The Building Blocks of Hope

Pay Palestinians for razed homes and give them Gaza settlements.

By Uri Dromi
May 26, 2004

Now that Israeli forces are withdrawing from Rafah after a weeklong operation to uproot Palestinian terrorists and crack down on weapons smuggling, there are talks in high-level military and legal circles in Israel about compensating Palestinians whose houses were demolished in the heat of battle.

This is a very good idea. Though a handful of inhabitants were willing hosts to terrorists, the majority were innocent people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time — when Hamas and Islamic Jihad were taking shelter in civilian neighborhoods. In fact, a senior army officer admitted Monday that of the 56 houses Israel says were demolished, only two of the owners had been implicated in terrorist activity. It is therefore only fair and just to compensate the others.

Less encouraging is the news coming from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office that, when and if Israel finally moves its settlers out of the Gaza Strip, the settlements themselves — the houses and other buildings that have gone up over the decades — will be demolished. This folly must be avoided at all costs.

It appears that, having finally reached the conclusion that keeping 7,500 Jews in the midst of 1.5 million Arabs was not such a good idea after all, Sharon's angry and childish reaction is: If I can't have it, they won't have it either.

Unfortunately, when it comes to Sharon, there is nothing new in the sinister idea that when you withdraw, you leave to your enemy only a patch of scorched earth. In 1982, as defense minister, Sharon orchestrated the destruction of the Israeli settlements in Sinai before handing the area over to the Egyptians. Many in Israel wondered then why, instead of that brutal step, Israel couldn't just give the Egyptians those settlements as a token of friendship, a gesture of goodwill that would have smoothed the way to true peace between the two sides.

The president of the United States, on the other hand, seems to understand that winning wars militarily is not enough; more important and more difficult is to win the hearts and minds of one's former enemies. In his speech Monday, George W. Bush outlined the five steps needed to rehabilitate Iraq: handing over authority to a sovereign Iraqi government; establishing security; rebuilding the infrastructure; mobilizing more international support; and holding elections.

It appears that Bush has a vision — or at least a hope — of helping the Iraqis open a new chapter in their history, while making them friends of America.

No one knows if and when the United States is going to pull out of Iraq; Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, however, is already in the cards. That's why Israel should do its utmost to heal the wounds of this recent, bitter episode. Compensating those people whose homes were demolished is a good first step toward that goal. Operation Rainbow, as the recent Israeli incursion was called, could thus bring some hope to the local Palestinians instead of only deepening their animosity toward Israel. And instead of demolishing the settlements once they are evacuated, Israel should generously hand them over to Palestinians who desperately need better housing.

It also behooves Israel to spearhead a world effort to create a viable economy for the people of Gaza. The greater their chances of making a decent living, the less likely they are to be influenced by extremists.

This move would neither diminish the strength of Israel nor harm its security. On the contrary, it would prove that Israel is not only mighty but also magnanimous; not running away but pulling out in a thoughtful, positive way.

Time and again Israel has defeated the Arabs on the battlefield, but it has scarcely ever succeeded in turning them from enemies into friends. The time has come to try a new approach.

Uri Dromi is the director of international outreach at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem.