The deadline for the voluntary departure of settlers from the 21 Israeli settlements in Gaza ended on August 16, 2005, at which point the Israeli army began the forced evacuation of those who remained. Its task was not too difficult, as most settlers had already chosen to leave within the period stipulated by the Israeli government. They realized that Sharon's decision to fully withdraw from Gaza was final and irrevocable and they also realized that if they waited beyond the deadline they would no longer be eligible for the financial compensation the government had offered to evacuees.
The minority of settlers that chose to defy the ultimatums knew that the government meant business. These are Jewish extremists who believe that all of Palestine -- not to mention some territories beyond -- is part of the "historic land of Israel" promised by God to the Jews and it is their holy duty to resist expulsion even if it costs them their lives. Nothing more clearly fits the profile of the type of religious fanaticism that turns to terrorism. Indeed, instances of such terrorism abound. How many innocent Palestinian civilians, including children, have these extremist settlers killed? How many Palestinian fields have they razed and how many olive trees -- the symbol of peace -- have they deliberately destroyed? Moreover, in perpetrating these acts of murder and destruction they believe they are executing the divine will. Thus it is that some of the gravest crimes against humanity are committed in the name of religion.
However, it is wrong to fault religion itself for terrorism, even though terrorism parades in religious garb. The world's great religions exhort their adherents to subscribe to brotherly love, tolerance and peaceful co- existence. Terrorism, on the other hand, knows no religion or native land or ethnic identity. Like a malignant cancer it thrives wherever the conditions exist that allow it to take root, spread and breed.
Apart from a fringe of right-wing extremists in Israel the world has been looking forward to the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza as the first concrete step towards the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, at the heart of which resides the Palestinian cause. Even in Israel, where Sharon's disengagement plan has stirred the most heated controversy, recent opinion polls show that popular support for the plan never fell below 55 per cent and at times rose as high as 65 per cent.
Nevertheless, in the midst of this general optimism, a discordant note was sounded by Daniel Pipes, a prominent neo-conservative in the US. In an article in USA Today (14 August) the director of the Middle East Forum proclaimed: "The Israeli government's removal of its own citizens from Gaza ranks as one of the worst errors ever made by a democracy." He went on to say that before his election as prime minister in 2003 Ariel Sharon had referred to the idea of unilateral withdrawal as a recipe for war not for peace. Yet "for unknown reasons" the prime minister later adopted just that policy in Gaza, "thereby reneging on his promises, betraying his supporters and inflicting lasting damage on Israeli public life".
Thus reads the judgment pronounced by Pipes on the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the dismantling of settlements and the removal of settlers. It is difficult to imagine a Zionism more fundamentalist than his. It is difficult to imagine a more provocative incitement. Nor can one help but wonder by what right he claims to speak, from the comfort of his home in far away America, where he occupies important positions of responsibility, on behalf of the most reactionary segment of political opinion in Israel.
Were Pipes' perversion of the facts and distortion of reality not so dangerous one might be able to laugh. How confidently he spouts his condemnation of the withdrawal as one of the worst errors committed by a democracy. One might ask him in turn what was so democratic about occupying the land of another people by force of arms and then refusing to abide by every international resolution against that occupation. One might further remind him that not only is the occupation a flagrant breach of international law, but also that the Permanent Court of War Crimes has ruled that for an occupying power to transfer a portion of its populace to the territories under its occupation is itself a crime.
A large part of the problem with American neo-conservatives stems from the zealotry with which some of its adherents support the most racist and extremist elements in the Israeli right. This phenomenon has been instrumental in thwarting American efforts to help bring about a peaceful settlement in the Middle East. It is now time for the US administration to apply itself once more to the realization of the roadmap and to bring a constructive and forward looking vision to the process. But if the US is to work for a viable settlement, it must sideline those forces that constitute the true obstacle to peace because of their support for the most intransigent and fanatical segment of the Israeli right.
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