This week marks the eighth anniversary on the Hebrew calendar of one of the darkest chapters in Israel’s recent past.
It was on the 8th of Elul, 5765, (September 12, 2005), that Israel stood by and watched as Palestinian mobs ransacked synagogues abandoned by the Jewish state after the withdrawal from Gaza and the expulsion of its Jews.
Even before the IDF’s then- OC Southern Command, Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Dan Harel, had a chance to issue a signed proclamation that day formally ending Israel’s military rule over Gaza, the Palestinian orgy of destruction had commenced.
At 2:30 in the morning, a crowd of Palestinians from Khan Yunis descended upon the ruins of the former Gaza Jewish community of Morag. Amid celebratory gunfire, they set Morag’s synagogue ablaze, waving Fatah and Hamas flags and setting off fireworks as they chanted, “This is merely the first step in the liberation. Tomorrow we will liberate all of Palestine!” Palestinian policemen stood by and watched as youths looted the building, carting off the tables and chairs that had once been used by Jewish worshipers pleading for Divine mercy.
In the former community of Netzarim, bulldozers dispatched by the Palestinian Authority proceeded to knock down the walls of the deserted synagogue, while in Neve Dekalim, Palestinian rioters attacked and damaged the iconic Jewish house of worship.
In a statement issued that day, PA President Mahmoud Abbas did not utter a word of condemnation over the demolition of the synagogues. Instead, he justified it, stating that the synagogues would be destroyed because “the Israelis left behind empty buildings which in the past had served as synagogues. But since they removed any religious symbols they are no longer holy places.”
Watching the scenes on television, I could not believe what I was seeing, nor could the rest of Israel.
Places that had served as sacred abodes for Jewish worship, where for decades the sounds of Torah study and prayer had reverberated before ascending to Heaven, were instantly defiled and despoiled by a hate-filled enemy.
What kind of person takes pleasure in desecrating a synagogue or setting it on fire? The dance of the flames in the eyes of the Palestinian arsonists is one that we have witnessed all too often throughout our history, from the Crusaders to the Cossacks and on to Kristallnacht. It is a fire fuelled by hatred, one that cannot be quenched even by the signing of treaties and accords.
After all, if peace is based on a modicum of mutual respect, how can one trust those who rejoice in vandalizing and blaspheming empty Jewish houses of worship? The 19 synagogues that stood in Gush Katif in Gaza were left in place after the Israeli government had voted 14 to two, with one abstention, to leave them there and hope for the best.
Hours after the vote, the smoke began to rise from the burning buildings. But instead of intervening to stop the ruin, the government chose to issue a statement to reporters.
“Israel expects the Palestinian Authority to maintain the dignity of the structures of the synagogues,” a spokesman for prime minister Ariel Sharon declared.
Sadly, neither the dignity nor the structures were in fact maintained.
Indeed, less than three years later, after the Hamas takeover of Gaza, many of the former synagogue buildings were transformed into terrorist training camps. As Israel’s leading news site Ynet reported on July 15, 2008, “terrorist organizations and most notably Hamas have begun using these buildings for training purposes.”
“Several videos filmed and produced by various terror organizations,” the report said, “present gunmen training at the sites of public buildings once used in Gush Katif, including synagogues and schools. One of the structures identifiable in the short films is the Atzmona synagogue, in which the terrorists train for various scenarios with live ammunition.”
These “scenarios” included urban warfare as well as potential kidnapping operations of Israeli soldiers.
In other cases, the former Gaza synagogues were transformed into chicken coops, where Palestinian farmers used them to raise fowl.
The entire episode served as a painful climax to Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, which quickly proved to be a moral, strategic and political disaster, one that weakened the Jewish state’s deterrence, strengthened Islamic extremists and forced 7,000 Israeli pioneers out of their homes.
In retrospect, it is clear that we cannot and must not allow this ever to happen again.
With the US now pressuring Israel to forge a deal with the PA, the danger of a potential withdrawal from Judea and Samaria once again looms on the horizon. It is therefore crucial that we recall the lessons of Gush Katif and do everything in our power to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.
For the sake of our Land, our future and our dignity, we must draw a line in the sand and state clearly and unequivocally: no more withdrawals and no more expulsions of Jews.
May the synagogues of Gush Katif be speedily rebuilt, quickly and in our days.