In the next three weeks, the Israeli army will do something unprecedented: instead of defending the country against external enemies or terrorism, it will evacuate – by force if necessary – 9,000 Israelis from their homes.
Israel’s unilateral withdrawal is the outcome of a deep political shift that has been caused by two somewhat contradictory convictions that have characterized Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s policies since 2003: first, that the US-initiated “road map” is going nowhere and, second, that the status quo is untenable. Certainly, according to Sharon’s thinking, there is no future for 9,000 Jewish settlers living among 1.2 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Hence, in the absence of negotiations, a unilateral withdrawal is the only meaningful step towards de-escalation and stabilization.
This policy has deeply divided Israel: the settlers – mostly, but not exclusively religious – feel betrayed by Sharon, “The Father of the Settlements.” It is now the Israeli left that, however reluctantly, realizes that Sharon’s new pragmatism may be the first step in the right direction. Like de Gaulle in Algeria, Sharon has reshuffled the cards of Israel’s politics.
The last weeks have seen massive demonstrations, some of them verging on violence; many of the settlers have declared that they will not obey government orders to evacuate. The army and the police have mobilized almost 50,000 troops to carry out evictions. This forcible approach is traumatic not only for the settlers, but also for many other Israelis. Only the next days and weeks will tell whether the evacuation proceeds peacefully or not.