Fourteen years — four critical lessons

The Disengagement Plan from Gaza in the summer of 2005 changed the State of Israel in many ways. Many fields of tension within the Israeli society were tested, and Israel’s ability to survive as a strong society and striving democracy was seriously questioned.

Fourteen years later there are many things to say, but there are several points that must be kept in mind when we try to understand the relevance of the Disengagement Plan to Israel’s current challenges. Israel’s holding of the West Bank – the post-Oslo areas of Judea and Samaria – is constantly questioned, both by those who want the best for Israel and the Jewish people, and by those who don’t. In order to give an intelligent answer, it is necessary to look at the Gaza situation with open eyes and learn what is relevant for any future decisions.

We need to ask ourselves two main questions: Did the Disengagement Plan achieve its aims, and what other impact has it had in terms of security, political stability and humanity?

  1. The Gaza goals have failed

Israel left Gaza in order to break the ‘political stagnation’, taking a one-sided move that will set a clear border between Israel and the Palestinians and dismiss Israel from any future responsibility towards those across the border. The high friction between Israeli soldiers and the Arab civilian population was seen as a threat, and separation seemed like the best idea.

Interestingly, these are exactly the same reasons given by those in favor of a further disengagement from Judea and Samaria: The political situation isn’t moving anywhere and Israel needs to take action that suits its own interests, so let’s create a clear and final border in the West Bank and we’ll never again be seen responsible for the lives of those who strive to destroy us.

However, none of these goals were achieved in 2005 or since. The Gaza border may be clear, but it’s the least quiet of Israel’s borders today; the Disengagement Plan didn’t get us any closer to a political solution; and most of all – Israel is certainly perceived as responsible for the people of Gaza. Millions of Israeli shekels are transferred to Gaza every month in the shape of electricity, building products and other forms of aid; the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip is internationally seen as Israel’s direct responsibility; and though the IDF has left Gaza, it was forced to go back, so far, for three wars and several other ‘small’ operations that have resulted in the killings of over one hundred Israeli soldiers and civilians, and thousands of Palestinian casualties.

  1. Should we have left Gaza as part of a two-sided agreement?

When confronted with the failures stated above, many pro-second-disengagement people will admit that the idea of taking a one-sided move turned out to be ineffective – for the other side got what they wanted without being committing to any sort of ‘neighborliness’ and peaceful relations. We should, it seems, take future steps as part of a two-sided treaty: Israel will uproot settlements and the military will leave certain areas, and, vitally, in return, the Palestinian will be obligated to cease acts of terror etc.

There are two main problems with this argument: Firstly, is that if such an agreement was possible to reach in the first place, Israel wouldn’t have had to resign to one-sided steps; the reason that all the present policy plans are one-sided says something about the willingness (or lack of) an the other side.

Secondly, and more importantly: In 2005, Israel assumed the Palestinian Authority will take over and rule Gaza Strip. Even the prestigious Israeli intelligence didn’t predict what happened only two years later: Hamas came to power (after democratic elections, of course) and threw PA officials from the rooftops of Gaza to their deaths. The internal Palestinian politics promise no stability, and under such circumstances – what value is there gamble on Israeli security in order to making an agreement with someone who may no longer be there tomorrow? Needless to say, leaving Judea and Samaria with less Israeli presence does not only expose the majority of Israel to rockets, but also leaves the residents of the South, the Negev, threatened on two fronts: rockets, tunnels and infiltrators both from Gaza and from the Hebron Mountains. In such a situation, maybe the notorious ‘political stagnation’ suggests more stability and less bloodshed.

  1. The moral price of the Disengagement Plan

According to CBS, 8,500 Israeli citizens lived in Gush Katif. The state inquiry committee that examined the outcome of the disengagement plan five years later, in 2010, determined that the communities that were uprooted were treated in a ‘degrading’ way: Many of the families depended financially on Gush Katif’s famous agriculture, and found it hard or impossible to find another source of making a living; alternative housing took years to provide, and despite the promise to keep communities together – many times that wasn’t the case; and the social, psychological and educational needs of thousands of children and youth weren’t properly addressed. Professor Yedidia Stern, vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute, stated that ‘the Disengagement Plan caused the greatest human rights violation in the history of the State of Israel’.

Does a similar plan, of uprooting – again – thousands of people, have moral validity?

Those in favor of dismantling the Jewish villages in the West bank tend to emphasis that they are not talking about the big blocs (Ma’ale Adumim, Gush Etzion etc.), but that there is a need to remove ‘isolated settlements’ from Judea and Samaria. To someone from the outside it may sound like three caravans and a goat; but take three random, well-known settlements that are on the ‘isolated’ list – Eli (with a population of 4,200 people), Kiryat Arba (7,300 people) and Tekoa (3,700 people) – only them, without any more of the ‘isolated’ settlements, hold almost double the population than that of Gush Katif. With all respect, the State of Israel proved it was not capable of taking care of the 8,500 that had had their homes destroyed over a decade ago; it hasn’t the moral right – or technical ability – to the implement the same experiment on a larger scale.

What makes the discussion of future disengagement plans even more obscure is that it is, in fact, irrelevant: For Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, negotiation only starts when Israel will be prepared to withdraw from a much wider range of territory, meaning a minimum of roughly 80,000 Jews will have to pack up, and possibly triple that number, just for the pleasure of negotiating with the PA. Even assuming we trust the PA are a partner for peace (or at least for stability that serves both sides interest), when we remember how fragile their government is and how easy it was for Hamas to overpower them in Gaza, it would mean that such a drastic step on Israel’s behalf would be an extremely irrational risk.

  1. Security has become worse, not better

Before summer 2005 it was common to hear pro-Disengagement politicians or IDF generals say “well, if it doesn’t work out, we can quickly and easily take over Gaza again”. That thesis has turned out to be wrong. Today, even those who think that a re-occupation of Gaza is a good idea admit it will have to be an extensive ground-led military operation, in the style of “Defensive Shield” in 2003, which may cost hundreds of IDF soldiers their lives. Instead of becoming a source of stability and proof of the equation “less friction=more security”, the Gaza Strip has become Israel’s biggest problem, and any long-term solution carry a very high price tag.

Security isn’t measured only by the number of casualties, but this index can’t be ignored. In short, between the Six Day War in 1967 and the Disengagement Plan in 2005, there was an average of six Israeli casualties a year. Between 2005 and 2016, the average went up to 11 a year. In addition, life in what we call “the Gaza Envelope” (a concept that includes more and more cities as the time goes by) has become violated by the endless threat of rockets, tunnels, burning kites etc. Approximately half a million Israeli citizens need to be close to bomb shelters at all times, not to causing long-term problems for many: post-trauma, anxiety, child regression and bed-wetting, severe damage to agriculture and other industries and more. The people who promised that “Ashkelon will not become a front line” (Ariel Sharon, 2003) couldn’t have been more wrong.

Furthermore, the Gaza situation has stained Israel’s image in the international community, causing diplomatic and legal problems left, right and center. Israel is demanded time and time again to absorb criticism and provide explanations for the Palestinian situation in Gaza. These phenomena weaken Israel’s legitimacy to combat terror, and Israel is forced to ‘contain’ terror groups aggressiveness even when this means that Israeli citizens or soldiers will pay the price.

Major General (res.) Gershon HaCohen, who was the commander of the military forces in the Disengagement Plan, said lately: “We have lost our freedom of action. Every time the IDF crosses the border, it means war, and that’s what allows them (the Palestinians – L.L) to stock up. In Nablus they can’t produce rockets that will get to Tel-Aviv, because once we have the intelligence, we will go in at night with two jeeps if that’s what the division commander decides. Today, going one meter into the Gaza Strip needs a gathering of the cabinet.”

* * *

Summer 2005 was a human experiment that came with many promises; none were fulfilled. Hundreds of thousands of citizens are paying a daily price for this experiment; the uprooted families and communities of Gush Katif are still licking their wounds; residents of the South of Israel became human shields; and Gaza Strip has become a hard problem with week solutions.

The continuous conflict with the Palestinians is wearing, and it is tempting to resolve to policy plans that sound like a solution, even if they are a bad solution. With Trumps “Deal of the Century” around the corner it seems very pressing for Israel to come up with a deal of its own.

In this context, it is acutely important to learn the lessons from the Disengagement Plan, and to internalize that though it may sound simple, and though the international community may see this as the only way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – uprooting villages and leaving huge strategic territories in Palestinian hands are mistakes that Israel can’t afford to make again. This proposition is made again and again by good-willing people, but after we have seen the outcome of 2005 Disengagement Plan, it is nothing but reckless. It does not guarantee any end to the ongoing Palestinian violence, but instead has proven to be the catalyst for making many lives, on both sides of the border, much worse.

About the Author
Leora Levian was born and raised in Jerusalem. She is mastering in public policy in Tel-Aviv University and is an alumnus of the Jewish Statesmanship College. Levian is the social media and content manager at 'My Israel' ('Israel Sheli') organization, a lecturer on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and enjoys exploring the connections between culture and policy. She is currently living in Gothenburg, Sweden, as an emissary to the local Jewish community.
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