Gaza Disengagement Showed the Dumb Arrogance of Unilateralism

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Palestinians hurl stones at an Israeli tank during clashes in front the demolished Jewish settlement of Neve Dekalim in the southern Gaza Strip, September 6, 2005. Credit: Reuters

We sat in a house in a Gaza settlement of Neveh Dekelim, about ten journalists to four rooms and several more camping out in the sand of our would-be yard, trying to summon sympathy and convey the impending drama, banging away on our computers, filing our stories. The disengagement the day after Tisha B’av, that anti-holiday focused on the great calamities and expulsions of Jewish history, and those of us who grasped the weight of that timing had a slight advantage in terms of understanding how things looked from the settlers’ point of view.

For most foreign correspondents, the people in question were just a loathsome lot of Israeli settlers, and it stood to reason that the government had finally come to its senses and was ripping them ou of a place they shouldn’t have been in to begin with. Even Israelis felt ambivalent. What did upwards of 8,000 Israelis need to be in Gaza for anyway, wasting good money on security, putting decent young soldiers in harm’s way, subjecting Israel to constant international criticism, all so that a bunch of farmers and people from development towns could enjoy living in seven-bedroom villas with a view of the Mediterranean?

For Chemi Shalev's response, click here

Despite the spacious seaside housing many of the Gaza settlers I met lived in – particularly egregious in relation to what they would have paid to buy those same houses elsewhere in the country, and the incentives the government had once doled out in order to encourage them to move there – I felt for many of those people who had built lives and homes in Gaza. I felt for the kids and teenagers who had been born there and knew nothing else. I felt for the Israelis who ran successful hothouses, employing many Palestinians and maintaining friendly relations, and who couldn’t understand why, 38 years after Israel seized control of the Gaza Strip in the Six-Day War, the man who had been at the forefront of the settlement movement was now uprooting them.

Indeed, few of them could grasp the unilateralism of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. It is only now, 10 years on, that we are able to grasp just how wrongheaded, shortsighted and arrogant a strategy it was. Of course, I was one of the many at the time who considered the disengagement plan to be a mildly laudable effort on Sharon’s part. He had to desert his Likud party and create another, Kadima, to blaze a trail he was sure was the right one –the one that would ultimately be the last major political act of his life.

As someone who had regularly spent time in Gaza, having first visited Neveh Dekalim – as well as Gaza City, Jabalya and Khan Yunis – as a newly minted journalist in 1993, I had seen up close the impact of the occupation in countless ways. Even after Israel had nominally turned the Palestinian population centers over to Yasser Arafat the following year, there were still Israel Defense Forces bases throughout the Strip, key roads that were impassible because they were reserved for IDF jeeps – and, of course, those strategically located, fertile stretches of land occupied by 21 settlements throughout the coastal territory.

There was no moral justification for having settled Gaza in the first place, particularly as Israel showed no interest in annexing it and making the people who live there –today numbering some 1.8 million – citizens of Israel. And so, a thinking person could only say that less occupation was clearly better than more. Who other than settlers and starry-eyed soothsayers predicting an eventual tip of the demographic scales could argue against this so-called disengagement plan?

But there was a reason it was called a disengagement and not a withdrawal. The former suggests an untangling but not really leaving. This would not mirror Israel’s withdrawal from its self-declared security zone in South Lebanon in May 2000, which allowed then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak to boast of the success of unilateralism and likely encouraged Sharon to follow suit. Israel would still control access to Gaza, orchestrating what and who could enter by land or sea, setting the pace of economic development or blocking it entirely.

Israel never managed to rid itself of the Gaza headache, though that is how Sharon sold it to the public at the time. Nor does the impact of having left Gaza relieve Israel from the demographic pressures Sharon kept referencing when he first floated the plan: Namely, the number of Arabs in the areas controlled by Israel would soon outnumber Jews; by leaving Gaza, Israel could shed Palestinian inhabitants under its helm, and could avoid the impending condemnation of being a Jewish state controlling lands in which the majority of inhabitants are not Jewish.

But Israel still effectively occupies Gaza, even if it doesn’t run tanks and APCs down the center of the Strip – unless you count last summer’s war, and or the one before that. The UN Human Rights Council report, released last month, clearly shows that the world still relates to Gaza as a territory for which Israel bears responsibility. Even Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon says Gaza is still dependent on Israel. Moreover, we know that senior IDF officials recently recommended that Ya’alon increase the number of people allowed through the border crossings and allow the economic situation in Gaza to improve. In short, the IDF top brass has asked for a substantial easing of the closure policy, though the political echelon seems in no rush to change things.

The shifting attitudes also acknowledge that the policy of trying to create an economic embargo on Hamas has not achieved its desired goals. It has not palpably weakened Hamas and, so far, has not caused frustrated Gazans to rise up against the group and try to overthrow its rule.

If Gaza’s former settlers got the raw end of the deal, the one Gazans got was almost rotten to the core. In 2005, Gaza's per-capita GDP was $1,375. Last year, it was $970. In 2005, unemployment was 30 percent; in the first quarter of this year, it was 42 percent. In 2005, the average number of trucks entering Gaza every month was 10,400; between January and June 2015, it was 6,252. In 2005, the monthly average of exiting trucks – bringing Gazan produce to Israel, the West Bank or further afield – was 830. In the first half of 2015, it was 88. (Figures from Gisha, the Palestine Central Bureau of Statistics, Pal-trade and the Israeli Airport Authority.)

It would be a crime of omission not to acknowledge how much better the handover could have been managed when Israel “left.” Nor would it be fair to gloss over Hamas’ role in spreading misery for Gazans by ousting Fatah in 2007 and then dragging the battered Strip into successive wars with Israel, to the point where Gaza’s most plentiful crops are no longer peppers or strawberries but rubble and scrap metal.

But this, too, is part of the story – and part of the reason why the disengagement should be read as a test case as to why, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, unilateralism is often disastrous. Sharon could only pull out of Gaza unilaterally because he treated Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, taking over after Arafat’s death the previous November, as persona non grata. No one in the senior leadership of the PA was worthy of Sharon’s time; there was always “no one to talk to.” Imagine what might have been if Sharon had been willing to negotiate with Abbas, if the PA had been properly equipped to take over Gaza, if Gaza had been given a seaport, airport and safe passage routes to the West Bank – all of which were promised in the protocols following the Oslo Accords. On the contrary, Sharon and the Likud party he broke away from never accepted the principles of those accords, which promised to view the West Bank and Gaza as one territorial unit.

On those boiling hot days before the disengagement was carried out, we would go to visit settlers in their homes. They were all talking about a “mesibat hodayah” – a party giving thanks to God once the evil decree would be stayed. People had whipped themselves up into such a religious fervor that they couldn’t see the writing on the wall – and refused to pack their bags. Perhaps the architects of this disengagement plan were, in their own way, just as unrealistic and ungrounded in terms of the lofty goals they had in mind, and the reality they wrought.

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