The events of Rafah and the Gaza question must be viewed within the broader context of changes in the mainstream Jewish public in Israel and its attitude toward the Palestinians and the Arab world. The two paradigms that mainstream Jews had believed in for decades recently collapsed. One was based on the hope of establishing in the entirety of the Greater Land of Israel a shared Jewish-Arab political entity; the other, on the partition of the land between Jews and Arabs in an historic compromise ("peace"). Both were based on the assessment that they served the "real interests" of each side. The first lost the adherence of mainstream Jews following the intifada in the late 1980s. The second lost their trust when the structural failure of the Oslo illusion became evident.
Every generation apparently needs to learn these lessons anew. Paradoxically, in an earlier generation, the pessimistic Zionist conclusion was articulated by a man who had placed peace with the Arab residents of the country at the top of his order of priorities. It was the founder of "Brit Shalom", Arthur Rupin, who formulated in his diary in 1931 a sad conclusion that is today equally applicable to the state of relations between Israel and the Palestinians: "What we can get from the Arabs we don’t need, and what we need we cannot get [from them]."
The mainstream of the Jewish public today understands that Israel has to disengage from the Palestinian population in order to maintain a nation state that is both Jewish and democratic. Since there is no Palestinian partner for an historic compromise that is prepared to abandon both terrorism and the demand for "return", Israel must act unilaterally and withdraw from the heavily populated heartland. Israel will withdraw to a border it will determine unilaterally in accordance with the demographic reality, incorporating the three settlement blocs where most of the settlers dwell. Along this line a physical barrier is being erected, designed to terminate the "creeping return" of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians into Israel, to reduce Israel’s vulnerability to Palestinian terrorism, and to afford Israelis an acceptable quality of life and standard of living. This barrier, the fence, enjoys public support in Israel primarily as a defense against terrorism, but its significance goes far deeper. In recent decades the entire way of life of the Jewish population had been dictated by its intimate contact with the Palestinians. The Jews have come to understand that the illegal Palestinian migration, as well as the crime and the corruption from the territories, are no less detrimental, in the long run, to their way of life than the terrorism. In recent years Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, one of the most prominent proponents of the Greater Israel paradigm, has also reached similar conclusions. His acceptance of partition, acquiesce in a Palestinian state and even willingness to dismantle settlements does not derive from hope for peace, but rather from despair regarding the chances of historic compromise as well as from recognition that the status quo endangers the democratic nation state of the Jewish people. His plan for unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria rests on the assumption that the Palestinians are not a potential partner to a "two states for two peoples" compromise, and that Israel cannot wait until (if ever) such a partner emerges.
Sharon’s disengagement plan enjoys the massive support of the general Israeli public, and of the Likud voters, but Likud members rejected it. While some of the plan’s opponents ideologically reject uprooting of settlements, there are many, notably within the security community, who are mainly concerned lest the image of Israel fleeing the territories encourage more terrorism. Acutely aware that the image of Israel "fleeing" Lebanon due to Hizballah terrorism contributed to the war initiated by the Palestinians in 2000, they fear that unilateral departure from Gaza is liable to promote even worse acts of terrorism in the West Bank (perhaps even among the Arab citizens of Israel).
The Rafah operation is intended not only to strike at terrorists, but primarily to enhance Israel’s capacity to deal with them following its departure from the Gaza Strip. The key is the weapons supply conduit along the Egyptian border. The main objective is to expand Israeli control over the ridiculously narrow strip of land that separates Egypt from Gaza, through which weapons are smuggled to the Palestinians. The byproduct of a resolute operation in Gaza is a message to the Palestinians that Israel is determined in its struggle against terrorism and is creating the conditions that will enable it to meet this challenge for as long as it takes.
The cost of such determined action is additional damage to Israel’s image. But this issue too must be seen within its wider context. The media, European media in particular, present such a convoluted and distorted image of Israel’s struggle against Palestinian terrorism that Israel no longer has anything to lose. If the fear of such damage to her image deters Israel from taking needed action in time, terrorism will only be stepped up to a point where more drastic counter measures are called for. Those measures, in turn, will certainly cause even worse damage to Israel’s image.
Unilateral disengagement is inevitable because all other options are unacceptable. The offensive against Palestinian terrorism will persist, to demonstrate that terrorism has set Palestinian national objectives back rather than allowing Palestinians to dictate Israeli policy. This requires steadfastness and stamina. Israelis have demonstrated in the last few years that they have more of those qualities then anyone expected.