The pictures from Gaza are wrenching: children crying and trying to push away the Israeli soldiers–some of them also in tears–who have arrived to chase them from their homes. On the other hand, they are heartening too. This is a civilized, democratic society at work. Prime Minister Sharon’s decision to pull out of Gaza represents the lawful will of the Israeli majority, and it will not be frustrated by a minority, no matter how passionate or committed.
Sharon is making a hard-headed calculation that Israel should, absent a reliable negotiating partner on the Palestinian side, unilaterally attempt to establish defensible boundaries for itself. The security fence has been one (successful) element of this strategy, the withdrawal of Israeli settlers who have to be protected with a large military presence in Gaza is another. Israel had little enthusiasm for occupying this hellhole in the first place, but acquired it through the exigencies of the Six Day War. The settlement policy in Gaza–crafted by Sharon himself years ago–has been a fizzle, with only around 9,000 Israelis settling there.
There are, of course, risks to a pullout. Terrorists will claim victory–as some already have. But the move has to be seen in context. This is not Ehud Barak pulling out from Lebanon in 2000 at a time the Israeli government was pathetically desperate to deal with Yasser Arafat and signaling weakness in nearly every way. Sharon has dealt punishing blows to the intifada in recent years. Who can doubt that he will again if necessary? And there are many other ways to signal strength other than preserving settlements in Gaza indefinitely for no very good reason.
The pullout will help focus attention on the chief problem in Israeli-Palestinian relations: the continued inability of the Palestinians to create a decent policy. Mahmoud Abbas now faces an enormous test of his capabilities and intentions, as we will soon learn whether the Palestinian Authority can exert control over Gaza. No one can be very confident that he will pass it, which will be another chapter in the tragedy of the Palestinians. Israel, meanwhile, will be doing what it can to try to move on.