In 1983 when I went into the Israeli army, I was put in a special unit for older new immigrants. Most Israeli’s go into the army at 18 years old. In 1983, I was 31. Our unit had 63 new immigrants from places as diverse as Ethiopia, the former Soviet Union, Europe, the United States and Canada.
One of my good friends in the army, Arieh, and his twin brother, Moshe, run a gift shop in the Jewish Quarter of the old City. This summer, I ran into them at the Kotel on Shabbat. Moshe told me how opposed he was to the disengagement, how it was a capitulation to Arab terrorism, and how in his opinion it would lead to tremendous violence in its aftermath. I asked him what he was planning to do. His response was that when the time comes for the disengagement, he was going to go down to Gaza and get himself arrested. He did not intend to fight with Israeli soldiers because he had been one. But he was planning a non-violent protest.
On Thursday I found myself looking for their faces as the Israeli army pulled people out of that synagogue in Neveh Dekelim.
Next, I want to tell you about my nephew. My nephew, Amitai, is an extraordinary young man. He has decided to try to become an Israeli pilot. At 19 years old, he was accepted into the pilots’ course along with two hundred other young people. He has now been in the pilots’ course about eight months. Of the 200 that were accepted, there are only 40 left. For the past month and a half, the pilots’ course has basically been put on the shelf. Because these are the best and brightest of the Israeli young people, the army has taken them and trained them to facilitate the disengagement. This included psychological training and role playing.
It turns out that Amitai is in Gaza and could have been in that synagogue in Neveh Dekelim yesterday pulling opponents of the disengagement out. So I found myself looking for his face on the news reports, too.
As an aside, Amitai and other soldiers have told some interesting stories about what has occurred. As you know, the soldiers do not carry weapons.
At one point during a demonstration, the demonstration stopped and some of the soldiers joined the protestors in Mincha, the afternoon prayer. After the service, the demonstration resumed. On another occasion, a woman that was approximately the age of most of the soldier’s mothers, came out, spoke to the soldiers, urged them to disobey the orders of the Army and then gave them baked goods. What was occurring was that this woman looked at my nephew and saw in him her own son. Mothers and sons do not always agree with each other. But, Jewish mothers will always give cookies and strudels to their sons, even when disapproving of their actions!
On Thursday morning when the Israeli army went into the synagogue, they took with them rabbis who were identified by vests with the word “Rav” on them. It was their job to try to keep the situation from exploding into a violent confrontation.
What occurred this week was unprecedented in the history of the state of Israel. The only possible parallel to it occurred in 1948 with the Altalena affair. The ship, the Altalena, purchased by the Jewish underground known as the Irgun which was led by Menachem Begin, was originally intended to reach Israel on May 15, 1948, loaded with fighters and military equipment.
David Ben Gurion demanded that all of the weapons be handed over to the new government. Menachem Begin the leader of the Irgun refused to meet this demand, claiming that some of the weapons must go to the Irgun units, which then was functioning as a de facto militia.
There was a huge conflict between Menachem Begin, the leader of the Irgun, and David Ben Gurion, over this issue. Eventually, the government under Ben Gurion’s leadership sank this ship. The issue was that there were not going to be private militias or armies that could threaten the Israeli army or Israeli democracy. As painful as this decision was, I believe that Ben Gurion saved Israel by making it. It also set a precedent wherein it became clear that Israel’s democracy would need to triumph over extremism and separatism of any sort.
Now think about how there is no parallel to the Altalena affair on the Palestinian side. Mahmoud Abbas, chairman of the Palestinian Authority, has been unwilling or unable to crack down on the various militias including Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. From Israel’s perspective, until Abbas establishes his authority by cracking down on the extremists in his midst, it will be difficult for the peace process to proceed.
What we saw on TV last week is an incredible tribute to Israeli democracy. Difficult as it is to watch, it actually makes me proud. I hope and I pray that my friends, Arieh and Moshe, and that my nephew, Amitai, are not hurt.
For the most part the demonstrators were not arrested, but were taken against their will to a bus driving to the Beersheva bus station and they went home from there.
The other thing that is interesting was that if you looked closely yesterday, you could see that in addition to forcibly dragging out people, you could also see Israeli soldiers handing out water bottles to the demonstrators.
Once again, we can understand what it means that Israel is a Jewish country with a Jewish army. I am so proud of those soldiers. I am proud that Israel is a Jewish democracy. I am proud that in Israel, although people do have a right to non-violent protest, they do not have the right to overcome the will of the majority. In this instance, the will of the majority is that there is disengagement.
Why is there going to be this disengagement? Briefly, I will give you the three reasons.
First, it is estimated that defending the settlements south of Gaza as well as the rest of the Gaza strip takes approximately five times the number of Israeli soldiers as it takes for the defense of the new border. In other words, the issue for the Israeli military has become which border is more defensible, the one that exists right now or the one that existed prior to 1967. The Israeli Military has come to the conclusion that through disengagement, a more defensible border will be created and it will be a border that will take less people to defend.
Second, the disengagement is occurring because there has been a shift in public opinion among Israelis since the 1995 Oslo Accord. There is now an overwhelming acceptance that eventually there will need to be a two-state solution. Recent polls show that close to 70 percent of Israelis now feel that there will need to be some sort of two state solution, hopefully a state of Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and economic cooperation. There is consensus in Israel that Israel cannot continue to rule the million one hundred thousand Arabs and Palestinians in Gaza against their will.
The third reason why the withdrawal is taking place is a little bit more “iffy.” This reason states that perhaps the disengagement will act as a spur to a reinvigoration of the peace process and a return to President Bush’s road map. I think that is very iffy, but let’s be hopeful!
Clearly, the ball is now in the court of the Palestinians and the Palestinian Authority. The PA will now need to strive to establish law and order in Gaza. It will need to prevent Gaza from becoming a terrorist haven and base for Hamas to lob katusha rockets into Israel. If the Palestinians can succeed in Gaza in establishing a real country with an economic infrastructure, law and order and a desire to pursue peace with Israel, then the majority of people in Israel would like to pursue peace with them.
Right now, the majority of people in Israel feel that there is no partner for peace. Certainly, Arafat was not a partner and Abbas, while he might “talk the talk,” has yet to “walk the walk.”
I do not believe that there will be further unilateral concessions from Israel.
At any rate, this is how Israel has chosen to “reality test” any future effort for peace in the wake of five years of violent stalemate. At this time, the Palestinian Authority is presented with a tremendous opportunity to build the Palestinian economic infrastructure and society.
It will now be up to the Palestinians to make their own way.
As Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said to his people on the eve of the Disengagement: “Now the Palestinians bear the burden of proof. They must fight terror organizations, dismantle its infrastructure, and show sincere intentions of peace in order to sit with us at the negotiating table. The world awaits the Palestinian response–a hand offered in peace or continued terrorist fire. To a hand offered in peace, we will respond with an olive branch. But if they chose fire, we will respond with fire, more severe than ever.”
In other words, it is up to the Palestinians to decide what the Israeli response will be. Again let us hope that the response of the Palestinians will be one of Shalom, Salaam, peace. May it be God’s will that in the near future we will see the children of Israel and Palestine competing on the soccer fields, instead of being constantly at war with one another.
Rabbi Emeritus at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he served as rabbi from 1995 to 2021. Guttman is a dual citizen of the United States and Israel.