by Doug Ward

OXFORD, OHIO---The summer of 2005 has been a traumatic time for the people of the modern state of Israel. In August, Israel evicted some ten thousand of its citizens from their homes, abandoning twenty-one settlements in the Gaza Strip and four more in the northern West Bank region.


Why did Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decide to carry out such a painful "disengagement" process? What will be the consequences of this policy? On September 19, 2005, Jerusalem Post political correspondent Gil Hoffman shared his personal perspectives on these questions in a lecture delivered to an audience of students and faculty at Miami University.


Hoffman, who grew up in the Chicago area, has written for the Post since 1999. The son of Jewish immigrants, Hoffman was raised with a love for Israel. After graduating from Northwestern University's journalism school, Hoffman worked briefly for the Miami Herald and Arizona Republic, but he could not muster much enthusiasm for stories of American crime, scandals, and celebrities. Instead he longed to be in Israel, where, as he puts it, "the history of the Jewish people is being written." So he jumped at the chance to immigrate to Israel and work for the Post. As someone who clearly lives, eats, and breathes Israeli politics, Hoffman was able to impart a great deal of valuable first-hand insight in his lecture.


Hoffman explained that issues of demographics and security were the main motivations behind the disengagement plan. In the Gaza Strip about eight thousand Israelis, guarded by 30,000 IDF troops, lived in the midst of a Palestinian population of over a million. The presence of the Israeli settlements made strategic sense in the 1970s, when they served as a buffer between Israel and Egypt, but in 2005 those settlements were very difficult and expensive to defend. It made more sense, Prime Minister Sharon finally concluded, to get the Israeli settlers out of harm's way and deploy the 30,000 troops more effectively behind defensible borders.


The agonizing prospect of evacuating so many people from their homes deeply divided the Israeli people. Hoffman observed that most Israelis favored disengagement, perhaps because so many had had to serve in the Gaza Strip during their compulsory stints in the IDF. Soldiers as young as eighteen years old, manning Palestinian checkpoints, had been faced with decisions about which Palestinians to allow through the checkpoints and which to detain as possible terrorists.


On the other hand, a vocal minority strongly opposed the evacuation of the settlements. The settlers had worked hard for thirty years to build beautiful communities, including 38 synagogues. Agriculture flourished in the settlements, with vegetable exports amounting to some $ 120 million a year. When Prime Minister Sharon was running for office, he had spoken against disengagement, so his change of plans left a bad taste in people's mouths. Furthermore, how could the Prime Minister overrule God? Gaza was part of the original inheritance of the tribe of Judah in the Promised Land (Joshua 15:47). Surely Joshua and Caleb would be rolling in their graves at the idea of abandoning a portion of the Land.


The debate intensified as the time for disengagement approached. Those who opposed the plan wore orange, while those who favored it wore blue. Hoffman, who as a member of the press did not want to take sides, ended up wearing olive green when he was called up to serve in the IDF as a liaison to the foreign press. In that position, he witnessed the evacuation firsthand.


The disengagement process was painful. One settler, a Holocaust survivor, talked with the press about the prospect of being "evacuated again." (Hoffman noted, though, that his next stop this time would be at a five-star hotel rather than a death camp.) No Israeli wanted to destroy the 38 synagogues, so the job was left to rejoicing Palestinians. While those synagogues were being destroyed, Israeli troops guarded mosques in Israel to ensure their safety.


Hoffman noted that the evacuation required only six days, less than the time originally projected for the process. He gave two reasons that the disengagement had gone so smoothly. One was the sensitivity of the Israeli soldiers, who allowed the settlers to have their say and keep their dignity as they left their homes behind. The second was the fact that the settlers knew where to "draw the line." It was important to the settlers to send a message through the press, but they did not want to attack or injure fellow Israelis. Hoffman was encouraged to see the Israeli people working together in such a difficult situation.


What will be the consequences of the disengagement? In the short term, Prime Minister Sharon's international "approval rating" has risen. He is now regarded more favorably in Europe and at the U.N. Israeli relations with Muslim nations have also improved. For example, the foreign ministers of Israel and Pakistan recently held a meeting.


In Israel, however, Sharon's standing in his own Likud Party hangs in the balance. He has been accused by opponents in the party of "trading territories for red carpets." Hoffman reported that if Sharon does not receive the Likud nomination for the next election, he might form his own centrist party.


As far as prospects for peace are concerned, the ball lies in the court of the Palestinians, Hoffman said. Would the Palestinians continue to embrace the "culture of death," teaching their children to become suicide bombers, or would they opt for a peaceful solution and come to the negotiating table with Israel? It remains to be seen what the answer will be.


Hoffman's lecture was inspiring as well as informative. The audience appreciated his optimism about the future of Israel, his obvious love for his people, and his ability to present and empathize with a variety of points of view.


Issue 19


File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.66.
On 26 Sep 2005, 13:50.