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There is something about Gaza, the images it invokes in the minds of most Israelis, that almost inevitably leads to mistaken judgments by Israeli decision makers. The large number of Palestinians compressed into the Gaza Strip, the demographic flood that seems poised to swamp Israel, all seem to lead to the conclusion that we better get out of there while we still can. Fence it in, and say goodbye forever. That led to the disengagement of August 2005, a month that will go down in infamy in the history of the Zionist movement. August 2005 saw the forced evacuation of 10,000 Israelis from their homes in Gush Katif and from the northern tip of the Gaza Strip, the destruction of their property and the abandonment of their fields. Gaza was left to the rule of the terrorists.

We have no reason to be in Gaza, they said, and most Israelis at the time seemed to agree, disregarding the terror we had left behind. The land must be divided between us and them, they said, and most Israelis seemed to agree. Between us and the terrorists? We shall be here and they shall be there, they said, and most Israelis seemed to agree. But are they going to stay there?

Since then, for more than 10 months, the government lived under the illusion that what could not be stopped by the fence could be handled from the air. The government had pledged that no Israeli - soldier or civilian - would set foot in Gaza again. But during these 10 months, terror in Gaza prospered. Weapons were imported, militants were trained, Qassam rockets were produced, and tunnels were dug. Israeli interference, limited to targeted assassinations from the air, was clearly not the answer. Sderot, the outskirts of Ashkelon, and other Israeli communities around the Gaza Strip periphery, were bombarded nearly every day, and the artillery fire on empty fields seemed to be no more than a laughable response. Then came the wake-up call: Militants tunneled beyond the fence, two Israeli soldiers were killed, and Corporal Gilad Shalit was kidnapped. Everything that Sderot Mayor Eli Moyal's ranting and raving could not accomplish was achieved overnight. Belatedly it became clear that if we refused to go looking for the terrorists in Gaza, they would come looking for us.

But deep-grained inhibitions don't die easily. Ehud Olmert's government wants to limit military operations to attacks from the air. After all, after having left Gaza forever, how could Israeli soldiers set foot there again? So put the lights out in Gaza by bombing the power plant there, buzz Bashar Assad's summer home in Latakia, bomb the Hamas prime minister's office, and keep raining artillery shells into empty fields, in the vain hope that this will bring Gilad Shalit home.

But the kidnappers, as should have been expected, were not impressed. Who in Israel did not know that anarchy reigns in Gaza, that this is what we left behind? Neither Mahmoud Abbas nor Ismail Haniyeh have any control over the kidnappers. So far we have just been wasting time and ammunition. The IDF can stop the bombardment of Sderot and the outskirts of Ashkelon if given the green light by the government, but only with adequate intelligence on the whereabouts of Gilad Shalit can the IDF bring him home.

You can deter controlling governments from taking hostile actions or from permitting hostile activity from areas under their control. But there is no way of deterring phantom governments, and you cannot deter terrorists operating from a region in anarchy. The terrorists don't care if the lights go out in Gaza or if Haniyeh's offices are destroyed. They seem to enjoy the support of most of the Palestinian population in the Gaza Strip. What you can do is reduce their motivation to pursue terrorist actions if it is shown that they are of no avail. The IDF and the GSS successfully did this following Operation Defensive Shield, dramatically reducing the number of Palestinian acts of terror. By using force against them, only by using force. But all that was reversed with the unilateral withdrawal 10 months ago. No clearer message could have been sent: Palestinian terror has paid off.

Now the government must shed its naive inhibitions, admit its mistakes and resume the war against terrorism. Israeli lives cannot be protected any other way, and there will be no progress toward peace until that mission is accomplished.