Two days ago, as I write, the supermarket at Neve Dekalim, the largest of the southern Gaza Jewish settlements, closed its doors for the last time. On the same day the café closed. The owner's sister, Miriam, who ran the place, was sitting on the curb in tears for she was now unemployed with thousands of shekels of bad debts from foreign journalists who had run up lines of credit which they hadn't bothered to repay before she lost her job. A day later the head of security at Peat Sadeh, a small secular settlement of 22 families a few minutes up the road, loaded all the contents of his house into a truck and closed the door behind him. He had reached a good deal with the disengagement authority and was heading north to start a new life. The remaining families would be leaving over the course of the weekend, to a new town which was springing up on the outskirts of Ashkelon, having negotiated to be rehoused as a community. On Sunday the army is expected to arrive at the remaining settlements, as part of a deployment of 55,000 troops and police (greater than the total number in Lebanon), and those who plan to practise non-violent resistance will be led in handcuffs from their homes. There is only so long the recalcitrant can stay. The army's plans include turning off power and water. There are predictions of up to 2,700 infiltrators from the West Bank, who will attempt to slash the tyres of army vehicles and do everything they can to prevent the disengagement from happening. A tiny handful, from the banned far-right parties, may try to shoot it out with the army.
When I was in Gush Katif last Autumn, reporting for the Guardian, it was easy to figure out that this would be the eventual outcome - a majority leaving quietly, a large minority being dragged out kicking and screaming, and a tiny handful representing the threat of real danger. In Tel Aviv, however, there was another response altogether amongst some of my friends. 'You don't believe,' they said to me scornfully, 'that the disengagement is actually going to happen, do you? You poor deluded tourist, we know the government. Don't believe a word of what they say.'
The Israeli far left were certain no disengagement from Gaza could take place. A blog, updated regularly until May of this year, collected articles amassing the evidence that the Gaza disengagement was a hoax - a conspiracy hatched during the period when Sharon was under investigation for corruption during the Greek Island Affair, or to divert attention away from the ICJ's ruling on the fence. It would be quietly dropped or indefinitely delayed. But it would never happen. And if by any chance it did, it would be derailed by civil war.
The Israeli far left were not alone in believing that the disengagement would not and indeed could not take place. Many of the settlers themselves made no preparation for their own future, convinced that a combination of appealing to the better instincts of the Israeli public, and to the will of God who would send a miracle, would prevent it. Each drifted on their dream worlds. Each fatally misread both the government and the mood of the country.
Both the settlers and the far left believed that the disengagement could not take place because each group was gripped by a fallacious belief system, in which contradiction or dissent was impossible. The settlers believe that God gave them the land in perpetuity and would not permit it to be removed. The far left's doctrine was no less impervious to reason. They thought that Zionism was a colonial expansionist movement that would not give up an inch of what it regarded as eretz-Israel, the Promised Land. Not only would it not give up any land, its intention was to acquire more. During the Iraq war I received an email telling me that while the world's press was diverted by the invasion, Palestinians would be loaded on to trucks and 'transferred' to Jordan, in a final 'cleansing' of the West Bank. Now, I am led to believe by the same sources, under the cover of the withdrawal, Israel will perpetrate a massacre in Gaza. There are some, not many, gullible enough to be taken in by this implausible hysteria, always justified on the grounds that there is no evil that the 'Zionists' can't realistically be suspected of. Look at Sabra and Shatila.
But conspiracy theory is no substitute for a proper analysis. We do not have to applaud Sharon's actions or intentions, we merely need to understand what exactly they are and what opportunities they represent for left-wing action. It was clear, and stated clearly from the outset, that the Gaza disengagement was part of an overall plan to defuse what was seen as the demographic time bomb, a future in which Jews would be a minority of the population, between the Jordan and the sea. This was the function of Ehud Olmert's trial balloon interview with the then-English language editor of Haaretz, David Landau, in December 2003
It should now be obvious that the function of the fence was to construct a de facto border, behind which would be a Palestinian state smaller and more fragmented even than in the offer made by Ehud Barak at Camp David. A unilateral declaration by the Israelis. There is nothing here for the left to celebrate. Such a state is neither viable, nor is it or could it ever be acceptable to the Palestinians. Furthermore, the relinquishing of any West Bank territory would be contingent on the good behaviour of the Gaza factions. It suits the purposes of Sharon for Gaza to sink quickly into anarchy, for Hamas to rise, for it to become another failed Islamic state, without even the dignity of statehood. Then he will be able to say to the international community, 'See? How can you do business with these people? They're barbarim' - barbarians.
We should not mistake Sharon's plans for anything other than what they are: realpolitik - the scheme of a master tactician intent on political survival. The Sharon vision is that of disconnected, powerless bantustans. But armed with the knowledge of what it is, rather than the narrow focus that our own political ideology will permit it to be, we can cast away the nonsensical view that the disengagement from Gaza could not happen.
It is not inevitable that Gaza first is Gaza last. When did the left submit to such passivity? The true significance of Gaza first has demonstrated a political fact few would have dared hope for: that both a government and the rest of the Israeli population are at long last prepared to stand up to the power and arrogance of the settler movement who have sought to substitute eretz Israel, the land of Israel, for the state of Israel - who wish to establish a theocratic entity under a Jewish version of sharia law. Their strategy was to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Israelis. They have dismally failed. The Israeli public backs the disengagement, and so do the majority of Jews in the Diaspora - the Greater Israel movement is effectively dead as any significant force in Israeli society, one with a future. They have lost the argument and are losing the war.
I spent an invaluable hour over coffee with Dror Etkes of Peace Now's Settlement Watch last October. What he told me then remains the locus of my analysis of what is to come:
I asked Israelis to go to the Gaza Strip to see for themselves what they were being asked to fight for, because in a year it will be history. Israelis are completely ignorant about the place, partly because of attempts by the government to hide the facts and partly because of the unhealthy structure of Israeli political life... The settlers say it's a unilateral withdrawal under fire, and they're right. Let's not fool ourselves: there will still be missiles, there will be a long war of attrition after the withdrawal. It will turn Gaza into a prison, yes, but one with fewer guards, a bit less friction, a bit less blood, and a first and a not-even-third world economy a metre away from each other. It will still be hell for the Palestinians, just a slightly sweeter hell. But the withdrawal is a necessary precondition to ignite the end of the conflict and the beginning of reconciliation. Its cardinal advantage is the introduction of history, of real political considerations. [Italics LG's.] The majority of Israelis are terrified, traumatised people seeking to reach normality and, as in any other society, they are far from being equipped with a good political memory or able to assume real responsibility for democracy.So, now the struggle begins over the future. It is up to the Israeli left and its supporters abroad, Jewish or non-Jewish, to seize the time. To build a movement for real change, real democracy and real human rights, and two real states, based on reality, not dreams, illusions and fantasy, whether they come from the right or the left. (Linda Grant)
[Linda Grant's forthcoming book, a study of Israelis, will be published by TimeWarnerBooks (UK) next March.]