Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced this week that Israeli and Palestinian officials had agreed to demolish more than a thousand Israeli settlers' homes in Gaza.
The New York Times reported: “Palestinian officials were not eager to keep the red-roofed, middle-class homes” which, they indicated, were not appropriate to current needs.
A key concern for Israelis, one surmises, is that in the wake of their “disengagement” from Gaza, news broadcasts around the world would show Palestinians flying the flags of terrorist organizations from those red, middle-class roofs.
Such a display would lend credence to the claim that the Israelis had been forced to leave Gaza -- as they earlier had been driven out of Lebanon, and as they will, one day, be expelled from every inch of Israel. This week, Hamas pledged yet again that “the jihad” against “the Zionist entity” would “continue until victory or martyrdom” – i.e. until they wipe the Jewish state off the map or die trying.
In addition to concern about encouraging dreams of conquest and genocide, Israeli officials also must have worried about the psychological impact that images of Arabs taking over Jewish homes would have had on their own citizens -- particularly those Israelis who come from Arab lands.
It is often forgotten that half of all Israeli Jews trace their roots to such places as Baghdad, Cairo and Tripoli. Jewish communities were well established in many Middle Eastern and North African capitals hundreds of years before those capitals were conquered and occupied, beginning in the 7th century, by armies from the Arabian Peninsula, carrying the banner of the new faith of Islam.
Iraq, for example, was for millennia home to a prominent Jewish minority. As late as 1948 one of every four Baghdadis was Jewish. After the U.N. partition of Palestine, however, hundreds of Iraqi Jews were executed. Others were imprisoned. Jewish homes were confiscated. Eventually most Jews fled.
In Yemen, by contrast, Jews had long endured a kind of apartheid. They were not allowed to walk on pavements or ride horses. They were forced to clean the public toilets. By law, Jewish orphans had to be converted to Islam. Not surprisingly, once Israel was established, virtually all Yemeni Jews sought refuge there.
Egypt was among the leaders of the “jihad” declared against Israel in 1948. This was to be, in the words of Arab League Secretary Azzam Pasha, “a war of extermination.”
As Egyptian soldiers invaded Israel, mobs attacked the Jewish quarter of Cairo and Egyptian authorities shipped Jews suspected of sympathizing with Israel to concentration camps in the Sinai desert.
In all, close to 900,000 Jews are estimated to have fled Arab-majority countries, leaving behind houses, schools, synagogues, cemeteries and, in many cases, ancient cultures and traditions.
In this same period, an estimated 650,000 Arabs left Israel for Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan and other places.
Also often forgotten: The Palestinian Arabs who remained in Israel were granted citizenship. There are now more than a million Israeli Arabs – about 20 percent of the country's population. While relations with their Jewish neighbors are sometimes strained, they have more rights than Jews in Arab countries had in the past; indeed, they have more rights than Arabs in most Arab countries have in the present.
Mosques in Israel are well attended. Israeli Arabs serve in Israel's parliament and sit on its Supreme Court. Druze and Bedouin Muslims serve in Israel's armed forces and many have given their lives in Israel's defense.
In the Israeli Arab village of Abu Ghosh last year, I met a community leader who proudly told me his grandfather had volunteered to fight against the five invading armies in 1948 and, as a result, had become a great friend of David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first Prime Minister. He pulled out a photo scrap book to prove it.
Only a radical would argue that Israel should not have such Arab citizens. And yet what passes for the moderate view holds that a future Palestinian state must be Judenrein – ethnically cleansed of Jews. Indeed, even “moderate” Jordan has a constitutional provision specifically prohibiting Jews from becoming citizens
It is within this context that Israeli and Palestinian leaders have now agreed to bulldoze those red-roofed, middle-class houses in Gaza. Will this action pave the way – almost literally – toward peace between Israel and a Palestinian state? Or will it represent just the destruction of one additional Jewish community, a reminder of the past, an omen for the future? No one can really say, least of all the Israeli and Palestinian officials who have agreed on this plan – and not much else.