Dr. Menachem KovacsDr. Menachem Kovacs is Director of the Jewish Roots Center of Baltimore, an education and research center on Torah and social science topics. He is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Montgomery College in Maryland.
In early February 2004 Prime Minister Sharon announced his intention to expel (aka evacuate or relocate or remove) the almost 8,000 Jewish residents of Gush Katif in Gaza, an integral Halachic part of the Land of Israel in the Tribe of Yehuda (Judah). The plan to make Gaza "Judenrein" (the Nazi term which means literally "free of Jews") has been opposed in many quarters, including much of Sharon's own Likud party and by hundreds of rabbanim in Israel as well as outside Israel.
There is a two-fold case for Israel to retain Gush Katif and indeed to seek to include all of the boundaries G-d defines as the Biblical Holy Land of Israel. Those two reasons are (1) religious reasons based on Halacha (Jewish Law) and the subsequent nationalistic and historical consequences based on Halacha and (2) national security considerations based on maximum protection of both the People and the Land and the resources of both.
Halacha and History
At an emergency conference of more than 200 Israeli rabbis in February in Jerusalem former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira, now head of Yeshivat Merkaz Harav, declared "We are expressing not a political opinion but the opinion of Torah?the Torah says that the entire Land is ours and we must not give it away, and especially when it is liable to lead to the loss of life." He added a warning as well, "Events have shown all of us that, Heaven forbid, whoever harms the Land of Israel?loses his seat and his regime." He added, "if we have to instruct the public to gather in Gaza, in Gush Katif, we will do that, with G-d's help?to double and triple the number of Jews there, and not allow the evacuation and uprooting of a Jewish town. It is against Torah Law and simple morality and the government must not even discuss it."
This assertion is a reference to the fact that most all of the Biblical commentators maintain that Gaza is within the boundaries of Shevet Yehuda in Biblical Eretz Yisrael (see Genesis 15, Joshua 15:47, Kings 15:47 and Judges 1:18) and therefore it also has the Halachic requirement to be settled (and therefore certainly not abandoned). Most commentators also require tithes to be taken from the produce grown in Gaza as is required of all produce grown in the Land of Israel and this is the practice today. (Ruth Matar has noted that the Hebrew terms "Mitnachlim" is frequently mistranslated with the pejorative and misleading translation "settlers" whereas the correct translation is "inheritors" of the Land G-d promised to the Jewish People forever.)
Rabbi Yaakov Emden answered a Shayla about whether living in Gaza fulfills the Biblical commandment to live in the Land of Israel with the clear and emphatic ruling:
"Gaza and its environs are absolutely considered part of the Land of Israel without a doubt. There is no doubt that it is a Mitzvah to live there as in any part of the Land of Israel."
The earliest settlement of the area is by the first two of our Biblical Patriarchs, Avraham and Yitzhak, both of whom lived in the Gerar area of Gaza. (In our own times another great Yitzhak lived in this area: Rav Yitzhak Arama, HYD, the beloved Rav of the Netzer Chazani community, who was murdered in front of his family on erev Shabbat. A beautiful collection of his Divrei Torah has been published with the title The Wells of Yitzhak.)
In the fourth century (hundreds of years before Islam was founded) Gaza was the primary Jewish port of Israel for international trade and commerce. One of our oldest Shuls dates back to that time. Great medieval rabbis such as Rabbi Yisrael Najara, author of Kah Ribon Olam, the popular Shabbat Zemer, and renowned Mekubal Rabbi Avraham Azoulai, were rabbanim in Gaza Jewish communities.
Gush Katif today continues our Torah tradition as a strong Makom Torah. There are some 30 synagogues plus Yeshivat Torat Hachim with 200 students, the Hesder Yeshiva with 150 students, the Mechina in Atzmona with 200 students, Yeshivot in Netzarim and Kfar Darom, 6 Kollelim, a Medrasha for girls in Neve Dekalim and more.
The periodic removal of Jews from Gaza goes back at least to the Romans in 61 CE followed much later by the Crusaders, Napoleon, the Ottoman Turks, the British and the contemporary Egyptians. Each time the Jews eventually returned to rebuild and expand. Gaza Rabbi Yigal Kaminetsky says that this faith and determination is the greatest miracle of all, greater than the more than 2,000 mortar shells which have been fired at Gush Katif Jews and the many other near misses: "Our entire existence throughout this period in Gush Katif has been one big miracle of G-d manifesting his Divine Presence among us. But the true miracle is that although the inhabitants of Gush Katif have experienced tremendous upheavals these past several years, we continue to live, to build and to have strong faith. Who would have thought that in the past few years our population would have grown by over 100 %!" The Rav ended his Dvar Torah by quoting a Pasuk from Parshat Shmot, which we heard from others as well in Gaza. The Torah tells us "But as much as they (the Egyptians) afflicted Israel, nonetheless Israel continued to increase and expand?" (Exodus 1:12)
Critical Security Factors
Israel's many enemies recognize quite clearly that they are at war against us with the goal of eliminating Israel as a Jewish State and taking out as many Jews as possible as well. Some on our side continue to confuse dreams of peace with this reality and imagine that moderates can replace our very blood- thirsty enemies. Land plays a crucial role in this war. Dispassionate evaluations of the security value of Jewish communities in Gaza have reported time and again that they are essential. After the Six Day War the US Joint Chiefs of Staff were ordered by the US Secretary of Defense to present their "views, without regard to political factors on the minimum territory" that Israel would be "justified in retaining in order to permit a more effective defense against possible conventional Arab attack and terrorist raids."
The Chiefs Report concluded that Israel needed to retain substantial portions of the Golan Heights, Judah and Samaria, and all of Gaza. About Gaza in particular they wrote, :"'the Gaza Strip serves as a salient for introduction of Arab subversion and terrorism and its retention would be to Israel's military advantage."
Subsequent US security assessments since then have supported the same conclusion as have independent Israeli assessments including then IDF Chief of Staff Ehud Barak who said in 1993, "The 1967 Joint Chiefs of Staff memorandum is still applicable ?If Israel has to retake the territories proposed to be given up, we cannot do it without tremendous casualties." And Prime Minister Sharon himself said in 2002 that Netzarim (one of the Jewish communities in Gush Katif) is the same as Tel Aviv; evacuating Netzarim will only encourage terrorism and increase the pressure upon us."
Shlomo Avineri, a Political Science Professor at Hebrew University who headed the foreign ministry under PM Rabin, attempts to explain PM Sharon's motives by noting that there are two kinds of hawks in Israel: ideological and strategic. The former include those who base their views on their belief in a Biblical Eretz Yisrael based on a Divinely-inspired Torah and/or strong secular nationalists (like Shamir, Begin and Jabotinsky). The strategic hawks reject the former view: to them Yesha (Yehuda, Shomron, Aza) are security outposts aimed at preventing or weakening attacks on what they consider to be Israel's heartland, the pre-1967 borders. He notes that Sharon grew up as a military man, a strategic hawk close to similar Labor strategic hawks. He has reversed some of his major commitments to infrastructure development in Yesha because he believes that the continuing intensity and toll from the intifada and the lack of a Palestinian partner requires a deal that will give Israel smaller borders backed (only) by Israel and hopefully by the US.
Alas, even if this analysis explains Sharon's reversals, including his constant financial, diplomatic, political and military support for the creation of a Palestinian state in Yehuda and Shomron, one can still question his premise that many Arabs in and out of Israel will accept anything less than the total destruction of the Jewish State.
Moreover, unilateral withdrawals embolden our enemies with the belief that they are on the way to this goal. As Jerusalem Post Editor Bret Stephens explains, "Why should the Palestinians make peace with Israel if they can get the land without making peace?" "To withdraw in the face of terror is to inspire further terror?It send the signal that it is the Palestinians who can afford to wait Israel out, not vice versa. That's not a signal that this government, or any future government, ought to send."
The serious security threat is also indicated by the danger of the most militant Islamic elements becoming even more strengthened by the prospect of an Israeli withdrawal. The Washington Post of Feb. 18, 2004 reported "US officials are especially concerned that the PA is so weakened that Hamas could emerge as the de facto ruler in Gaza in the wake of Israel's departure."
Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, whom Sharon appointed to head the task force on withdrawal, has identified further security problems of the first order. General Eiland has commented openly that Israel cannot abandon the so-called Philadelphia Road along the Egyptian-Gaza border. Israel's military presence there blocks some of the weapons smuggled from Egypt across the border.
Sharon has proposed that the Egyptian Army take the place of the IDF in Gaza. Recall that in the history of modern Israel, the Egyptian Army has advanced against us in every war. Such a change would place the Egyptian army only 40 miles south of Tel Aviv.
Moreover, Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has signaled on behalf of Sharon that many other communities in Yehuda and Shomron are also at risk. As Yesha Council leader Pinchas Wallerstein has warned that Sharon's plans mean, "the threat hanging over Judea and Samaria is no smaller than that hanging over Gush Katif."
Meanwhile our enemies rejoice: Former PA Minister of Security Mohammed Dahlan
sheltered Hamas terrorist leader Mohammed Deif after the latter masterminded eight days of the murders of sixty Jews in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Ashkelon. Dahlan also promoted cooperation between Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror groups in Gaza as well as his own terror operations. Dahlan told the Palestinian daily Al Quds, "The withdrawal signals an important change. Just a year ago Sharon stated that the status of settlements like Netzarim and Gush Katif is similiar to that of Tel-Aviv and that Kfar Darom is like Raanana. He said Israel would not withdraw from these settlements especially under Palestinian attack. Today, however, Sharon's position has changed. The Israeli withdrawal is a victory for us and we must celebrate it. The withdrawal of the Israeli Army from the Gaza Strip and some West bank settlements is one of the most important achievements of the intifada." This is the same Dahlan the U.S. government is pushing to be appointed as the military governor of Gaza after the Jews leave, G-d forbid.
It makes sense to conclude that the red lines which the Government of Israel should firmly draw on security grounds should include at least those of Biblical Israel, certainly not less and possibly more based on what the most prudent security experts advise. We see that our enemies interpret our concessions as weaknesses. They are intimidated by our displays of strength, conviction and determination.
Write a brief message to President Bush, Senators Mikulski and Sarbanes and Rep. Cardin urging them to support the international war against terrorism by supporting Jewish settlement in Gaza (and elsewhere in Israel).
Vote in all elections where Israel counts. This includes not only Federal elections.
A pro-Israel Congress can pressure a President to take strong steps to support Israel.
The Congress can also be a bully pulpit not only with its speeches and resolutions but also with its power over how money is spent.
Send your tax-deductible contributions to help the Jewish communities of Gush Katif pay for its hasbara campaign. Checks should be made out to PEF Israel Endorsement Fund with note "For Katif Region Development Fund" and mailed to Katif Region Development Fund, Neve Dekalim, DN Hof Aza 79779 Israel.
Visit the Jews of Gush Katif whether it's for a day or more or for a Shabbat. You will find amazing, upbeat Jewish brethren who face being besieged with courage, faith and joy. Your presence will give them tremendous Chizuk and you will get at least as much Chizuk in return.
Pray for the lives and successes of our Jewish brothers and sisters who live in Israel where ultimately everybody is on the front lines and where ultimately there is no distinction between religious and secular and chiloni, between young and old, between right and left, between soldier and civilian.