Unsettling Gaza

Middle East | An Israeli and a Palestinian find peril and promise in their future

Issue: "Katrina: Week 2," Sept. 17, 2005

The worst day of Michael Friedman's life was Aug. 15, 2005. The anticipated knock on the door of his Gaza home was a sign that the dreaded time had come. He opened the door to greet a group of soldiers who handed him evacuation orders, and as Mr. Friedman stood in the doorway, he surveyed the disturbing scene around him: His wife, Sol, and their five children were crying, as were the bewildered soldiers, overwhelmed with both empathy and duty.

Mr. Friedman silently said goodbye to all that had become dear to him over the past 22 years in Nisanit-the close-knit community, schools, and day-care centers they had built, the breathtaking sea and beaches, and the taste of fresh well water. He glanced down at the orders that had just been handed to him-orders Mr. Friedman says are identical to those served at the homes of Palestinian terrorists: "The same unit that was previously protecting us was throwing us out."

The Friedman family was among 8,500 settlers evacuated from Gaza during Israel's massive withdrawal campaign in August. Islamic terrorist groups vowed to uphold a ceasefire agreement during the withdrawal, but a suicide bombing on Aug. 28 in the southern Israeli town of Beersheba-the first since the disengagement began-cast doubts for some on the land-for-peace proposal and the capability of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to control the terrorists within his borders.

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While the White House remains hopeful that the withdrawal will help jumpstart the stagnant peace process, two Middle East men on opposite sides of the debate offer their perspectives: Mr. Friedman says the withdrawal compromises security and fails to appease the Palestinians. Salah Hidmi, a Palestinian, says peace will not prevail until Israel withdraws from all of the occupied territory in the West Bank.

Mr. Friedman remembers vividly the beginning of the Nisanit settlement in 1984, and the sense of purpose and duty he had when then-housing minister Ariel Sharon asked Mr. Friedman and several others to start a settlement in Gaza and promised his support. "I have a deep feeling of betrayal that he [Ariel Sharon] sent us there and he removed us after I'd had five children born in the settlement," Mr. Friedman said.

Mr. Friedman believes Gaza is part of holy land that belongs to the Jews. His spiritual convictions aren't the only reason Mr. Friedman agreed to live in Gaza. He also believes that the area is strategically significant and that an Israeli presence there helps to keep terrorism in check.

It is no mystery why security is such a high priority among Israelis. The birth of the nation in 1948 was greeted with hostility from all sides: Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan all joined forces and attacked the fledgling nation against the UN decision to grant statehood to the Jews. Israel won that war.

A massive buildup of Egyptian forces in the Suez Canal, as well as other warning signs, led Israel into a preemptive strike that began the Six-Day War of 1967, leading to Israel's acquisition of both Gaza and the West Bank, among other areas. The Yom Kippur War of 1973 was another surprise attack-this time on Israel's holiest day of the year. These major wars-combined with countless suicide attacks-elevate security concerns, and, as a result, the government has built giant walls, intermittently closed border crossings, and encouraged settlements in Gaza and the West Bank.

Now many of the settlements are erased from the map.

The settlers are not alone in their protest of the withdrawal. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently announced his intention to run for leadership of the right-wing Likud party and unseat its current leader, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. His announcement comes less than a month after Mr. Netanyahu-who served as Prime Minister from 1996 to 1999-quit his post as finance minister in protest of the withdrawal.

As Israel's 38-year presence in Gaza comes to an end, so does 15 percent of the nation's agricultural exports, and Mr. Friedman's vision of future Gaza is bleak: "Where Jews abandon a place it turns back into desert," he says, noting the removal of Jews from the now-Egyptian town of Yamit, a town he says was once thriving and beautiful and is now a desert. "Now, this whole chain of settlements [in Gaza] that were patches of heaven will turn back into sand and desert." In the meantime, the withdrawal gives the Palestinians an appetite for even more land, Mr. Friedman says.

Just how much land will be exchanged to bring peace is still being negotiated. Most Palestinians and some members of the international community say the current disengagement is a start, but not enough. "I am happy for Gaza," Salah Hidmi says, "but the Israeli government must leave the West Bank."


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