Show of strength: In a speech to the nation Monday night, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised Israel would respond harshly to attacks following the disengagement from Gaza, and said the pullout represented an opportunity for the country to tackle some of the country's problems.
“The disengagement will allow us to look inward and fight poverty,” he said.
“The day has come. We are beginning this most painful and difficult step -the evacuation of our settlements from Gaza and northern Samaria. This step is difficult for me personally, and the government approved the disengagement with a heavy heart,” Sharon said in a pre-recorded, televised address to the nation to coincide with the pullout.
The prime minister added, “It is no secret that I, lie many others, believed and hoped we would be able to hold on to Netzarim and Kfar Darom forever, but the ever-changing reality in Israel, in the region and in the world forced me to reassess and alter my position.”
“We cannot hold on to Gaza forever. More that a million Palestinians live there, and their numbers are doubling each generation. They are crammed in refugee camps, in poverty and distress, in an environment of increasing hatred, with no hope on the horizon,” he said.
“We are taking this step (pullout) from a position of strength, not weakness. We have tried to reach agreements with the Palestinians that would drive both nations toward peace, but these agreements were shattered on the walls of hatred and fanaticism. The unilateral disengagement plan is Israel’s response to this reality. The plan is good for Israel in any future scenario. We are reducing the daily friction and victims on both sides. The IDF will redeploy along defense borders behind the security fence. Those who will continue to fight us will confront the IDF and the security forces at full force."
Sharon added that the Palestinian Authority must now battle the terror organizations to advance the peace process.
“The world is waiting for the Palestinian response – whether they will extend a hand for peace or support terror. We will offer the extended hand an olive branch, but we will respond to attacks in an unprecedented manner,” he said.
Settlers play basketball during speech
Sharon said the national agenda would change as a result of the pullout and the economic policy would now focus on closing the social gaps and fighting poverty, adding that the pullout has evoked extreme acts and “bitter hatred among brothers.”
“I understand the pain of those who oppose the pullout, but we are one nation even when we fight amongst ourselves. I want you to know, the entire nation supports you and is proud of you,” he said.
Sharon concluded his speech by turning to the citizens of Israel, saying, “I am responsible for Israel’s future. I initiated this plan because I thought it was vital for the country.”
“We are embarking on a new path, and, God willing, this path will be one of unity, not division,” he said.
Shas Party Chairman Eli Yishai said in response to the prime minister’s speech, “The historic mistake known as the ‘pullout’ is a bleeding wound; today salt was scattered on this wound.”
Left-wing Knesset Member Yossi Sarid said, “It wasn’t (Winston) Churchill-like, but at least he did not apologize (to the settlers) on my behalf as well. I still expect the settlers to apologize to all of Israel’s citizens for the social and moral injustice they have caused us during the past few decades.”
“The settlements’ original sin is Ariel Sharon, and Binyamin Netanyahu is the punishment – and this punishment is too severe to bear,” he said.
Kfar Darom settlers were planting seeds in the central Gaza settlement while Sharon was speaking to the nation, and Neve Dekalim hosted a basketball game between teams from the Ganei Tal and Gadid settlements.