times article is correct. Maybe Egypt is trying its best to stop the weapons smuggling and the real problem — this is my suggestion, not the Times’ — is that Israel won’t allow Egypt to put enough soldiers near the Gaza border to solve the problem.

Israel’s leaders should ask themselves: Who’s the bigger threat to Israel today — Egypt or Hamas? And who’s the bigger threat to Egypt today — Israel or Hamas?

We have a clear common interest with Egypt in weakening Gaza’s rulers. If Israel’s leaders would only recognize this and act on it along the Philadelphi corridor, Hamas’ triumph in Gaza may become much less of a triumph than it now seems. The rise of Hamas has the potential to strengthen an anti-Islamist partnership between Israel and the moderate Arab world, starting with Egypt, without whose support I doubt the fight against Islamism can be won.

If this partnership is forged, the military threat of Hamas in Gaza is blunted and the momentum of Hamas’ victory is stopped, then the disengagement from Gaza will exceed Israelis’ expectations.

As things stand, disengagement hasn’t lived up to those expectations. The Kassams are still flying, the Egyptians haven’t shut down the weapons smugglers. This is why so many Israelis consider disengagement a failure.

But if you compare the amount of suffering and death the Gaza Strip is causing us today to the amount it caused us before we left, then disengagement remains, on balance, a success.

And remember — getting out of Gaza was only necessary because Israel decided after the Six Day War to keep it.

The occupation, not the disengagement, was the real mistake, the original sin.

Larry Derfner is policy analyst and editorial writer for the Jerusalem Post, where this article previously appeared.