Jerusalem & Babylon

The Sobering Lesson of Gush Katif

On the eighth anniversary of the disengagement, it is clear that the West Bank settlements will eventually end up like the Gaza ones.

Eight years ago today, Israel forcibly began evicting Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip as part of the unilateral operation that was known as the Disengagement. The first of these settlements to be evicted was the small agricultural community of Morag which, on its last day, numbered 30 families. I knew quite a few of the Morag residents personally and on the most basic human level, seeing them being removed from their homes that morning was heartbreaking. Of course it was a lot of manufactured drama; they had many months advance notice to leave and take advantage of the resettlement programs they were offered. It was their choice to remain there until the last day. They didn't have to suffer the trauma of an Israel Defense Forces officer entering their kitchen during breakfast and ordering their children to leave. Part of me blamed them for doing that, but it was no less painful to watch.

The most poignant moment for me however was after the last settlers had been dragged out and put on the buses back to Israel. The journalists' transport had not yet arrived and I went into the settlement’s small synagogue which had remained untouched. Some of the men would be allowed back later to pack up the Torah scrolls and prayer books and on that early afternoon, the synagogue looked just like any other tranquil house of prayer waiting for a minyan of men to assemble for Minha. In the quiet that had descended on the settlement, I could easily imagine I was just the first early arrival and in a few minutes the rest would arrive. The siddurim (prayer books) and talitot (prayer shawls) seemed to be waiting for their owners. I could have been sitting in any synagogue around the world.

Five years earlier, as a reservist, I underwent my personal political conversion in that very synagogue. It was a Friday night at the height of the Second Intifada and Morag was a prime target for Palestinian mortar attacks and shootings. In the middle of the hectic shifts on guard or patrol, I had a couple of free hours and I thought that Shabbat evening prayers in a civilian setting would soothe my nerves. I arrived on time but it turned out that there still wasn't a minyan and only after 15 minutes did enough men turn up to form the necessary quorum. Life at Morag was extremely difficult then. Any entry or exit from the settlement had to be coordinated with the army and necessitated either an armed escort or driving at 140 kilometers per hour on the two-kilometer road to the relative safety of the Katif bloc. Some of the families had left, others were taking every opportunity to stay away for weekends with family. As I tiredly mumbled the prayers along with the small congregation, I realized that there were more soldiers on our adjacent base than there were settlers and saw the absurdity of going to all this effort, endangering lives of civilians and soldiers just for the sake of maintaining a tiny isolated community between the Palestinian cities of Rafah and Khan Yunis.

It was a realization that led to me to question for the first time the necessity and justification for most of the settlements across the Green Line, both in Gaza and the West Bank and by the time Ariel Sharon announced his withdrawal plan from Gaza and small part of northern Samaria four years later, I was wholeheartedly in support.

I have been thinking about Morag a lot recently, especially about the cognitive dissonance that allowed millions of Israelis to assume that along with the other Gush Katif settlements, it would exist forever and the eventual equanimity with which they accepted its dismantlement. Disengagement was described by many as a "national trauma," but only a tiny circle of former residents and far-right supporters took part in this year’s events marking the anniversary of the destruction of those communities. While in many ways Israeli society has drifted rightward in recent years, this hasn't resulted in a national wave of nostalgia for Gush Katif.

Last Thursday I went to the annual Jerusalem Wine Festival at the Israel Museum. On the last night of the festival, thousands were fighting for tickets and the chance to sample an unlimited number of wines for just NIS 85. Among the dozens of stalls set up by Israeli wineries offering free tastings, were a row of producers from Shiloh, Beit El, Psagot and Gush Etzion. The bearded men and long-skirted women pour wine seemed a bit out of place among the mainly secular crowd where most of the women were in flesh-baring summer dresses or shorts, but there didn't seem to be any reluctance on the part of the revelers to sample the wines produced in the hills of Judea and Samaria. If the talented Danny Dayan - the former head of the YESHA Council of settlements and the settlers’ most effective spokesman today in both Israeli and international media - had been there, he would have probably have said it was proof that the great majority of Israelis have accepted Israel's continued presence in the West Bank and that there is no going back. But he would have been wrong.

The talks that began on Wednesday between Israeli and Palestinian representatives under American auspices will not yield a peace agreement. You don't have to be an expert on the diplomatic process to know that. As Ahmed Tibi has accurately observed, the most any Israeli leader is prepared to offer the Palestinians is less than the minimum that any Palestinian leader can ever accept. But the seeping gradual realization that occupying most of the West Bank is untenable is growing. It's not due to any moral objection. Israelis will happily continue quaffing settler wines and seasoning their salads with olive oil emblazoned with the racist slogan avoda ivrit (Hebrew labor), but all it will take is another Sharon, a prime minister who was once of the ideological right but underwent his own conversion, to convince them to carry out another unilateral pullback, this time from wide swathes of the West Bank which will include the dismantlement of dozens of settlements.

It won't come from a desire to establish a Palestinian state and certainly not to bring peace or justice for the Palestinians. It will be carried out because an Israeli leader will feel he or she is fed up being held hostage by the settlers’ lobby, has to do something to break the deadlock, reduce international pressure on Israel and perhaps even free up a bit of money for housing for young couples. No matter how good the wine of Shilo is, this will win the support of the majority of Israelis. Just as they supported destroying Morag eight years ago.

Nir Kafri