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The ghosts of Gaza

As I begin this column, terrorists have launched thousands of rockets and stormed civilian neighborhoods in a massive and unprovoked attack on Israel. I’m reminded of another moment, 18 years ago; a stunning, defining moment that has proven conclusively who is right and who is wrong in the brutal attack this weekend.

It was August 2005. I stood at the border of Israel and Gaza, as a member of Congress, to witness the unilateral withdrawal of Israeli citizens and troops from the territory. Under a scorching sun, dust heavy in the air, I was an eyewitness to the slow, final lowering of a gate at a border crossing; the curtain closing on Israel’s presence in Gaza.   

Several weeks earlier, the Israeli government had made a highly risky bet: If it ended 38 years of Israeli occupation of Gaza (which Israel had won after it was attacked by Egypt in 1967), the Palestinians would demonstrate an ability to live peacefully, stably, next to Israel. 

I watched part of an operation that unilaterally dismantled Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip. Israel’s prime minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, and it’s Knesset, demanded no preconditions, negotiations, guarantees or assurances; no treaties, agreements, memoranda of understanding. The withdrawal from Gaza was based on slender hope and heavy prayer that if Israel returned the land, Palestinian leaders would turn it into a fit and stable place.

The unilateral withdrawal was a searing process for Israel. I can’t think of another country in history that has sent in its own armies to forcibly evict its own people from disputed territory. Israel did.

The Israel Defense Forces evicted Israeli citizens, demolished Israeli-owned buildings, evacuated security personnel. Thousands of Jewish settlers from dozens of settlements in the Gaza Strip were relocated. In many cases, troops went house to house, ordering settlers to leave and breaking down the doors of resisters. There were scenes of troops dragging sobbing families from homes and synagogues. And scenes of soldiers sobbing themselves: Jews warring against Jews to secure peace with Palestinians. 

Jewish cemeteries were dismantled, bodies exhumed. Jewish bodies, wrenched from the ground by Jews, against the will of families. Where else, when else, has this happened?

By Sept. 12 the last Jew had left Gaza. 

The bet made by Israel failed. A failed state was born.   

In the land of the Bible, Isaac’s proverb about beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks was an instant mockery.

Immediately following Israel’s withdrawal, Palestinian crowds entered the settlements waving Hamas flags, firing gunshots into the air, ransacking homes, desecrating, looting, destroying a few remaining synagogues.  

Palestinian Authority security forces refused to intervene. The remaining settlements’ greenhouses, which would have been vital in agricultural developments, were looted.  Banners proclaimed: “’Four years of resistance beat ten years of negotiations.”

On Sept. 23, 2005, Palestinian leaders launched their first barrage of rockets against Israel. It was clear that the land would not produce businesses, seaside hotels, abundant farms for Gazans, but rockets against Israel. The rockets fell then, as now, but they were primitive, like a drizzle before a storm.

The rocket attacks continued in 2007. Israel responded the way any nation would respond when bombs fell on its people, launching defensive air strikes. 

This has been the deadly cycle since that day, in 2005, when Israel left, quite literally in front of my eyes. I have returned many times since. On one visit, I met with a group of Israelis who lived near the Gaza border. I wanted to learn about tunnels that Hamas terrorists had burrowed deep into Israel.

I will always remember being told that residents had thought they’d gone crazy — hearing strange noises, the whispering of ghosts, beneath their homes, sensing that the apparitions were causing floors and walls to vibrate; then learning it was in fact caused by the digging of the tunnels.

What was worse, I wondered, the sense of losing one’s mind at the sound of ghosts, or the reality that terrorists were burrowing under their children’s beds? And while the tunnels were dug, more rockets flew. More attacks, abductions. Not to mention the abdication — the deathly abdication by the Palestinian leadership in Gaza to care for its own people.

Moments of clarity are rare in geopolitics. War is clouded with moral relativism, double standards, revisionist history. Please spare us the double standards and trite defenses, the need to see both sides of this conflict. More important than both sides is the one, irrefutable, irreducible truth.

In 2005, Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza, hoping for peace. It was repaid in the terror and tears we witness at this very hour. The decision for peace was unilateral, by Israel. The attacks today were also unilateral, by Palestinian terror groups.

The country that exhumed its own citizens from cemeteries in Gaza in its own sacrifice for peace now digs fresh graves in its national cemeteries. At this moment, clear and defined even through tears, the United States must act unequivocally. 

Steve Israel represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives over eight terms and was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now director of the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy Institute of Politics and Global Affairs. Follow him @RepSteveIsrael

Tags Benjamin Netanyahu Gaza Strip Hamas Hamas attack Israel Israeli-Palestinian conflict Palestinian nationalism Palestinian territories