Viewpoint: Caving in under fire?

Will Israel repeat the historical pattern and make further withdrawals in the face of Arab violence?

PM Netanyahu talks with President Abbas during a family photo for the opening day of the World Climate Change Conference 2015  (photo credit: REUTERS)
PM Netanyahu talks with President Abbas during a family photo for the opening day of the World Climate Change Conference 2015
(photo credit: REUTERS)
SINCE THE 1970s, Israel has a history of making territorial concessions after war and heavy casualties.
This policy pattern began with the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In the wake of a harrowing 19-day conflict with 2,656 military deaths, Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in a peace treaty six years later. That war’s terrible trauma changed Israel’s political landscape, bringing the Likud to power and enabling prime minister Menachem Begin to make the ultimate territorial concession.
The peace between Egypt and Israel ended a cycle of conflict which had seen five wars. Though a cold peace, it endures and many young Egyptians and Israelis are alive today because of it.
Prolonged Arab onslaughts from non-state actors led to further withdrawals.
The first intifada from 1987 to 1993 and its 160 civilian and military fatalities led to the Oslo peace process and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and Gaza. A wave of Palestinian demonstrations, civil disobedience and terror attacks had swept the Likud from power bringing in Labor headed by Yitzhak Rabin and paving the way for the 1993 framework agreement.
Though Hamas exploited Oslo to launch bruising terror attacks, Israel enjoyed a peace dividend in the form of widespread diplomatic recognition, new trade opportunities, a peace treaty with Jordan, and it shifted the expense and responsibility of civil administration for over two million Palestinians to the PA.
Israel followed up its territorial concessions in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank with a withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000.
After the 1982 Lebanon War, Israel occupied southern Lebanon as a security zone. Eighteen years of continuous attacks by the Iranianbacked Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah resulted in the loss of 346 civilians and military personnel. Faced with mounting casualties and a never-ending occupation, prime minister Ehud Barak ordered the withdrawal of the IDF in May 2000.
After the IDF’s disorderly retreat, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah mocked Israel as a “spider web society,” which would collapse under sustained pressure. The Palestinians took note and threatened an “intifada with bombs.” They began their second intifada after Ariel Sharon’s controversial visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, in September 2000. Waves of terror attacks consisting mainly of suicide bombers led to 1,063 civilian and military deaths over the next five years. Israel responded with targeted killings of Palestinian operatives and leaders and the large-scale Operation Defensive Shield, launched in March 2002, and aimed at rooting out terrorist cells in Palestinian cities.
Partly in response to the continued suicide bombings, Sharon, by then prime minister, decided to disengage from the Gaza Strip. The IDF made a full withdrawal from Gaza and evacuated over 8,000 settlers in the summer of 2005.
The unilateral departure from Gaza had mixed results. Israel ended day-to-day control of over one and a half million Palestinians but Hamas exploited the power vacuum to seize control of the Strip in a bloody 2007 coup against Fatah. The Palestinian body politic found itself divided, with Hamas in control of Gaza and Fatah governing the West Bank. Hamas and other terror groups fired thousands of rockets into Israel, increasing their range and placing much of the country under direct rocket or missile threat. Since the 2005 disengagement, Israel has sent the IDF into Gaza three times in 2008-9, 2012 and during the 50-day Operation Protective Edge in 2014.
Israel now faces a wave of attacks from Palestinian individuals with no clear connection to established terror groups. These are proving difficult for security forces to prevent due to the lack of prior planning by the perpetrators. The question is will Israel repeat the historical pattern and make further withdrawals in the face of Arab violence? The aftermath of the 2005 disengagement shows that a unilateral departure without leaving behind a residual force could lead to a Hamas takeover of the West Bank. This would be a nightmare scenario with rockets possibly shutting down international air travel at Ben-Gurion Airport. Israel would face the terrible choice of reconquest or accepting a Hamas presence bordering on and even in Jerusalem itself.
On the other hand, following up an end to the violence with a far-reaching diplomatic package could help restore stability and create the beginnings of a better future for both sides.
Do Israel, the Palestinians and the international community have the imagination and the political will to transform a violent present into a more peaceful future? In the past, violent upheavals have sometimes been followed by the creation of political possibilities out of the seemingly politically impossible.
Naim M. Peress is a lawyer and writer based in New York.