The Long, Hot Summer
According to Jewish Rabbinic tradition, the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed as a result of sinat chinam (groundless hatred) between Jews. As the divide between supporters and opponents of the imminent disengagement from Gaza continues to grow, it would be well worth reminding the more impetuous among them of the events that led to the tragedy of 70 CE.
It appears that civil disobedience is the most popular choice amongst settlers out of all the potential tactics that they could employ to resist disengagement. Regardless of one’s stance on disengagement, there is nothing morally reprehensible about civil disobedience. Of far greater concern is the possibility that a minority of settlers could resort to violence. Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar recently condemned comments by rabbis who advocated forcible resistance, arguing that such actions could lead to bloodshed. Prime Minister Sharon has also publicly expressed concern, telling CNN “the atmosphere here looks like the eve of the civil war.” However, he has vowed to ensure that the worst-case scenario does not occur.
Just as the prospect of settler violence is somewhat unsettling, the anti-settler rhetoric voiced by some members of the left also does the disengagement process no favours. As the evacuation from Gaza draws ever closer, some members of the Israeli left have publicly expressed their unbridled joy at the fact that Gaza’s 8000 Jews will be forced from their homes, in terms that can only be called hateful. Given the difficulties the Sharon government has faced just in getting to this stage without violence, the behaviour displayed by those provocateurs is pointless and foolish.
The other important development in the past month was the announcement by Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz that settlers will be disarmed prior to the evacuation of settlements. On April 14, Mofaz ordered officials from the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) to reach an agreement for the orderly handover of weapons. Under the proposal, Israeli soldiers participating in the dismantling of the settlements would also be unarmed. Clearly, the potential for violence, especially accidental violence, was behind the government’s decision to press ahead with the controversial plan.
There is no certainty that violence will occur, but there are certainly precedents to suggest it could. Only those with very short memories would forget the night of November 4, 1995, when then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. His assassin was Yigal Amir, a member of Israel’s extreme right. The tension in Israel in 1995 was comparable to the tension today – back then the main source of division was the manner in which Rabin was carrying out the Oslo Accords, signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation two years earlier. Today, a number of government ministers have expressed their concerns that a political assassination could again be a possibility.
Amidst speculation of civil war between Israeli Jews, another major barrier to disengagement has been overlooked – the lack of reform in the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas. Sharon raised this concern when he met with George W. Bush in Crawford, Texas on April 11. Sharon is worried that Palestinian terrorist organisations, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, are using the ceasefire to rearm and prepare themselves for another round of violence. These groups’ unwillingness to cooperate is further compounded by the involvement of Iran and Syria in undermining the PA. Jordan’s King Abdullah acknowledged this, accusing the two nations of pressuring Palestinians to carry out terrorist attacks against Israelis.
On April 10, around 80 rocket and mortar rounds were fired at Gush Katif, the largest bloc of settlements in Gaza. Although no-one was killed or injured, the continuation of such attacks sends a clear message to both Israel and the Palestinian Authority that violence can resume at any time, and that the terror groups are using the current quiet to build large quantities of rockets and other weaponry. Moreover, Israeli, Egyptian and Palestinian officials have all indicated recently that the smuggling of weapons from Egyptian Sinai into Gaza has not ceased.
There are many signs that Abbas is losing his hold on the PA leadership. On March 30, terrorists from the al-Aqsa Brigades – a part of Abbas’ own ruling Fatah faction – attacked his headquarters in Ramallah in direct defiance of his order to relinquish their weapons. Senior Fatah official Farouk Kaddoumi, who lives in Syria, practically accused Abbas of treachery, claiming Abbas was only elected to satisfy American and Israeli demands, and not to be “president of the state of Palestine”.
The steady undermining of Abbas’ authority is in stark contrast to the hype that followed his election in January and the ceasefire agreement signed between Israel and the PA at Sharm el-Sheikh in February. Back then, Abbas reacted strongly to subversive elements in the areas under his jurisdiction, deploying PA security forces in the Gaza Strip to halt rocket attacks. Now, the terrorist organisations are virtually doing as they please.
When Israeli President Moshe Katsav visited Australia in March, he told the Australian media that Abbas must display strong leadership. If there is to be progress soon, the Palestinian president must heed that advice. However, world leaders must also ensure that the PA does not renege on its still unfulfilled commitments. At Crawford, Bush seemed to downplay Sharon’s concerns about Abbas. But if things continue to head in the current direction, there may be no Abbas at all by the time disengagement is supposed to occur.
As it stands, the Israeli disengagement from Gaza is supposed to begin during the Israeli summer, probably in August so as to avoid Tisha b’Av (which is the traditional day of mourning for the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem). It is clear that the Gaza disengagement will take place. The real questions to ask are, how traumatic will it be for Israeli society, how difficult will it be to carry out, and how can it be done in a way that maximises the benefits? There are no easy answers to these questions.
John Paul II and Benedict XVI
“I think it is very important that Jews, even if they live all over the world, have a homeland, a point of reference, live in the land of their fathers as a people in continuity with their own history and the promise given to their forefathers.”
Those would be heady sentiments coming from any source. But for such pro-Zionist language to be coming from the chief prelate of the Catholic Church is very encouraging, to say the least.
Yet a closer perusal of the new Pope’s clerical career reveals that his sense of kinship with the Jewish people should come as little surprise. In his role as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger played a major role in the determination of Vatican policy and was heavily involved in the historic rapprochement between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people that transpired under Pope John Paul II. John Paul and his confidant Cardinal Ratzinger, now his successor, also shared common personal memories of the evils of the Holocaust, and a common ideal of building bridges between Catholicism and other faiths.
John Paul came to the issue of Catholic-Jewish relations with a remarkably progressive attitude and his achievements in reconciliation were truly monumental. Pope Benedict will inherit a legacy which includes his predecessor’s historic contribution to freedom and humanity, profound respect for the memory of Holocaust victims, and condemnation of antisemitism as a sin.
The loss of John Paul II, a figure of historic stature, is and will continue to be keenly felt. But the election of Pope Benedict as his successor is good news for anyone concerned that the achievements of John Paul in terms of relations between the Vatican and Israel, and reconciliation and understanding between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people, should be preserved and strengthened.