TOPICS: As Gaza empties, Israel looks ahead

After a week of seeing Jews drag Jews from their homes, Israel is waking up to a new reality. Evacuating settlements is no longer a peacenik’s dream, but an inevitable, if painful, possibility. While coaxing and carrying nearly 8,500 Israeli settlers in Gaza from their homes, no Israeli fired a shot against another.

The alacrity of the pullout and its relatively minimal levels of violence showed that dismantling settlements is doable for one main reason. Even if many settlers and their supporters found the idea of forced removal abhorrent, turning guns against one’s own troops was even more unfathomable.

Still, disengagement is hardly over, and formidable challenges lie ahead. And even though the withdrawal is moving ahead, Israel says it does not want the world in general and the Palestinians in particular to get the wrong impression.

“We’ve finished making unilateral, painful concessions,” says Ranaan Gissin, a spokesman for PM Ariel Sharon. “After the euphoria dies, the Palestinians will have to get down to taking real steps to show that they can stop terrorist activity.”

By no longer having citizens in Gaza, Israel decreases soldiers’ and settlers’ vulnerability to attacks by Palestinians. But if Israel is attacked from Gaza in the future, it will likely respond with more firepower than before, because it will no longer be facing the complication of fighting people living under Israel’s military rule. Palestinian militants, in turn, will find it harder to argue that they are simply struggling against an occupation.

Another important consideration is calculated purely in terms of demographics, which have always been an important factor in the conflict, but have recently become more pressing. Palestinians have a higher rate of population increase than Israelis. And when the entire population of Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip is calculated, non-Jews now outnumber Jews.

But according to a new study published in the left-wing Haaretz newspaper, after the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip Israel can be assured of a Jewish majority for the next 20 years. In the Israeli discourse, that math adds up to a country that can maintain both a Jewish and democratic nature into the next generation.

On the ground level, however, what is making disengagement work is the approach that Israeli forces took to the job of evicting the settlers. Oddly enough, the army’s patient pace may have been the most disarming of all. In some areas, negotiations between army and settler leaders led to a settlement-wide policy to leave without resistance. In other places, soldiers sometimes listened quietly to hours of abuse and criticism.

While many Israelis are captivated by the discipline exhibited by their soldiers, other sectors are furious that the government is under-prepared to house evacuees. For many, the jury is out on the pullout. It will be judged based on whether Ariel Sharon’s government is as successful at resettling the settlers. — The Christian Science Monitor