JERUSALEM (AP) - A year after their landmark pullout from Gaza, Israelis feel less secure than they have in decades. Islamic Hamas has taken control of the evacuated areas and the Israeli government's main mission - staging a similar withdrawal from the West Bank - has been indefinitely shelved.
But the pullout has defused a demographic time bomb by prolonging a Jewish majority in lands Israel controls, and proved that Israel could dismantle settlements without disintegrating into civil war, analysts say.
The Jewish state has found itself embroiled in recent wars against both Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon - underscoring the nation's deep disappointment with what was supposed to be a new era of peacemaking following the Gaza pullout.
The withdrawal was unilateral, meaning it was done in only minimal coordination with the Palestinians, and that strategy, said political analyst Yossi Alpher, has been discredited by what quickly followed - the stepped-up rocketing of nearby Israeli villages. But the benefit, he said, was that "we began to detach ourselves, to pull away from the interlock that the settlements had created between the two populations, which jeopardizes Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state."
The last Israeli soldier left Gaza, locking a border gate behind him, on Sept. 12, 2005 - after Israeli police and soldiers forcibly removed 9,000 settlers from Gaza and four small communities in the northern West Bank. It was the first time Israel had ever quit territory Palestinians claim for a future state, and the operation went ahead far faster, and more peacefully, than expected.
The international community lauded Ariel Sharon, the architect of the pullback, and hopes for political dividends flourished as Muslim states began talking of peace prospects.
But the dreams quickly evaporated. Palestinian militants, emboldened by what they interpreted as a victory for armed resistance, stepped up their rocket fire. Israel made good on vows to strike back hard against any attack from Gaza. The election of Hamas militants committed to Israel's destruction, and Israel's 2-month-old military strike against Gaza militants following the capture of a still-missing soldier, have only deepened the pessimism.
"What succeeded, for our part, is the fact that the country was able to decide to vacate settlements, and the sky didn't fall," said Yariv Oppenheimer, the top official at Peace Now, an anti-settlement group. "A negative outcome is the public sentiment over the continued violence and Qassam rockets," Oppenheimer said. "Instead of achieving security and calm, we as a society still face a terror threat. That is definitely one of the negative consequences of the disengagement."
Settlers, who opposed the pullout from the outset, say the attacks from Gaza and Lebanon have vindicated their resistance. "We knew that the kind of crisis that we have witnessed in the last weeks with Hezbollah would happen," said former Gaza settler Hanna Picard, referring to Israel's 34-day war against Lebanese guerrillas. "It's obvious that Arabs were heartened by the withdrawal. ... They got what they wanted without doing anything. Why would they have stopped?"
The swift and heavy attacks from Gaza have shown that "getting out of territories is not necessarily conducive to greater security," said Efraim Inbar, a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv. In fact, the withdrawal of the estimated 20,000 soldiers and the 8,500 settlers they protected have, in fact, coincided with a sharp drop in Israel's Gaza-area casualties.
In the five years before the evacuation, 144 soldiers and civilians were killed and 782 were wounded in the Gaza area, according to military figures. Since the withdrawal, two Israeli soldiers were killed, one soldier was kidnapped and 19 people were injured in attacks from Gaza. In the last eight months before the withdrawal, 15 Israelis were killed in militant attacks from Gaza, compared to two during the same period this year. Still, the withdrawal inevitably gave the Palestinian rocket squads more room for maneuver, and their homemade missiles have been falling closer to Ashqelon, the main Israeli city near Gaza, and its power station.
The sense of insecurity was compounded this summer by the Hezbollah's performance - firing an uninterrupted stream of more than 4,000 rockets into Israel and fighting the mightiest army in the Middle East to a virtual draw. A key argument for the Gaza withdrawal was fears that 3.9 million Palestinians and 1.4 million Israeli Arabs would soon outnumber 5.6 million Jews and threaten to destroy either Israel's Jewish character or its democracy. Grant equal rights, the argument goes, and Israel will be democratic but not Jewish, because of the large Arab population; maintain Jewish control by withholding equal rights, and Israel won't be a democracy.
When Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ran for election, his key platform was pulling Israel out of large chunks of the West Bank - unilaterally, if necessary. But Hezbollah and Hamas have left Israel reluctant to make one-sided territorial concessions. Asked where Israel's second planned pullback was heading, Olmert acknowledged this week it was going nowhere: "What I advocated several months ago has changed," he said.
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The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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