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I'll never forget the relief I felt after finishing what turned out to be my last tour of reserve duty in Gaza a dozen years ago. After a month of patrolling the border between the Khan Yunis refugee camp and the Gush Katif settlement block during a time when the first intifada was starting to resemble more a guerrilla war than popular uprising, I felt a weight taken off me that figuratively was far heavier than the M-16 I could at last shed as my unit passed for the final time through the Erez Checkpoint.
It was during that month that I heard a fellow reservist I knew as a fervent hard-liner say to me: "I've never voted in my life for a party to the left of Likud - most of the time, I've voted to the right of it - but I don't understand anymore why we're sitting here in the middle of Gaza, and in the next election my vote will be to get us out of here."
Hearing that made me suspect that the political winds were shifting here even quicker than most pundits were predicting, a notion borne out a year later when Labor swept into power and started to undertake the Oslo Process. Whatever misgivings so many Israelis had about the Rabin government's peace deal with the PLO were surely allayed by the fact that the first territory handed over to the treacherous hands of Yasser Arafat was the millstone of Gaza. Much of the Israeli public had internally already disengaged from its teeming and seething by-ways, more than happy to leave it to the Palestinians to build their own future despite the potential security risks incurred in arming Fatah gunmen and allowing them free reign there.
I NEVER returned to Gaza in the post-Oslo period in an IDF uniform, and when the last soldiers finally closed the gates in August 2005, following the painful evacuation of some 9,000 Israeli civilians living there for decades, I could well imagine their own relief at having to no longer sit as a target within a densely populated area of over a million Palestinians.
It's worth remembering that during the years I served in Gaza in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hamas was already a significant force there, boldly challenging Fatah's authority and brazenly carrying out the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers. Empowering Fatah and allowing Arafat to set up shop was seen as one possible solution to the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism already threatening to take over the area. Added to this was the hope that the joint Israeli-Palestinian industrial areas set up in Erez and Karni, and the several more planned to be alongside them, would boost Gaza's dire economy and possibly even transform it one day into a sort of "Singapore" of the Middle East.
SUCH NOTIONS sound like pipe-dreams now, but it needn't have been so. Not if Arafat had turned out to be a Nelson Mandela instead of a Robert Mugabe, preaching to his people peace and reconciliation in place of hate and resentment, investing in economic development and not corrupt stagnation, and moving his government slowly toward democracy rather than inexorably toward tyranny.
That might have happened had Israel, and even more so the international community, done a better job of holding the Palestinian leadership accountable and demanded it stop its culture of hate that encouraged children to become suicide bombers, halt the diverting of foreign aid to terror groups intent on butchering Israelis, and establish a rule of genuine law and order that could at least hold the promise of true peace and security for both Palestinians and Israelis.
Instead, Arafat was indulged, and rather than facing unequivocal demands that he disarm and defang Hamas, was allowed to keep it on a leash that he could tighten and loosen as he saw fit - mainly as a means of pressuring Israel to make more concessions. Hamas finally grew too powerful for that leash in Gaza, fed by the discontent of the Palestinians toward Fatah, the support of an Iranian regime only too happy for a surrogate to spread its gospel of radical Islam on Israel's border, and the error of permitting it to participate in elections while still allowing it to hold arms, preach and practice terror and undermine the very democratic process in which it was ostensibly taking part.
SO WHO really lost Gaza? Not Egypt, which 40 years ago gladly shed itself of the reality it first created in 1948 when its army moved up the coast toward Ashkelon in an attack on the newborn State of Israel, offering an illusory safe haven for fleeing Palestinians behind its battle lines.
And not Israel, whose vast majority never felt the historical or religious connection with Gaza that it did for Judea and Samaria, and who even today - with Cpl. Gilad Schalit still a prisoner there, Kassams being fired from Beit Hanun on neighboring Sderot, and even more deadly arms pouring in over and under the Egyptian border - has no desire to return its soldiers once again over the Gazan borders.
And not even the international community, which has poured so much aid into Gaza over the years, only to see much of it frittered away in temporary alleviation, diverted to foreign bank accounts or funneled into arms purchases.
No; those who lost Gaza to Hamas are the only ones who really wanted it: the followers of Yasser Arafat. Because Arafat himself, at the end of his day, wanted not what was best for his people, but what best suited his blinkered revolutionary rhetoric and determination to destroy the Jewish State before building his own.
And in order to salvage what is left for the Palestinians, Arafat's successors must be held more accountable by Israel and the international community if they are one day to attain a nationhood that will allow both peoples to live alongside each other in peace and security.
These are the lessons we all must take from Gaza - before those of us who served there find ourselves, or our children, back in its streets, and the dream of peace, no matter how elusive, becomes Gaza's final casualty for generations to come.
The writer is the director of communications for The Israel Project's Jerusalem office. www.theisraelproject.org