Operation Pillar of Defense, Day Seven: Hey, Maybe the Ethnic Cleansing of Jews from Gaza Wasn’t Such a Bright Idea

On the Gaza border, standing by his tank, an Israeli soldier recites Shachareet, the morning service.

A few days ago, Seraphic Secret recalled a conversation about Gaza with an American-Israeli leftist who supported the expulsion, all in the name of rainbows and unicorns.

Of course, it was not only the left who advocated expelling 8,000 Jews from Gaza in a gesture of land for peace. There were those on the right who sighed with existential exhaustion, saying, in effect: “Okay, let’s give it a try.”

Those of us who vigorously opposed the ethnic cleansing of Jews from Gaza as dangerous appeasement were labeled right-wing fanatics, warmongers, fundamentalists. But we understood that expelling Jews from Gaza would turn Gaza into a front-line terrorist state, and set a precedent whereby the expulsion of Jews from any territory in the name of peace would calcify into a default liberal, global doctrine — which it has.

The American-Israeli leftist who argued so forcefully for the Gaza expulsion is, not surprising, still a leftist idealogue, incapable of recognizing a god that has failed. There is no doctrine as stubbornly delusional and immune to reality as leftism.

But Bret Stephens, the World Opinion columnist for the Wall Street Journal, recognizes that the ethnic cleansing of Jews from Gaza was a terrible mistake. Stephens, who was the editor of the Jerusalem Post at the time, supported the expulsion. Now, more than seven years later, he has written an honest mea culpa.

Sometimes it behooves even a pundit to acknowledge his mistakes. In 2004 as editor of the Jerusalem Post, and in 2006 in this column, I made the case that Israel was smart to withdraw its soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip. I was wrong.

My error was to confuse a good argument with good policy; to suppose that mere self-justification is a form of strategic prudence. It isn’t. Israel is obviously within its rights to defend itself now against a swarm of rockets and mortars from Gaza. But if it had maintained a military presence in the Strip, it would not now be living under this massive barrage.

Or, to put it another way: The diplomatic and public-relations benefit Israel derives from being able to defend itself from across a “border” and without having to get into an argument about settlements isn’t worth the price Israelis have had to pay in lives and terror.

That is not the way it seemed to me in 2004, when then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to pull up stakes, reversing the very policy he had done so much to promote as a general and politician in the 1970s. Gaza, I argued, was vital neither to the Jewish state’s security nor to its identity. It was a drain on Israel’s moral, military, political and diplomatic resources. Getting out of the Strip meant shaving off nearly half of the Palestinian population (and the population with the highest birthrate), thereby largely solving Israel’s demographic challenge.

Withdrawal also meant putting the notion of land-for-peace to a real-world test. Would Gazans turn the Strip into a showcase Palestinian state, a Mediterranean Dubai, or into another Beirut circa 1982? If the former, then Israel could withdraw from the West Bank with some confidence. If the latter, it would put illusions to rest, both within Israel and throughout the Western world.

Finally, I argued that while direct negotiations with the Palestinians had proved fruitless for Israel, Jerusalem could use its withdrawal from Gaza to obtain political and security guarantees from the United States. That’s just what Mr. Sharon appeared to get through an exchange of formal letters with George W. Bush in April 2004.

Things didn’t work out as I had hoped. To say the least.

Within six months of Israel’s withdrawal, Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections. Within two years, Hamas seized control of the Strip from the ostensible moderates of Fatah after a brief civil war.

In 2004, the last full year in which Israel had a security presence in Gaza, Gazans fired 281 rockets into Israel. By 2006 that figure had risen to 1,777. The Strip became a terrorist bazaar, home not only to Hamas but also Islamic Jihad and Ansar al-Sunna, an al Qaeda affiliate.

In late 2008, Israel finally tried to put a stop to attacks from Gaza with Operation Cast Lead. The limited action—Israeli troops didn’t go into heavily populated areas and refrained from targeting Hamas’s senior leadership—was met with broad condemnation, including a U.N. report (since recanted by its lead author) accusing Israel of possible “crimes against humanity.”

Nor did the reality of post-occupation Gaza do much to dent the appetite of the Obama administration for yet another effort to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace. That included a settlement freeze in the West Bank (observed by the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, to zero benefit) and calls by President Obama for Israel to withdraw to its 1967 lines “with mutually agreed swaps.”

In 2009, Hillary Clinton disavowed the Bush-Sharon exchange of letters, saying they “did not become part of the official position of the United States government.” Even today, the Obama administration considers Gaza to be “occupied” territory, a position disavowed even by Hamas.

Put simply, Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza yielded less security, greater diplomatic isolation, and a Palestinian regime even more radical and emboldened than it had been before. As strategic failures go, it was nearly perfect.

Now Israel may be on the cusp of purchasing yet another long-term strategic failure for the sake of a short-term tactical success. The Israeli government wants to bomb Hamas into a cease-fire—hopefully lasting, probably orchestrated in Cairo. That way Israel gets the quiet it seeks, especially on the eve of elections in January, and the Egyptians get the responsibility for holding the leash on Hamas.

That is largely how it played out during Cast Lead. But as one leading Israeli political figure told me in January 2009, just as the last cease-fire had been declared, “Notwithstanding the blows to the Hamas, it’s still in Gaza, it’s still ruling Gaza, and the Philadelphi corridor [which runs along Gaza’s border with Egypt] is still porous, and . . . Hamas can smuggle new rockets unless [the corridor] is closed, to fire at Israel in the future.”

That leading political figure was Benjamin Netanyahu, just before he returned to office as prime minister. He might now consider taking his own advice. Israel can afford to watch only so many reruns of this same, sordid show.

Here’s an interesting commentary by Jonathan Schanzer, author, with Daniel Pipes, of Hamas vs. Fatah, on why Israel decided to strike back at Hamas now.

My friend Jameel of the Muqata is live-blogging the war.

Yeshiva World News is also live-blogging Pillar of Defense.

Follow the IDF on Twitter.

Here’s the IDF on You Tube.

And finally, a simple and touching video: IDF reservists prepare to defend their homes.

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  1. Johnny
    Posted November 21, 2012 at 8:36 am | Permalink


    I didn’t think it was a good idea to unilaterally withdraw either but it happened. At least Stephens is not advocating withdrawal from Samaria and Judea like other pundits and “peace” activists.

    And I agree there will be no peace until the world stops infantilizing Arabs (why does the UN still operate refugee camps as if right of return is still a possibility) and the actions of Hamas and their supporters after the withdrawal should have opened the eyes of leaders the way it has to Stephens. Alas I saw someone on CNN last night bemoan the conditions in Gaza as if it was all Israel’s fault. Wait until the troops move into Gaza and the dead bodies of children are paraded on BBC and CNN. All of their reporters will be required to include the phrase ‘disproportionate response’ as if it reveals some cosmic truth.

    So yeah, it would have been nice if Stephens had sounded the alarm before the withdrawal (and better if Sharon and his advisors had been more realistic of what would happen) but at least he saw the light. If the world had experienced the same revelation there would be other armies ready to march alongside the IDF to clean out the terrorists in Gaza. Instead our tax dollars go to the UN so they can pat the Arabs on the head and tell them their problems are all the fault of those bad, bad Joozs.

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  2. kishke
    Posted November 20, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Permalink


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  3. Johnny
    Posted November 20, 2012 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Credit to Stephens for admitting he was wrong. Even today he’s pretty much alone in that. Has the NYT ever admitted they were wrong about Walter Duranty and the Soviet Union?

    It doesn’t do much good today to say we were right about the withdrawal. It was pretty clear what a mistake it was when the first thing they did was destroy the greenhouses and former synagogues. So much for establishing a Muslim nation that uses a calendar that recognizes it’s not the 9th century anymore.

     It took a couple of bombs to pacify the Japanese after WWII and it’s unlikely Israel can even think about depopulating Gaza to achieve security. Russia has been more ruthless in Chechnya than Israel can imagine and it has not completely tamped down the problem. And then there is Iran.

    Until the Muslim world and other Muslim countries get leadership that recognizes Israel’s right to exist and decide peace is preferable to endless war Gaza will have to be cleaned out every few years. And that ain’t happening in my lifetime unless there is a revolution starting in Iran and spreading to the rest of the muslim world. A real Arab Spring would have been nice but the Obama administration decided it was easier to lead from behind.

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    • pacific_waters
      Posted November 21, 2012 at 7:10 am | Permalink

      “It doesn’t do much good today to say we were right about the withdrawal.”
      Nor does it do us much good to finally acknowledge that the delusional belief that appeasement was a viable source of action was woefully misguided. I am much less congratulatory OR forgiving than you are Johnny. What was painfully obvious to some of us BEFORE the ethnic cleansing SHOULD have been painfully obvious to the cheerleaders of ethnic cleansing. There was and is no cost to Brett Stephens or those who spouted such nonsense but the cost to Israel and its people is incalculable. Not only has Israel paid a heavy price but the arabs have as well. They have chosen to continue this interminably long war and insist on the dismantlement, nay, the destruction of Israel and would like nothing more than to see the death of all Jews or at the very least the enslavement of all of us. There can be no peace in ME until the world stops feeding arab delusions and mytholgoy and no longer casts Israel as the aggressor.

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