`We'll embrace the settlers and take them with us'
Major General Dan Harel, what is your mission?
"Evacuation of the Israeli presence from the Gaza Strip according to the timetable that has been dictated, while safeguarding the security of the evacuees and their dignity in a manner that will not cause a rift in the nation with broad implications for the future."
Could you translate that military talk into ordinary human language?
"For the first time in 38 years, the debate over Greater Israel is reaching a culminating point. The encounter between the two ideologies is liable to become a fault line. On this subject, we, as an army, have nothing to say. We receive instructions and execute them. But as regards the how, we do have a say. Our task is to prevent a rift. That is what I tell my soldiers. There's no way to come out of this unsullied. But the way we carry out the mission will determine whether the State of Israel will conclude the disengagement with a scratch, a crack or a rift."
Is there a possibility that the disengagement will not be carried out?
"The evacuation will take place. Period."
Is there a possibility that the evacuation will not be completed?
"The evacuation will be completed. Period. And according to the timetables set by the political echelon."
Is it clear to you why you are about to carry out this unusual and singular mission?
"For a very simple reason: to preserve the rules of the game of the Israeli culture. If the army does not carry out the task it has been assigned by the political echelon, the result could be the shattering of our way of life, our culture, everything we have built here in 57 years. I'm not hiding behind the cliche that says the army does not choose its missions. Even though that is true. I feel that I'm an envoy of Israeli democracy, of the principle of the supremacy of the majority, of the legitimacy of decision-making by the majority and implementation by everyone. If we do not fulfill the mission, all that is liable to be shattered."
Do you have an emotional attitude toward the Gush Katif settlement bloc?
"Of course. This is Israeli settlement, the spearhead of the state. Truly. Pioneers, modern pioneers. Good people. Some of them are simple, some are sophisticated. The nation of Israel at its best."
Is there such a thing as the spirit of Gush Katif?
"There is a spirit of Gush Katif. The values of settlement, faith, staying power. Entire communities that act according to very positive values. There is hardly any theft. There is no violence, there is no idle gossip. There's something very clean about the way they behave. They are not like the residents of Tel Aviv or Haifa. There's something about them that recalls more the period of the state's establishment.
"This is also the source of their staying power. It does not stem from the fact that they are physically strong, but comes from their community resilience. What did they not endure? They were shot at and shelled and murdered. Thousands of Qassam rockets and mortar shells. Assaults on vehicles. Sixty or seventy percent of the terrorist attacks in this war that has no name were aimed at them. And they withstood it. They withstood what you would not withstand if you took Qassams day after day in Tel Aviv.
"So from my point of view, they are exemplary. Gush Katif is an exemplary model for Israeli society."
But now you are about to become the destroyer of Gush Katif.
"That is so, and it is difficult, above all, because to evacuate people from their homes is a very difficult act. It is an act that is contrary to human feeling. But it is difficult also because in the past five years there was very hard fighting here, and a certain alliance was forged between them and us. Blood intermingled with blood. Blood of soldiers and blood of settlers. Throughout this period, what kept them going was the understanding that they were the spearhead of the State of Israel. And suddenly the spearhead moves back. They are left alone. And they understand abruptly that they are not part of the spearhead. Worse: people ask them what they are doing here and tell them to get out. That's what is happening to them now. They did nothing bad and this is what is happening to them."
Did you agonize about assuming this mission?
"I had a very deep discussion with myself. I was supposed to complete my tour of duty exactly now. So I conducted a very serious discussion with myself about whether I was staying on or not. I decided to stay mainly because of the soldiers and the officers I fought with for two consecutive years. But I decided to stay also so that those who will carry out the mission will understand it and not view it as a superficial one."
In fact, you volunteered to carry out the disengagement mission.
"No. I would not have volunteered for this mission. No way. This is not a mission one volunteers for. This is not a mission one should aspire to perform. There is no joy of evacuation. You know, every soldier who knocks on a door this week will take with him this image. Every soldier will take with him the image of the first house and the second and the third. And what about me? What will I say?"
Will IDF soldiers be emotionally harmed by carrying out the evacuation?
"I think that the majority of our soldiers will come out of it with a scratch. Everyone who knocks on a door will take something with him for the years ahead. He will remember the face of the person on whose door he knocked. The look in his eyes. The mother with the two children behind her."
So this movie of the evacuation runs through your head?
What is the most difficult image in the movie?
"The first morning, the first knock on the door."
Do you already know which door you will knock on?
"I will go to a person I know. I feel it is not fair to do it to someone you don't know. Even though it is more difficult, it is also more correct. In this matter, my difficulty is not unique to the chief of Southern Command. It is the difficulty of every platoon commander who will knock on a door. Seven-thirty in the morning. The family has deliberately not prepared itself. The two children are sitting at the table and waiting for breakfast. The wife is just pouring a cup of coffee. The husband opens the door and says, Yes?"
And what do you say?
"My name is Major General Dan Harel. According to the law on carrying out the disengagement and pursuant to the decision of the government of Israel, I am informing you that you have to leave the house."
That is the text of a tragedy.
"It is a terrible text. That is so. But everything we are dealing with here is a tragedy. A harsh and terrible Israeli tragedy. A personal tragedy for the evacuees because we are taking their homes from them. And in the Israeli way of life, a home is both the most expensive thing in money terms and even more, the most personal thing. And we are taking their homes from them. And their work. Most of them are 50-60 years old. They are no longer kids. And this is not the evacuation of Yamit. Most of them will not find a job.
"But we are also taking their community from them. Because many communities will be shattered. They are feeling a crisis of faith. They are feeling a crisis of ideology. So you are right: This is a genuine tragedy. And we, the IDF, were chosen to be the instrument through which the tragedy is realized."
In the past few days, have you thought about this specific person on whose door you will knock?
"Yes. I don't want to get involved in descriptions about how this mass of people we are bringing into the settlement will sound from inside the house. Or how they will try to live a normal life inside and play Monopoly with the children while they know it is getting closer. And arriving. And that knock on the door. With one knock, they lose everything."
What else will be hard for you?
"There will be an accumulation of difficult moments. Seeing an empty settlement. Sending in the bulldozers. Demolishing houses with bulldozers. And synagogues. Demolishing everything."
Have you already formulated an end-of-settlement ceremony?
"We are still thinking about it. The last moment of a settlement will be very difficult. We haven't yet decided what we will do. Sing `Hatikva'? Salute? After all, people lived there. We don't yet know what to do."
People in Gush Katif say that the act you are about to carry out will haunt you for the rest of your lives.
"Yes. That is what they say. And it's true. But that does not detract from our determination to carry out what we are obliged to carry out."
They say you have created a crushing expulsion machine.
"That is the image that has been created. Because of our thorough preparations and because of the determination, they have formed the impression that the army is an expulsion machine. We did all this not because we wanted to build a sophisticated expulsion machine that will now start to shred one part of the country after another, but precisely because we believed that a great deal of strength will prevent the use of force. And we have strength. The IDF is a strong, hardy organization."
The settlers are trying to fight that organization: They are rising against your ranks of soldiers and trying to break them down.
"They are waging psychological warfare against us. Thus the allusions to the Nazis, the calls of `Judenrat.' I personally have already been called a murderer, a traitor, `the blood is on your hands.' It is hard for them understand how I, their protective vest, have suddenly adopted another role. But they are wrong. They do not understand the depth of the soldiers' commitment to the mission.
"At Kissufim checkpoint I saw new recruits standing in rows in the face of those calls with tears running down their cheeks. But those new recruits stood their ground. The ranks were not breached. Of 12,000 soldiers who were at Kfar Maimon, not one refused an order. Even though I estimate that 40 percent of them are against the disengagement, not one of them refused an order. Not even those hundreds whose families were on the other side of the fence."
Didn't the opponents of disengagement at Kfar Maimon frighten you? Didn't you see them as a threat to the army and the state and democracy?
"It has to be said that the state was challenged at Kfar Maimon. That is why we could not let them move even one meter south from there. Because if the State of Israel is not able to implement its decisions, it is no longer a democracy. If the army does not carry out the directives of the government, then you had better learn Spanish, because there will be a South American-style regime here. But I do not demean the people I saw in Kfar Maimon. Look, for three days, we messed around there. It was hot, there was no food, the logistics broke down. It was crappy. So at 2:30 A.M. I drove to Kissufim checkpoint. And along the way I see a family walking toward me on the road. A father my age, a mother, three daughters and a son. The older girl is pushing a carriage with a baby. The son is carrying an orange flag. And at 2:30 A.M., they are going to Kfar Maimon. And it wasn't just one family. I counted 220 people that night on the road. That is the nation of Israel. It thrills me. Doesn't it thrill you, too?"
In other words, you have a high regard for these `orange' people against whom you are fighting?
"Very much. I have a high regard for people who come to express their protest lawfully. And what I saw there, through the fences, is determination and mobilization. A forgoing of the fat of the land. People who left their work and their home and went to Kfar Maimon. Never mind that tactically it was nonsensical. But you look at those people and you see that they are the best people we have in the country."
If so, part of your mission is to make sure that the energy of these people will not be crushed and will not disappear?
"I hope that in the end we will win. Winning means army, police and settlers. The mission is to bring them back to us. And the question is how we bring them back: by uprooting or with an embrace. We will embrace them."
We will uproot and embrace?
"We will embrace them and take them with us. They are a very important part of the nation of Israel. We cannot allow ourselves to lose them."
You will evacuate and cry?
"I will evacuate and feel pain."
After all is said and done, after the evacuation and the loading of goods and the demolition, what will the disengagement do to you? What will it leave in you?
"The question is not what it will leave in me. The question is what it will leave in the nation. Maybe, if we do the right things, we will come out of it all right. Maybe we will even become stronger. But if you are nevertheless asking me what will remain in me, it is a scratch. I will not come out of this without a scratch. A deep scratch."
What are the main dangers for the disengagement operation?
"I don't anticipate that there will be violence on the part of the Israeli residents of the Gaza Strip - 99 percent of them are normative people. Therefore the danger is of firing on the evacuation."
From outside or inside?
"First of all from outside. That is a lot more probable."
What is the probability that the Palestinians will open fire during the evacuation?
"There is a high probability - more than 50 percent - and even if we seize the Palestinian territories that doesn't mean they won't succeed in firing mortars or Qassams into a relatively small area where there are thousands of people. I am very angry at the Palestinians."
"Because I think the war they are waging is one that no civilized person ought to accept. I'm not getting into the question of whether they are fighting for their independence or not. The way they are doing it shows their inhumanity. They are not even letting us leave the Gaza Strip. They are not letting us free ourselves from their impossible embrace."
You read intelligence reports - what worries you in the intelligence you read?
"Their essence as a society. The way they behave. The depth of the decay that has spread in them. They say it is because of us. Because of the occupation. Okay, so let us leave. But they seem to be fighting so that we will stay. The worst of it is that they deny the legitimacy of Israel's existence. It is not a comprehensive denial but it is broad and deep. Therefore I do not see a situation in which my son or his son will be able to lay down their arms.
"I am very pessimistic. This conflict has a national dimension and a territorial dimension and a cultural-religious dimension. So it is very difficult to come out of the conflict, because the Palestinian nation has awakened and it is poised against the Israeli nation. Therefore we cannot expect an easy life in the future."
A generations-long conflict?
"Maybe there will be breaks in it. Ups and downs. Ebb and flow. But I don't see that there will be an agreement after which we will live happily ever after."
If so, the disengagement is not leading to any sort of rosy future?
"I have an opinion about this move. It is a private opinion. As long as I am in uniform, I will let it remain private. The government of Israel decided and I will carry it out." I am not asking your opinion, I am asking what the outcome will be.
"Is it possible that there will be terrorism after the disengagement? Definitely."
Is it probable that there will be terrorism after the disengagement?
"I think it is."
From the Gaza Strip as well?
"From the Gaza Strip as well. Yes."
And what will the radius of the terrorism be?
"The radius is the radius of the Palestinians' technological progress. Today it is 9 kilometers. The day after tomorrow, it will be 20 kilometers. If they smuggle Katyusha rockets into the Gaza Strip, it will be 20 kilometers."
Is the scenario of Hamas taking over the Gaza Strip a probable one?
"Of course. Hamas claims they have a majority of 52 percent."
The military problem we will face after the disengagement is steep-trajectory fire. That is a problem with no solution. What are its implications?
"We will have to go in and stop the fire."
Is that also a probable scenario?
In other words, a situation could emerge in which we have removed the settlements but the IDF returns to the Gaza Strip?
"It is possible that the IDF will cross the border of the State of Israel and operate in the Gaza Strip. Definitely."