Were the withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza one huge, possibly criminal, mistake or despite all the pain involved, were they the correct moves that strengthened Israel’s strategic position?

In September 2000, the IDF withdrew unilaterally from the security zone in Lebanon. In August 2005, the Government of Israel carried out a second unilateral withdrawal of all civilians and military personnel from the Gaza Strip. Since that time, the State of Israel has been involved in four military conflicts in these two areas (plus innumerable small flare-ups). Various well known supporters of the withdrawals, such as MK Benyamin Ben Eliezer, Giora Eiland, Uzi Dayan, Gershon HaCohen as well as media personalities like Dan Margalit have declared that they’ve changed their stance and now believe that the Gaza withdrawal (in particular) was a mistake. The reason – Hamas’ rise to power and the ensuing conflicts. I would argue, that despite the numerous serious security issues that have arisen, both withdrawals were, even in retrospect, strategically good moves for the State of Israel.

Post Withdrawal Developments

A quick review of critical events:

The IDF’s withdrawal removed Hezbollah’s raison d’etre, at least as a military entity. Their attempt at regaining their charm in 2006 ended in nothing but destruction for Lebanon (declarations of divine victory not withstanding). When the Syrian Civil War broke out and Hezbollah joined forces with their Syrian allies, they entered a blood bath that has no end in sight. They have been bleeding and dying in Syria, while within Lebanon there have been numerous bombings of Hezbollah offices, something unheard of in previous years. In addition, by tying themselves to their Syrian masters, Hezbollah made themselves the enemies of Syria’s numerous enemies. More than a few Arab states have declared Hassan Nassrallah to be a persona non grata, as well as cut off funding and diplomatic support.

Yes, it is true that Hezbollah has built up a huge arsenal of missiles. However much of that arsenal is stored outside of what was the security zone. Secondly, at this point in time, they are in no shape to use it. Despite all their loud declarations of eternal fidelity to the Palestinian cause, Hezbollah barely reacted during any of the last three Gaza confrontations.

Gaza went through a similar process since the withdrawal. Who supports Hamas today? Egypt has declared them to be the enemy and acts towards them as such. Hamas leaders even complained about the treatment they received from Morsi. Due to intramural Arab politics, Syria expelled Hamas personnel including Khaled Mashal and Iran refuses to give them a penny. With the Arab world so involved in its various civil wars and genocides, no one has time for them. The prospect of bankruptcy is what drove Hamas to make their deal with Abu Mazen, the only person who Ismail Haniyeh may despise more than Prime Minister Netanyahu.

There were further side effects to the withdrawal, namely the combination of Hamas’ perceived victory and Fatah corruption led to Hamas winning the elections in 2006. Following its expulsion from Gaza, Fatah realized that it was do or die time; they had to reform themselves or face extinction. Abu Mazen appointed Salam Fayyd to do just that and by all accounts he did (whether we like to admit it or not). The West Bank has been stable for years, with Israelis benefitting from close security cooperation between the PA and IDF. Yes, terror has not been eliminated. But the situation in Yehuda and Shomron is incomparably better now. Even during Operation Protective Edge, this area has been almost completely quiet.

Which brings me to my final point: After leaving Lebanon and Gaza, the Israeli death toll dropped very sharply, something which cannot be overlooked. 256 soldiers died in the Security Zone over 15 years. Likewise, the number of Israelis killed by Gaza terrorists has been reduced to single digits annually. That simple fact is a huge achievement. Being in range of a Hamas terrorist armed with a rifle is a 1000 times more dangerous than being in range of their missiles. I do acknowledge that one of the main reasons that their missiles are so ineffective is Kipat Barzel. Had then Defense Minister Amir Peretz not pushed for this system, well I don’t want to think about that scenario.

None of the above would have happened had we stayed in Lebanon or Gaza. While it is true that there are multiple factors which led to the deterioration of these groups’ standing, both organizations would still be seen as heroes fighting the Zionist regime had we not left. How much of this could have been predicted back in 2000 or 2005? The Arab Spring wasn’t in anyone’s crystal ball, but it wasn’t hard to guess that removing ourselves as easy targets would save lives.

I have no great wisdom as how to solve the Hamas problem (assuming that there is a solution). Nor do I have any great ideas on how to manage the situation. However, the idea that we should re-occupy Gaza leaves me with chills.

A post-script: Several groups of people have had to pay enormous, disproportionate costs for these withdrawals, in particular the former Gaza settlers and residents of southern Israel. Ariel Sharon was never fully honest as to why he chose to carry out the withdrawal (I am not a conspiracy theory fan). However, the way he did it was pure Ariel Sharon – do whatever you think is needed, regardless of the human costs involved.

I am in no way trying to diminish the dangers faced by Israeli citizens living within the range of Gaza missiles (which is most of the country). No one can or should suffer as they do. But when looking at the situation in Gaza, we must remember that there is a much larger picture.

I would like to thank Rabbi Gideon Sylvester who helped me in the preparation of this entry.