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When Israel conquered the Sinai Peninsula in 1956, then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion hastened to declare the establishment of the "Third Kingdom of Israel." Shortly afterward, he was forced to back down and pull out the Israel Defense Forces.

Meir Argov, then-head of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, promised that the Gaza Strip would remain in Israeli hands in any case, but a few days later that illusion was shattered, too.

Moshe Dayan, who was chief of staff in the days of the Suez Campaign, served as defense minister in the Six-Day War. At first, it seemed he had learned his lesson from the forced withdrawal 10 years earlier; when the battles commenced, he ordered to refrain from conquering the Gaza Strip. Then, like the rest of his colleagues in the leadership, he got carried away in the heat of the military success and ordered that the Strip be taken over, as well.

Tomorrow, Israel will pay the final price for that decision and withdraw the remnants of its occupation from the Gaza Strip. This time, let us hope the illusion that the state can retain the 1967 territories will be transformed into an object lesson for future generations.

Perhaps only one generation of Israelis can judge the full significance of the Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip - the generation of those over 55 years of age who experienced, as adults, the events of the Six-Day War. As for the others, this war is not part of their formative memory. They accepted the post-1967 reality as self-evident - either because they were too young in those days or because they were not living in Israel at the time. Out of about 7 million citizens, deducting the new immigrants (since 1990), it appears that no more than 200,000 Israelis bear the impressions of that war. To them, the sight of the last soldiers departing from the Gaza Strip, leaving destroyed settlements behind them, is life experience, not merely a political controversy. They remember the dread-filled weeks preceding the `67 war, in which, it seemed at the time, the very existence of the state was hanging by a thread. They were witness to the decisions that later led to the beginning of the settlement project. Most of them backed those moves, due to their anger at the Arab world and the feeling of salvation that enveloped them as a result of the IDF's victory. Only a handful of individuals stood up and warned of the grave implications of the settlements in the territories.

Those 200,000 Israelis are no more than 3 percent of Israel's present population. But the lesson they learned should be instilled into the hearts of the entire public. There is no point or hope to the settlement project in the occupied territories. It is doomed to failure. There is a built-in contradiction between Israel's Zionist concept and moral pretense, and the way it has forced itself on the Palestinians. Even the obtuseness of 38 years finally comes to an end and even the prolonged, forcible rule over another nation ultimately surrenders to that nation's wishes of independence and to the terror-war that it is waging.

As the United States and Soviet Union forced Israel to withdraw from Sinai and the Gaza Strip in March 1957, thus the world of the 21st century will not permit it to continue for long to hold on to the territories it occupied in `67. Demographic reality will have a similar effect. Some 250,000 settlers in the West Bank are only 10 percent of its general population and this proportion will dictate the outcome. Despite the huge effort and gargantuan investments, Israel has failed to concentrate a critical mass of Jewish residents in the territories. The major part of its population has chosen to live within the Green Line.

Most important, Israel's consciousness has changed. The intoxication of victory has been replaced by sobering reality. The greed for territory has been replaced by the yearning for normality. The military arrogance has been replaced by conscience pangs in view of the Palestinians' suffering.

Perhaps in the future the behavior of our Arab neighbors will again create an Israeli consensus regarding the continued occupation of the territories, but not for settlement purposes, only for security needs of border bargaining. The evacuation of Gaza is a guiding precedent.