Argument

First Gaza, Then the West Bank

First Gaza, Then the West Bank

Once again, the Israel Defense Forces have been forced to enter the Gaza Strip to fight for the safety of our citizens. We understand the risks of the current ground operation. Despite the fact that it cost me my position as deputy defense minister, I was willing to pay this personal price and vocally advocate for this operation. It was clear to me that the alternative of leaving Hamas’s rocket operation and terror tunnels intact would have been disastrous for the safety and security of all Israelis.

In addition to our fight with Hamas, it is high time to reassess our relationship with the Palestinian Authority (PA). While we have no desire to control the daily lives of the Arab residents of Judea and Samaria — the historical name for the West Bank — the fact is that we can no longer continue to withdraw our security forces and rely on the PA to ensure the safety of Israelis. Numerous events throughout our region, from Israel to Iraq, have proven time and again that when Western forces withdraw and rely on local despots, militias, or even puppet regimes, the forces of Islamic fanaticism quickly fill the void — and put us all at risk.

Hamas is not a lone organization acting in a vacuum. It is a fellow traveler with extreme forces throughout the Middle East working to overthrow Western-allied governments and replace them with an Islamic caliphate operating under sharia law. Over the past few years, Western diplomats’ high hopes for the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring proved short-lived. Leaders who on the surface appeared Western-oriented turned out to be either frontmen for Islamic extremists or weak leaders who could not hold onto power in this harsh region.

The current situation in Iraq is the latest example of this phenomenon. Our American friends meant well: They defeated an evil dictator with a history of horrid human rights abuses, a proven record of using weapons of mass destruction, and a record of threatening regional stability. In the aftermath of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the United States invested billions of dollars in rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure and paid an unfathomably high price in terms of American soldiers killed and wounded while attempting to rid the country of Islamist terrorists.

Despite these best efforts, the Iraqi government that the United States left behind has failed to retain even a semblance of law and order. The moment American forces began to withdraw from Iraq, groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which had been waiting in the wings, moved in. With Kurdish autonomy in the north and Iran exerting increasing influence in the south, it is apparent that the Iraq we had known for the past century no longer exists.

Our experiences here in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean are not that different. Beginning in the 1990s, successive Israeli governments signed and implemented a series of agreements with the Palestine Liberation Organization. These agreements set up the PA as an autonomous entity tasked with administrating the daily lives of the Palestinians of Judea and Samaria and the Gaza Strip. The PA was also supposed to uphold law and order in these territories, while aiding Israel in its fight against murderous terrorist organizations.

In retrospect, Israel’s decision to withdraw from the main Palestinian population centers did not bring security and stability, let alone peace. Instead, each Israeli redeployment allowed the Islamist extremists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad to increase their strength. This eventually led to a murderous wave of suicide bombers in the mid-1990s originating from the territories under PA control, and then an all-out war on Israeli civilians in the first decade of the 21st century. In both instances the PA was either too weak, or unwilling, to confront and halt the terrorists.

Our disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005 was even more problematic. The PA did not take advantage of its newfound sovereignty and create a "Singapore of the Middle East," as many naively hoped. Instead, Hamas seized power by force, literally throwing their rivals off the roofs of Gaza’s buildings. Today, with hundreds of rockets and missiles fired daily at our population centers and dozens of attack tunnels burrowed from Gaza into Israel, the scope of this mistake is clear to all. Every day during this operation, we are reminded what terrorist organizations like Hamas are capable of when our attention is focused elsewhere.

Since 2009, it has been Likud Party policy to strengthen the civil aspects of the PA and allow its security forces to reign as freely as possible in Judea and Samaria. The events of the past few weeks have proven that successive Israeli governments were mistaken to allow such a free hand. The Hamas terrorists who murdered the three Israeli teenagers on June 12 planned their attack from, and then returned to, areas that are fully controlled by the PA. It is not far-fetched to see how Judea and Samaria could easily turn into a full-fledged terror base like Gaza is today. 

Those among us who naively thought we could outsource the security and safety of our citizens to the Palestinian Authority should now understand that this was a dangerous gambit. While we will continue to encourage the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria to take responsibility for their day-to-day civilian lives, we can no longer allow the PA even the smallest amount of autonomy when it comes to anti-terror efforts. Only by allowing the Israel Defense Forces and our other security services to operate freely in every corner of Judea and Samaria will we be able ensure that all the residents of this land receive the level of security they deserve.

The events of the past 15 years do not bode well for those who hope for stability in the Middle East. As much as Israel and our Western allies would like the world’s Muslim and Arab countries to transform overnight into liberal democracies, we know this is unlikely to happen.

The lesson here is simple, both in terms of Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians and the international community’s engagement with our neighbors. We must do all we can to provide support to those who truly fight for democracy but at the same time, we cannot compromise one iota on a wide-ranging and in-depth security involvement.

This is true even when it means more boots on the ground, deep in dangerous territory. Israel is discovering this once again during the current round of fighting with Hamas. 

Wishful thinking will not make the world a safer place. Only hard work and a daily battle against international terrorism will inch us closer to a day when the people of the Middle East — and the world — will live in the peace and security they so deserve.