FOR ALMOST 40 years, the conceit has been growing around the world that Palestinian terrorism can be explained and even excused by Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This was always a dubious proposition in light of the fact that Arabs have been fighting Israel since its formation in 1948, not since its conquest of those territories in 1967. The Palestine Liberation Organization began its attacks while the West Bank was still part of Jordan and Gaza was part of Egypt.
Now the Israeli decision to remove its settlers from the Gaza Strip and a small portion of the West Bank should provide a further test of the belief that Jewish settlements are the root cause of this conflict. If this were in fact the case, you would expect that a partial pullout would lead to at least a partial melting of Arab hostility toward the Jews. Maybe this will occur; and maybe the Gaza Strip will overnight become as peaceful as Switzerland.
The early signs are not good -- literally. Gaza City is decked out with green Hamas banners proclaiming, "Resistance wins, so let's go on." The banners from the supposedly more restrained Palestinian Authority reveal the same mind-set: "Gaza today, the West Bank and Jerusalem tomorrow." Far from being sated by Israeli concessions, the Palestinians are emboldened to demand more. Many will not be satisfied until -- in the words of a 15-year-old would-be suicide bomber quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle -- there are no more "Jews on this world."
So does this mean that Ariel Sharon is making a big mistake? It certainly means he is taking a risk -- the risk of creating a Hamastan where terrorism will flourish -- but, on balance, it is the right decision.
The Gaza settlements were simply not sustainable. Approximately 8,500 Jews could not live safely among 1.3 million Arabs. That may be a sad commentary on the Arabs, considering that a million Arabs live safely among 5 million Jews in Israel, but that's life. The Gaza settlers had a right to risk their own necks but not the necks of soldiers who had to protect them. Sooner or later they would have had to go. If Sharon had waited, like his predecessors, for a comprehensive peace treaty with the Palestinians before the inevitable pullout, he would have waited until kingdom come. In the meantime the settlements would have remained an easy debating point for Palestinian propagandists.
By removing the settlements on his own initiative, Sharon has helped to regain the initiative -- moral and political -- for the Jewish state. The international opprobrium into which Israel had sunk was not fatal to its existence, but it was not good either. Israelis feel themselves part of the West, and it is deeply dispiriting for them to be shunned by every Western country except the U.S. The pullout, on top of the concessions offered by Ehud Barak at Camp David five years ago, eases (if not erases) the onus on Israel and puts pressure on the Palestinians to get their own house in order.
Opponents of the withdrawal cite parallels with the 2000 Israeli evacuation of southern Lebanon, which helped spark the second intifada, but the danger now is much less. Even if Palestinians want to attack Israel -- and they do -- they will be hard-pressed to do so. All of Gaza is fenced in and so is most of the West Bank, reducing opportunities for suicide bombers to penetrate Israel. If the Palestinians fire rockets from Gaza, Israel will be free to mount a military response -- more free, in fact, when the threat comes from a sovereign Palestinian state than when it emanates from Israeli-occupied territory. The Palestinians will no doubt stockpile heavy weapons in Gaza but, as is the case with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, they can be deterred from using them.
The real danger from Gaza may not be to Israel but to the rest of the West. The Israeli army has battled terrorist groups in a way that the Palestinian Authority has neither the power nor, in all likelihood, the desire to do. If, following the Israeli pullout, Gaza becomes another training ground for Islamo-fascist fanatics -- a successor to Afghanistan under the Taliban -- the resulting terrorists will find the U.S. and Europe much easier targets than Israel, which is the world's most heavily defended state. Irony of ironies, perhaps in a few years enlightened Westerners will rue the day when Israel gave up control of Gaza.