Vacating Gaza was worse than occupying it

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The events of the past few weeks in the Gaza Strap have been an unambiguous sign of just how badly most people misconstrued Israel’s August 2005 disengagement.

In leading up to the three-year anniversary, as if on cue, Israelis received a stark reminder that while some might want to put Gaza behind them, the territory and its problems cannot just be wished away.

Internecine warfare broke out once again between Hamas and Fatah loyalists, leaving nine Palestinians dead and more than 90 others injured in an ugly exchange of mortar shells, machine gun fire and summary executions. At least a dozen of the injured were said to be children.

It was the worst spate of violence in the area since the Hamas takeover in June 2007, and it left the so-called moderates of Fatah on the run, both literally and politically, as more than 180 of them sought temporary refuge across the frontier in the warm embrace of the very same Jewish state they love to hate.

Then, even as Israel Defense Forces’ soldiers were reportedly risking their lives to save some of the Fatah escapees, Palestinian terrorists launched five mortar rounds at Jewish communities in the Negev, once more violating the cease-fire that went into effect more than a month ago.

Not only did the Gaza withdrawal — which began Aug. 15, 2005 — exacerbate internal Palestinian tensions and bring Hamas to power, but it failed to make southern Israel any safer. It was unnecessary and ill-conceived, and it came at the expense of thousands of Jews who were expelled from their homes, all for naught.

Indeed, a comprehensive survey released recently found that a whopping 81 percent of the Jews forced out are still living in temporary housing and that 50 percent of the evacuees remain unemployed.

It also revealed that 70 percent of the respondents are in worse financial shape than they were prior to being evicted.

In other words, the government threw these fine citizens out of their houses, then threw them to the dogs, essentially leaving them to fend for themselves.

It is little wonder, then, that the Knesset State Control Committee took the unusual step of voting by a wide margin in favor of establishing a state commission of inquiry to investigate the government’s handling of the evacuation.

While the committee’s decision is a welcome one, the underlying strategic challenge posed by Gaza’s downward spiral into Islamist chaos remains unaddressed.

Gaza has become a terrorist haven, and Hamas is actively preparing itself for confrontation with Israel.

As the daily newspaper Yediot Achronot revealed last month, Hamas has recently begun using abandoned synagogues and other public structures in Gaza for terrorist training drills that include the staging of kidnappings, urban warfare and the takeover of buildings.

And as Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin was quoted saying in the Jerusalem Post, Hamas has smuggled in more than four tons of weapons, 50 anti-tank missiles and dozens of light arms in just the past few weeks, since the start of the cease-fire.

It is almost a foregone conclusion that Israel will at some point have to return to Gaza to strike at the terrorist infrastructure that is busy incubating itself there.

Even Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who has thus far refrained from unleashing the IDF against Hamas, acknowledges this to be the case. Speaking at a recent Labor party event, Barak said, “Anyone who misses the military operations in Gaza mustn’t worry — they will come.”

But a pinpoint military operation, or even a grand sweep through the area, is unlikely to provide a lasting solution to the threat posed by Gaza-based terror.

As the past three years of Kassam rocket fire have shown, you might be able to take Israel out of Gaza, but you can’t take Gaza out of Israel.

It is not too late to correct the disastrous mistakes of the past. So let’s hit the collective rewind button, and reassert complete control over the entire Gaza Strip.

Israel should move to topple the Hamas regime, and arrest and try its leadership. The ongoing existence of a rogue, terrorist state along our southern border is simply intolerable, and we have no choice other than to bring it down. And while we are at it, let’s correct the injustice that was done to the residents of Gush Katif, and allow them to rebuild their shattered communities.

The retreat from Gaza was a disaster from beginning to end, but we can largely undo the damage if we act decisively and with resolve.

Sure, it won’t be easy, and the international community will react with predictable fury. But as our experience since the withdrawal has shown, as difficult as it may be to “occupy” Gaza, vacating it has proven to be far, far worse.

Michael Freund is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post, where this piece previously appeared.