After the dust has settled and Israel concludes its unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, a key issue will be whether the move will enhance its security or not. Will it be perceived as a “victory for terror” as the right wing has claimed, or a “base for Islamic terror” as former Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has said? Or will it enhance Israel’s overall security posture? There is absolutely no question at all that from a security perspective this move will in the short, medium and long run only enhance Israel’s security.
The Gaza settlements were a strategic dinosaur. They were built in the early 1970s as a buffer between a hostile Egypt and a hostile Gaza. Israel has been at peace with Egypt for almost three decades. The nearest Egyptian gun or tank to the border with Israel is on the other side of the Suez Canal, hundreds of kilometers away. Given the massive military outlay in protecting the 8,000 or so settlers, Gush Katif had turned from a strategic asset to a strategic burden.
Only about 800 of the 8,000 people living in Gush Katif were involved in agriculture, with all the actual work being done by Thai laborers and a few Palestinians when the security situation allowed. Many of the others were either yeshiva students, regional council officials — many jobs were created specifically to bring people to live in the area — or people who worked in Israel proper and came back home to a nice, almost rent-free home by the sea.
These 8,000 lived as an island in a sea of 1.3 million Palestinians. The settlements themselves took up 30 percent of the land and 50 percent of the water in the most populated piece of real estate in the world, which also has one of the fastest-growing populations on earth. In order to ensure the safety of the Jewish settlers as much as possible, special roads were built and patrolled, and thousands of Palestinian homes were bulldozed 30 meters to either side of the road, causing Israel’s international image enormous damage, not to mention the human suffering to those who lost their homes, which can only lead to deeper hatred for Israel and the creation of new potential suicide bombers.
There are those who argue that by pulling out of Gaza unilaterally, Israel has damaged its deterrent image. The opposite is true. The last thing the Palestinians wanted was this unilateral pullback that sheds Israel of 1.3 million Palestinians, muting the demographic clock and its potential threat to Israel as a Jewish democratic state. The pullout leaves Palestinians with no independent state. By acting unilaterally, Israel has demonstrated that no matter how complicated the move — and uprooting 8,000 people from their homes is no easy matter — it will do what is in the country’s best interests.
Having thousands of troops in Gaza protecting, for example the tiny settlement of Netzarim, which is almost in the middle of Gaza City, was sapping the country’s security mechanisms; they were already overloaded fighting a four-year war against terror. Israel’s security forces were needed on the streets of Jerusalem and Netanya and Tel Aviv — not in Gaza.
As for the claim that Gaza will become a terror base: It always has been. The settlers in Gush Katif were pounded with thousands of mortars and Kassam rockets, incidents happening almost every day. Kassam rockets have been fired at the Negev town of Shderot periodically. Even Netanyahu would agree, one supposes, that it is much easier for the Israeli army to deal with the terror threat in Gaza without 8,000 Jews running between their legs. If it does become a base of terror attacks against Israel in a significant way, Israel has the force to deal with it.
Another very important consequence of the move is that now Gaza and Egypt have a joint border without Jewish settlements separating them. Many fear that this will lead to a massive smuggling in of weapons once the Israeli forces leave what is known as the Philadelphi Axis, which separates Palestinian Gaza from Egypt.
The truth is that Israel was never able to stop the smuggling of weapons into the Strip, as witnessed by the almost daily mortar and rocket attacks. While the Jews were in Gaza, the several dozen Egyptian policemen guarding the Egyptian side of the border were always open to a little baksheesh (bribery), and Egypt had little or no incentive to do much about the situation. Now Egypt, faced with a huge problem of terror against its tourism infrastructure in the Sinai, has every interest in ensuring that the border is as hermetically sealed as possible. The police have been replaced by several hundred crack troops and the Egyptians, Israelis and Americans have cooperated well in working out mutually acceptable security arrangements.
A final reason why Israel has come out of this experience stronger is that democracy won over theocracy. Less than 100 of the 15,000 Israeli troops and other security personnel employed in enforcing the pullback heeded the call of some West Bank rabbis to disobey orders, and chose instead to do the will of the majority. Thirty percent of the Israeli officer corps is Modern Orthodox, many of them from West Bank settlements themselves, and had they listened to the rabbis, Israel would be a very different country today. It would have started being destroyed not by the enemy in Gaza, but by the enemy within.
That the enemy from within has been defeated is probably one of the most important consequences of this whole painful — but eminently worthwhile — exercise.
Hirsh Goodman, a senior fellow at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, is the author of “Let Me Create a Paradise, God Said to Himself: A Journey of Conscience From Johannesburg to Jerusalem” (Perseus Books, 2005).
Is Israel’s relationship with Turkey on the skids? Such fears came to the fore when a Lebanese newspaper, quoting sources in Ankara, reported recently that Turkey was freezing future military contracts with Israeli firms. According to the paper, the step was decided on by Turkey’s Islamic-oriented government, which rejects strategic military cooperation with Israel.
Turkish officials were quick to deny the claim, noting that a decision to cancel bids for weapons systems, in which Israel was competing, was part of an effort to boost local production and increase cooperation with European firms, as Turkey fights for a place in the European Union.
Israeli officials also denied that relations had deteriorated, noting a cordial exchange between the two countries’ foreign ministers at a recent conference in Dublin.
Despite the assurances, however, all is not necessarily well in the alliance between the two regional powers.
"For several weeks now we have seen the Turkish attitude become cooler toward Israel, particularly because of the policies of [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon]," said Sami Kohen, a veteran columnist with the Turkish daily newspaper, Milliyet.
"We were in a period of warm relations. Now it’s cooling off," he said, citing the assassination of Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin in March as a turning point.
Turkey currently is ruled by the Justice and Development Party, known by the acronym AKP, a socially conservative party led by veterans of Turkey’s political Islam movement. While Turkey says it maintains a "balanced" approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the country’s prime minister and AKP leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been harshly critical of Israeli actions against the Palestinians.
Israeli officials complain that Erdogan and his foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, have yet to visit Israel, while Sharon’s requests to visit Turkey have been rebuffed. Cengiz Candar, a Turkish political analyst, said he didn’t expect high-level visits of that sort anytime soon.
"The ruling party doesn’t have positive sentiments for Israel," Candar said. "They have taken the relationship as a fact of life, but they have no intention of nourishing the relationship."
During the AKP’s almost two years in power, Turkey has vigorously pursued efforts to join the European Union, passing a number of human rights reforms and liberalization laws.
At the same time, Ankara has been working to improve strained relations with its Arab neighbors and other countries in the Islamic world. For example, relations with Syria have warmed up significantly in the past year, after the two countries almost went to war in the late 1990s, because of Syrian support for the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which was waging a guerrilla war in southeastern Turkey.
Last January, Syrian President Bashar Assad went to Turkey for a three-day visit, the first by a Syrian head of state. Assad reportedly asked Turkey to act as a mediator with Israel, an offer that Sharon rejected, because of Syria’s continuing support for Hezbollah and several Palestinian terrorist organizations.
Kohen and other Turkish analysts say Erdogan saw Sharon’s refusal as an indication of an unwillingness to cooperate on peace efforts. Israeli officials said they thought Syria merely was trying to evade U.S. pressure to end its support for terrorism and wasn’t serious about restarting peace talks that had been abandoned in 2000.
"I think at this point, when Turkey is opening up to the Arab world, to the Islamic world and also to Europe, where there is such a wide consensus criticizing the Sharon government, Turkey doesn’t want to seem like it alone is supporting him," Kohen said.
The relationship between Turkey and Israel began to warm up in the early 1990s, when the two countries signed military cooperation agreements. Though it is predominantly Muslim, Turkey at the time was isolated in the Middle East and faced ongoing conflicts with several of its neighbors and with the PKK.
At the time, the alliance with Israel — also isolated in the region — made sense politically and militarily. But with several of its conflicts now resolved and as relations with its neighbors improve, Turkey may no longer consider its relationship with Israel as important as before, Candar said.
"Circumstances are different now, 180 degrees different," he said. "It’s not all dependent now on the image of a Turkish-Israeli axis in the Middle East."
Israeli officials point out that the two countries have moved beyond purely military relations to forge strong trade and tourism links. Still, for Israel, the relationship with Turkey remains a significant strategic asset.
Ephraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, said Turkey and Israel still have shared regional interests, such as the threat of Islamic extremism and concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.
That should keep any cooling of relations from leading to a complete break, he said.
"Turkey is still in the Middle East, and they still have to worry about some of the same things that Israel has to worry about, and it needs allies like Israel," Inbar said.