Leave Gaza Homes for Israel’s Benefit

Israel is about to face painful internal tensions this summer as thousands of Israeli settlers are to be relocated from their homes in the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank. Yet, Israel is negligent in securing whatever gains could be made in the face of this great personal, communal and national sacrifice. True, the Palestinians are not part of the move — it is a unilateral disengagement after all — but a careless Israeli government decision to demolish the settlers’ homes precludes the remaining possible limited gains, and guarantees even greater pains. Section seven of appendix to the June 6, 2004 Cabinet decision to disengage from Gaza states that “as a general rule, the residential dwellings of the settlers will not be left” once Israel leaves. In the recent weeks, however, many Israelis are calling on the Cabinet to reverse this decision. Their plea must be heard.

Demolishing the houses will signal that Israel is driven by a nasty zero-sum-game approach toward the Palestinians: If we can’t have the houses, neither can you. This will surely set a belligerent public tone at a moment in time when we need constructive, not destructive, Israeli Palestinian interactions. With the new Palestinian leadership there is a glimpse of hope. Even Sharon tagged 2005 as the “year of opportunity” with a hope for a new phase in the painful Israeli-Palestinian relationship. If so, how can we launch this new stage with a vandal act of house demolitions?

Israel also risks losing an opportunity to change its tarnished image in the world media. Israel could use the possibly powerful images of Israelis giving up their homes for a better Israeli-Palestinian tomorrow. Instead, we are now guaranteed — yet again — TV feeds of Israeli military bulldozers taking down houses. The media is a crucial arena in shaping Israel’s public image, so why are we abandoning this realm yet again?

It is not only the missed opportunities that render the move senseless. The house demolitions contradict Israel’s overall policy. The Cabinet already decided to hand all industrial and agricultural properties to the Palestinians (via a third party), so why should residential houses be treated any differently?

And then there is the ill-advised history of the Israeli decision. Sharon should reverse the decision for this reason alone: The twisted political logic it rested on is now gone. Originally, the plan was to leave all types of property for the Palestinians’ benefit. But when Sharon faced internal political challenges to his disengagement plan in May of last year, he placated the extremists in his government by introducing the “destruction clause” to the plan. While this tactical decision may have helped him in the past, the new political realities of a national unity government with the extremists in the opposition renders this addition unnecessary.

In fairness, it should be said that Israel is not alone in promoting the absurd idea of house demolitions. Surprisingly, reports indicate that some Palestinian leaders prefer that the settlers’ houses will be torn down, so they could avoid getting into the internal Palestinian debate over who gets these desirable buildings. If true, this is a short sighted and self-defeating policy. No leader could avoid forever questions of resource allocation. If Palestinian leaders dodge this decision today, a new one will come tomorrow, especially as massive international financial aid is on the way. Demolition might serve the fleeting interests of a Palestinian leader, but it surely compromises the interests of the Palestinian people who could have benefited greatly from these properties.

While the world is adopting the business language of value creation in deals, Middle Eastern leaders are introducing a new concept: value destruction in non-deals. Original as it may be, this does not serve the real interests of the parties. Both Israelis and Palestinians should prevent their leaders from acting like children in a sand box. We all deserve better.

Finally, there are environmental considerations. If both sides really hold the land to be holy, as they proclaim, they should treat Mother Earth with more respect. Israeli officials estimate that the demolitions will create 53 million cubic feet of rubble. If concentrated in one site, the rubble will generate a pile multiple miles long and hundreds of feet high. Depositing this rubble is not only expensive but will further damage the already limited underground water resources. The lengthy Israeli-Palestinian conflict has left the land scarred and mutilated. For once, both parties should realize that there are broader universal interests at stake, beyond their selfish and short-term agenda.

In the 1980s, in the wake of the earlier settler relocation from Sinai, the late Israeli poet Naomi Shemer wrote “Do not uproot what has been planted, do not forget about the hope.” Although Shemer probably did not intend her words to be used in such a different context, her deeper message reads loud and clear: keeping what has been planted, offers all of us some hope — perhaps the only hope.

We Israelis should be magnanimous as relocation occurs. Luckily, for once, magnanimity also serves our true interests. Let’s not uproot what has been planted, let’s not forget about the hope. No other approach makes any sense.

Ehud Eiran, assistant to the foreign policy advisor to the Israeli prime minister’s office (1999-2000), is a senior visiting fellow at Harvard Law School.