Sharon's toughest decision

Evacuation of Israeli settlements is considered a turning point in the prime minister's career.

Architect Of A New Israel

August 07, 2005|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KFAR DAROM, Gaza Strip - Soon after Yamima Cohen Ayoubi moved to this Jewish settlement in the midst of Palestinian cities and sand dunes, Ariel Sharon paid a visit.

It was 1989 and Sharon - the former general, master builder of Israel's settlements and future prime minister - had come to reassure Kfar Darom's residents that their tiny community would flourish.

"Even when there were no people, he told us people will come here and work here," recalled Ayoubi, 39, a mother of seven.

Sharon's prediction came true. Year after year, new families arrived, motivated by their firm belief that they were settling lands promised to the Jewish people by God. They built greenhouses, opened a vegetable packing plant, established day care centers and schools. Today Kfar Darom has 80 families.

Sharon returned regularly, laying the cornerstone in their new synagogue; comforting them when Palestinian militants fired rockets and mortars at their homes; rushing to their defense when some Israeli politicians demanded the settlement be evacuated for the safety of the settlers and the soldiers guarding them. Sharon mocked the idea of retreating, calling the Gaza settlements "the frontline of defense and the backbone of Israel."

But this month Sharon - the settlers' champion - will oversee Kfar Darom's destruction. Sharon has ordered soldiers and police to evacuate all 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip (plus four others in the northern West Bank) and bulldoze the homes, ending Israel's tumultuous 38-year occupation of the Gaza Strip.

The plan, known as "disengagement," has sown deep feelings of betrayal, anger and confusion among the settlers, who once counted Sharon among their loyal friends.

"This is not the Sharon we knew," Ayoubi says.

No one seems to know Sharon anymore.

His longtime allies on the right, who have shared Sharon's hard-line position toward the Palestinians, mistrust of peace deals and aggressive push to expand settlements, are baffled by his decision to suddenly turn his back on a major part of his life's work.

Likewise, Sharon's enemies, who long reviled him as a warmonger and an obstacle to peace, are dumbfounded that after decades of despising the old general they are the ones defending him.

To many Israelis, Sharon's decision to pull out from Gaza is an acknowledgement of a long known, if uncomfortable, truth that it is almost impossible to hold onto a sliver of land populated by only 8,500 settlers in fortified communities amid 1.3 million Palestinians.

"We have walked a long path together," Sharon told settlers recently. "We established wonderful settlements. We had a dream that we were unable to fulfill in its entirety but we succeeded in realizing a significant part of that dream."

More than a redefinition of what lands Israel will control, Sharon's plan is an admission that Israel's occupation of Gaza and parts of the West Bank, conquered by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War, is at odds with its goals to be a democratic, peaceful Jewish state. The pullout from Gaza is another step away from hopes for coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians and toward a more formal separation defined by high fences and walls.

Still, Sharon's pullout from Gaza has left many Israelis and Palestinians uneasy about what comes next. Sharon's critics on the left say the Old Warrior is tricking everyone, giving up on Gaza - a slice of land of little religious or historical importance to most Israelis - the better to secure and expand settlements in the West Bank.

Settlers and their supporters meanwhile accuse Sharon of foolishly handing Palestinian militants a victory, rewarding them with land and thereby encouraging them to mount a new campaign of violence in the West Bank.

Until now, no one has dared to dismantle major settlements here or in the West Bank, largely because it would lead to confrontations with the settlers - an impassioned, some would say spoiled, political force.

The one figure apparently determined to carry out a withdrawal, no matter what the hazards politically or personally, is Sharon, the man nicknamed the "bulldozer" for his legacy of clearing hilltops for new settlements.

"You know there are people born for music, people born for painting, people born for medicine and there is someone which is born as a leader and a brilliant commander," says Uri Dan, a journalist who became a close friend of Sharon more than 50 years ago as a fellow soldier. "Sharon enters the room, and he makes it possible."

Few other Israelis since David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister and founding father, can claim to have shaped the country's history and landscape more than Sharon.

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