Exploitation of synagogues scars exit from Gaza

September 13, 2005|By G. Jefferson Price III

HAVING PRESIDED over the destruction of every other structure Israel built in the Gaza Strip during its 38-year occupation and settlement adventure there, the Israeli cabinet reversed itself and voted Sunday to leave standing 19 structures used as synagogues by the Gaza settlers.

Bad idea.

The cabinet, having come to its senses by allowing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to proceed with his evacuation plan, lost its senses over the synagogues. In fact, only two weeks before, the same cabinet had wisely reaffirmed an earlier decision to destroy the synagogue structures.

And immediately after Israel lowered its flag over Gaza for the last time yesterday, the inevitable happened. Palestinians celebrating the Israeli withdrawal began destroying the synagogues, the last standing structures representing the Israeli occupation, in which many of their own homes, livelihoods and lives had been destroyed.

It would have been nice if the Palestinian Authority had been able or inclined to prevent the sacking of the synagogues, but it couldn't and wouldn't. That is precisely why the Israeli security establishment had recommended that Israel destroy the synagogues, just as it was leveling practically every other structure it had erected during the occupation.

The cabinet went along with that recommendation and it was affirmed later by Israel's high court. The synagogues were cleared of all religious texts and relics. The structures themselves did not have any of the archaeological connection to Jewish history that exists in places like Jerusalem's Temple Mount or Hebron's Tomb of the Patriarchs. Their history was the occupation.

But the rabbis and other forces most passionately opposed to the evacuation persuaded the cabinet to reverse itself, chiefly through the mind change of Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, a posture that Finance Minister Ehud Olmert, the hard-line former mayor of Jerusalem, characterized as "an undignified demonstration of sanctimoniousness and hypocrisy."

"The matter of the synagogues is all that those opposed to disengagement have left to hang on to, and they are making crude and dangerous use of it," the Israeli mass-circulation newspaper Ha'aretz declared in an editorial calling on the cabinet to stick to its original position. "These parties distributed literature showing synagogues going up in flames as far back as two years ago; it seems they will not be sorry if the scenario they prophesied comes true, and they can put a stamp of failure on the entire evacuation."

And they got that.

The news coverage of the Israeli army's final, dignified departure from the Gaza Strip was marred by scenes of enraged Palestinians burning buildings that had been used as synagogues.

The rabbis and other Israeli extremists who helped to provoke this scar on the withdrawal do not represent the mainstream majority of Israeli opinion. But they have enormous political power. And the timing of their pressure campaign on the Israeli cabinet could not have been better, for there will be an election soon in which the popularity of Mr. Sharon's decision to withdraw from Gaza will be tested.

The anti-peace ambitions of extremists on both the Palestinian and the Israeli sides are served by the violence that each inflicts on the other.

The best hope for both sides was expressed not by a cabinet minister or a rabbi marking the final withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Nor was it embodied in the utterances of any Palestinian.

It came from an Israeli military man as the Israeli flag was lowered at Neve Dekalim, a settlement in Gaza.

`The gate that is closing after us is also a gate that is opening," press reports quoted Gen. Aviv Kochavi, the commander of Israeli forces in Gaza, as saying. "We hope it will be a gate of peace and quiet, a gate of hope and good will."

G. Jefferson Price III is a former foreign correspondent and an editor at The Sun.

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