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Ariel Sharon's words must be taken at face value: The decision to evacuate settlements in the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria is the hardest he has ever had to make. That is what he said to the nation in clear Hebrew, during his Sunday night appearance at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Before addressing the conference itself in English, the prime minister read written comments, with a frozen expression, more like one who is reciting by rote than one who is speaking his heart. But he seemingly said something from the depths of his heart. It doesn't matter if he wrote it himself or it was scripted by his spin doctors: The message he chose to pass on to the public is that the disengagement plan is the toughest decision he has made in a rather eventful life.

Sharon, as he said himself that night, has made "hundreds and thousands of decisions. Many of them were crucial. Some were life and death. But the decision on disengagement was the hardest of them all."

This is an instructive confession, assuming his heart is really in it: The man who in the 1950s carried out retaliation operations, some of which were controversial, and some resulted in mass rage directed at him due to their human cost; the man who sent his forces to Mitla Pass in Operation Kadesh, an operation that forced him to testify to a special military investigator on its essentialness and the huge scope of losses; the man whose behavior in the Yom Kippur War and his operational suggestions raised doubts with at least some of his comrades in arms, in part due to the huge number of resulting casualties; the man who brought the IDF deep into Lebanon under pretenses that turned two declared days of fighting into years, which led to hundreds of Israeli and thousands of Palestinian victims. That man admits that giving up 1,200 square kilometers in the West Bank and Gaza is the toughest choice of them all.

This opinion piece is not meant to slam Sharon. The premier is in fact deserving of respect for his daring in initiating disengagement. Unlike his predecessors - some of whom understood a long time ago the hopelessness inherent in the continued Israeli hold on the territories but were not endowed with the fortitude to reach the obvious operative conclusion - he is exhibiting leadership. He is determined, courageous and cynical enough to change his spots and repudiate his previous beliefs. The man for whom establishing settlements in the territories was a raison d'etre is swinging the ax with his own two hands, exposing himself to great personal danger and gambling his political future.

Sharon is setting a tremendously important precedent. Even if he is flirting with the idea that the disengagement is a one-time act that won't lead to similar steps, and even if he believes that by giving up Gaza and some of Samaria he will allow Israel to keep a substantial portion of the West Bank or at least the major settlement blocs, the withdrawal itself will mark the path for future events. Under Sharon's leadership, Israel's farewell to the territories is about to begin. He therefore deserves thunderous applause for the turnaround he is generating in the history of the state.

But the attributes Sharon has given disengagement as the hardest decision of his life holds a repulsive moral and human lesson: that land, wherever it is, is more sacred than human life. Separation from the sands of Gaza and the hills of Samaria, which are not part of the State of Israel and giving them up doesn't endanger its existence, is harder for Sharon than any of the other tests, bloody as they were, that he has met in his lifetime. Even if he said it just to please the settlers and their supporters, the ethos he sought to engrave on the public mind is: land above all.