Disengagement, 10 Years Later: How Little Things Change

Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza may have been flawed, but at least it showed a leader who took Israel’s destiny seriously.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Police evacuating settlers from Gush Katif during the 2005 disengagement.
Police evacuating settlers from Gush Katif during the 2005 disengagement.Credit: Uriel Sinai
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The uprooting of the Israeli communities in the Gaza Strip was scheduled to begin on August 14, 2005, but someone hadn’t bothered to take a closer look at the calendar. Of course, destroying Jewish homes on Tisha B’Av, the anniversary of the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction, was out of the question and Operation Yad L’Achim (“a hand to brothers”) began at midnight, a few hours after the day of mourning ended with nightfall. On the morning of August 15, the army began handing out eviction notices.

Two days later the forced evacuation began and in retrospect, the most astonishing thing about it is that the whole process, including a break for Shabbat and the evacuation of four settlements in northern Samaria, took only seven short days. From early Wednesday morning, when lines of Air Force officers began advancing on the southernmost agricultural settlement of Morag – its families, struggling with their emotions, sitting down with their children for breakfast so that when the soldiers knocked on their doors, the scene of domesticity they were about to desecrate would be seared in their memory.

To the last stand in Homesh on Tuesday afternoon, where all the residents had already left and riot-police dragged out the last teenage protestors who had barricaded themselves in a bomb shelter. In one week, 25 communities had ceased to exist.

But 10 days earlier, as the secretary of Netzarim, Eliahu Ouzan, summoned over 100 youngsters who had smuggled themselves in despite the police roadblocks to the synagogue of the most isolated of Gaza’s settlements, no-one believed it would soon be over. Ouzan, who ran Netzarim’s vegetable-growing and packaging business and had worked to keep the community together throughout years of virtual siege during the second intifada, admonished the hotheaded teenagers to “keep calm and respect the spirit of Netzarim,” and not to use any form of physical or verbal violence against the security forces.

At that point I wasn’t sure how much of his stern speech registered. As we emerged from the air-conditioned synagogue to the intense heat outside, light-headed from the Tisha B’Av fast around me, the adolescents in their orange T-shirts and first beards of manhood were discussing how the progress of redemption was irreversible. Who was a mere mortal such as Ariel Sharon to stand in its way?

In the shimmering haze of Netzarim, as work continued in the hothouses and on construction of a new home opposite the synagogue, it was hard to argue with their unbending faith. Jewish destiny had only one way forward.

Losing historical agency

Tisha B’Av is one of those few anniversaries on the Jewish calendar where tradition and history largely corroborate each other. Whether your view of the past is formed by strict adherence to biblical scriptures, the midrash and Talmud, or you prefer academic research, it is the point where mythology and fact collided as the Roman Empire crushed the Great Revolt of Judea and destroyed the ancient Temple, rebuilt and renovated less than a century earlier by King Herod.

It’s also one of those dates which are easy to remember and by using the Gregorian calendar, calculate how many years have passed since 70 C.E., 1945 years ago this weekend.

1945 years ago the Jews lost their own historical agency – two more revolts were to take place against the Romans, but they were doomed from the start.

1945 was also the nadir of Jewish destiny, the last year of the Holocaust and destruction of a third of the Jewish people in the heart of European culture, shattering the illusion that had grown over 100 years or so of emancipation that enlightened Jews could live as secure equals alongside their fellow citizens. 1945 marked the end of the period where Jews were only victims of history.

It would formally end on November 30, 1947, when the Jews of Rome gathered at the Arch of Titus. Four years earlier they had huddled in hiding as German troops raided the homes of the Rome Ghetto, while nearby in the Vatican, Pope Pius XII, the final remaining symbol of the Roman Empire, remained silent. Free again, they celebrated the previous day’s United Nations resolution to establish a Jewish state and an Arab state in partitioned Mandatory Palestine under the arch erected to immortalize the Imperator of Jerusalem, with its depiction of Jewish prisoners in chains and the vessels of the Temple borne to Rome in triumph.

Roman Jews, members of the most ancient of the Diaspora’s communities – so old that they can’t be classified as Ashkenazim or Mizrahim – have a historical instinct like no other group. They understood that after two millenia of living as subjects at the whim of emperors, popes and Il Duce, something fundamental had changed. Jews were about to wrest their destiny from history. The temple’s menorah carved in deep relief on the south panel of Titus’ arch would soon become in Jerusalem the official symbol of a sovereign state of Jews. This week, as Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi spoke in a special Knesset plenum, beneath him on the podium was the menorah.

Dignified evacuation

Netzarim was the last of the Gaza settlements to be evacuated on August 22. The builders were mixing cement for the half-built home until everyone there gathered outside the synagogue and the menorah was dismantled from its roof and carried at the head of a silent, dignified procession to the buses waiting at the gates.

A nimble graphic artist placed a photograph of the Netzarim menorah on the shoulders of the departing settlers next to the Temple menorah on the Arch of Titus. But while the visual similarity is arresting, the historical comparison is erroneous. The people of Netzarim were not going into exile and their menorah wasn’t about to disappear without trace in the vaults of Rome (popular myth maintains it is under the pope’s palace to this day). The destruction of Netzarim was an assertion of Israeli sovereignty and Jewish destiny.

Ariel Sharon’s corruption and cruelty were of near-Herodian proportions, but he was also a Jewish leader who didn’t wait around for history. His decision to remove the settlements from Gaza and northern Samaria may have been influenced by his fear of police investigations and diplomatic pressure, but it was also a recognition of the fundamental fact that an Israel which seeks to evolve into a healthier state cannot afford the occupation of another nation and to maintain the settlements.

His successor, Benjamin Netanyahu. is a far more sophisticated student of history, but he has used the second-longest term in office of an Israeli prime minister to grumble about how others make mistakes of epic historical magnitude, rather than making his own history.

Sharon forced Netanyahu to vote in favor of the disengagement, and then he resigned on the eve of the evacuation. Netanyahu’s erstwhile challenger Isaac Herzog, who this week said that the disengagement was “a mistake from a security perspective” and that he doesn’t know how he would have voted if he had known all that would happen over the last 10 years, is another keen student of history who will probably never make history himself. Historical anniversaries are artificial dates much beloved by journalists in search of sexy subjects on days of lean news. More than anything though, they serve to show us how little things change.

Today is 10 years to the start of Sharon’s disengagement. We had last month the first anniversary of the last Gaza war, in two years we will have the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War and the ensuing occupation. A year later it will be 70 years since David Ben-Gurion defied diplomatic pressure and a dire war situation to declare independence.

Our history is defined by flawed leaders like Ben-Gurion and Sharon, who didn’t wait around for anniversaries but took command of Jewish destiny.

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