Amid the extensive coverage of the latest flareup in Gaza, there is one critical issue that has been all but ignored by most of the mainstream press. For all the talk over the past few days regarding whether the IDF should return to Gaza, no one seems to be asking the most obvious of questions: Why did Israel leave in the first place? This is more than just a matter of historical curiosity. It goes to the very heart of the dilemma currently confronting Israel's decision makers: is it better to have a physical military presence in Gaza or not? The experience of the past seven years, since then-prime minister Ariel Sharon ordered the forcible expulsion of Gaza's Jews and the withdrawal of all Israeli forces from the area, demonstrates quite clearly that a permanent IDF presence is the most effective way to combat Palestinian terror in the Strip.
Remember: prior to the 2005 Gaza withdrawal, a host of politicians, pundits and experts lined up to persuade the Israeli public that pulling back was really just a means of moving forward. At the time, the air was thick with promises of the new day that would dawn over the Middle East, and pledges that Sharon's bold move would bring about an improvement in the security situation.
How quickly those assurances proved empty! Consider the following: In the three years prior to the Israeli withdrawal, from 2002 to 2004, Palestinians in Gaza fired a total of 3,037 mortars and rockets at the Jewish state, according to data compiled by the IDF. But in the three years after the pullout, from 2006-2008, that figure more than doubled, soaring to 6,828.
After Operation Cast Lead was launched in late December 2008, the number of attacks on Israel dropped for two years, until the recent upsurge of violence began, with more than 1,435 rockets fired at Israel thus far in 2012.
The simple arithmetic is clear. Pulling out of Gaza was clearly a grave strategic error, one that continues to haunt Israel and the millions of citizens living within range of Palestinian rockets.
Replicating operations such as Cast Lead might buy two or three years of reduced rocket fire, but in the longer term it merely gives terrorist groups the opportunity to rearm and refine their techniques.
Whether we like it or not, the only proven way to reduce the violence emanating from Gaza is for the IDF to be deployed there, on the ground and in the air. An IDF presence in Gaza does not mean there will be no attacks, but it most certainly does mean fewer assaults on our towns and cities.
Of course, there were many prominent Israelis who opposed the Gaza pullout from the outset and repeatedly sought to warn against it. With a prescience that would prove near flawless, they foretold the dangers that would result from an Israeli retreat.
Consider, for example, the Knesset session held on October 26, 2004, when the bill to approve the disengagement from Gaza was being debated.
Natan Sharansky, who was then serving as a minister without portfolio, told the plenum, "Just as at Oslo, they are deluding us, as though one can solve the conflict between us and the Palestinians at the cost of withdrawal, with a quick solution. And just as at Oslo, so too now the result will be the same: blood and more blood, war and more war."
"It is not possible," he said, "to disengage from the terror and hatred of Gaza without Gaza following and pursuing us."
Uzi Landau, who served at the time as a minister in the Prime Minister's Office, was no less resolute.
"When Katyusha rockets will fall in Ashkelon, and we will have to go back in, we will be invading a semi-sovereign state. Will that make our international situation any easier, will we be able to withstand the pressure that will be applied to us?" Others, such as the late MK Yuri Stern, correctly noted that a pullout from Gaza would inevitably result in more Israeli casualties.
"Will we avert having more victims? When Jews will not be in Gaza, and terror will increase and become better organized, won't the army have to go back in there? And won't their activity there be even more dangerous?" he said.
Reading these words years later, one is struck by just how applicable they are today, when Israel has been wrestling with the question of whether to pursue a cease-fire or deploy ground forces in Gaza.
Oddly enough, it brings to mind a scene in the 1985 film Back to the Future, which tells the tale of a teenager, Marty McFly (played by Michael J. Fox), who goes back in time to change the present. After high-school principal Mr. Strickland tells McFly that he won't amount to anything because no one in his family ever did, he memorably responded: "Yeah, well, history is gonna change."
Unlike a character in a film, we don't have the ability to travel through time and change the mistakes of the past. But we can certainly avoid repeating them in the future.
Leaving Gaza in 2005 created a vacuum, one that Hamas and other terrorist organizations were only too happy to fill. They transformed it into a large staging ground for unprecedented attacks against Israel and its cities. We can continue to play ping pong Gaza-style, sending the IDF in and out every few years while subjecting the residents of southern Israel to unending misery.
Or we can finally say "enough," reassert control over the area, and topple the Hamas regime once and for all.
To be sure, the prospect of doing so is frightening, and it would entail a high cost on many fronts. But at this point, it is most certainly a move that is long overdue.