Much to the dismay of his detractors -- and he had many -- Ariel Sharon secured a distinct place in history when he made the watershed decision in 2005 to unilaterally withdraw Israeli forces and settlers from the Gaza Strip.
The move aroused apprehension and criticism within Sharon's own political camp. Why, it was said, disengage unilaterally -- i.e., without securing reciprocal concessions -- from a territory that would for sure be utilized to launch terrorist attacks against Israel?
The malaise created by that initiative was so deep that today's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, resigned from his cabinet position in protest. Sharon, for his part, had to create a new political party, Kadima, so as to be able to pursue the course of action he had chosen.
And yet, history has clearly vindicated Ariel Sharon's decision.
True, terrorist attacks launched from the Gaza Strip since the pullout did expose Israel to periods of insecurity on more than one occasion, though no more or less than what most Israelies had already grown accustomed to. Gusts of rocket fire reached a peak in 2008 and again in 2012, triggering Israel's self-defense operations Cast Lead and Pillar of Defense.
Be that as it may, Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in 2007, is bitterly learning that any terrorist attack against Israel carries a heavy price -- in the form of Israel's reaction -- that badly impairs its ability to administer the Strip and meet the needs of the Gazans.
Gone are the pre-withdrawal days when Hamas drew its popularity by playing the underdog. Now, Palestinians living in Gaza can, and actually do, hold Hamas accountable for their vicissitudes and suffering.
Thus, to avoid widening its disconnect with the concerns of Palestinians living in Gaza, Hamas is obliged to think twice before giving free rein to its terrorist fixations -- or those of other terrorist organizations in the territory.
Furthermore, with Israel's pullout and the ensuing takeover of Gaza by Hamas, the protracted internecine war between Hamas and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority has taken the form of fratricidal turf warfare. Fatah's members have a tough life in Gaza, as do Hamas' activists in the Fatah-controlled West Bank. Retaliatory imprisonments and cross-assassinations are commonplace.
Fatah and Hamas have given priority to their factional war, and often at the expense of the needs and expectations of Palestinians under their administration.
No wonder that, since the "Arab Spring" erupted in 2011, both Hamas and Fatah have fretted about public uprisings in their respective territories. More often than not, they have severely repressed not only street demonstrations but criticisms posted to the web, as well.
By giving rise to a turf war between Hamas and Fatah, the Sharon pullout laid bare the many grievances and contestations in the territory, as well as the scant regard for democratic values among the two leading factions of the Palestinian leadership.
To fully understand the effect of Sharon's decision, consider this counterfactual: what would have happened if Israeli troops had still been in Gaza at the time of the "Arab Spring" in 2011?
A safe bet is that Hamas and Fatah would have tried to replicate the unrest in the disputed territories, possibly sparking a new intifada. Under the present circumstances, however, Hamas and Fatah are guided by a radically different preoccupation: to prevent a Palestinian intifada against them.
Moreover, had Israeli troops remained in Gaza, Arab rulers likely would have attempted to divert international attention away from the discontent of their own citizens by fostering protests in Gaza against the "Zionist occupier." Hamas would have been more than delighted to receive financial and logistical support to fulfill that deed. The Palestinian Authority, in turn, would have promoted similar protests in the West Bank, if only to prevent Hamas from exploiting regional unrest first.
That scenario was preempted by Sharon's pullback.
There remains the mother of all questions: Did the pullout serve to advance the cause of peace? And the answer is yes. By exposing to the world the futility of negotiating with a double-headed and disorganized Palestinian leadership, the pullout from Gaza has exposed the need for an aggiornamento of the Palestinian leadership as a prerequisite for a real, durable solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
For all these reasons, Ariel Sharon's handover of the Gaza Strip can retrospectively be regarded as a masterpiece of political vision and strategic cleverness.