10 Years Out of Gaza: The Operation Was Successful, but the Patient Died

While Israel's disengagement from the Strip did not cause the bloody clashes with settlers that some foresaw, this doesn’t mean that a far larger evacuation can easily be repeated on the West Bank.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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IDF soldiers stick their heads out and hold the Israeli flag as their APC exits the Gaza Strip during Israel's withdrawal from the coastal territory, Sept. 12, 2005.
IDF soldiers stick their heads out and hold the Israeli flag as their APC exits the Gaza Strip during Israel's withdrawal from the coastal territory, Sept. 12, 2005.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

With the hindsight of a decade, there are two outstanding conclusions to be drawn from Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four settlements in northern Samaria. First, the gloomy forecasts regarding the disengagement itself did not materialize. No weapons were used against the security forces (although there were two attacks by Jewish terrorists against Palestinians and Israeli Arabs), and there was little violence. Second, the right’s dire predictions about the danger to Israeli security resulting from the new situation have come true in the years since the disengagement. Hamas did in fact take over the Gaza Strip, upgrade its terror capabilities and significantly expand the range of its rockets and missiles, which today can reach central Israel.

Each side in the Israeli political debate derives from these conclusions, which by now are nearly undisputed — even opposition leader Isaac Herzog, the chairman of Zionist Union, argued last month that the disengagement was a “security mistake” — its own convenient judgments regarding the future.

Some leftists believe that the success in evacuating about 8,000 settlers from Gush Katif and northern Samaria proves that the army and the police will be able to evacuate, at some point in the future, at least 100,000 Israelis from settlements outside the main West Bank settlement blocs. The right is convinced that the aftermath of the disengagement should act as a warning light to anyone who harbors illusions about additional withdrawals from the West Bank. Both claims are dubious, and worthy of more debate.

The success of the disengagement itself stood in sharp contrast to the pessimistic assessments expressed in the media and by some military figures in the preceding months, not to mention the promise by rabbis to the religious Zionist community that the withdrawal would “never happen.” There was no divine intervention, and the Israel Defense Forces and the Israel Police worked in harmony, with force and with wisdom, enabling the complete evacuation of the Strip in four days and northern Samaria in two.

The gloomy prognostications about dozens of armed right-wing activists who were prepared to injure soldiers and police officers, or alternatively were preparing for a Masada-like mass suicide, proved wrong. In some cases the tragedy was replaced by farce. In the tiny settlement of Shirat Hayam, a military historian threatened to shoot anyone who came to evacuate him. A long discussion with the IDF General Staff negotiating team convinced him to leave without a single shot being fired.

The Palestinians, also belying some of the forecasts, refrained from carrying out attacks during the withdrawal, in the understanding that such acts could halt the disengagement.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon broke a promise, and ignored the negative results of the referendum among Likud voters that he himself initiated. He was never much of a democrat or sensitive to the rules of the game. His two main arguments were what he saw as the good of the country and what according to polls was portrayed as sweeping support for his decision regarding unilateral withdrawal. The settlers found themselves very isolated and even the legal system didn’t help them.

That was also the last time that an Israeli leader made a far-reaching decision and completed it despite all the reservations, unlike his successors, Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu. Sharon’s five years as prime minister at the height of the second intifada included other such decisions, which despite the fact that they were controversial are likely to turn out to have been correct: the reoccupation of West Bank cities in Operation Defensive Shield (which gradually led to the end of Palestinian terror) and the construction of the separation barrier.

Sharon would not have succeeded without broad public support. Despite the embrace today of the Gush Katif evacuees, the truth is that at the moment of crisis a decade ago Israeli society was united for the most part and aggressively enforced a difficult decision. The evacuation was completed and was relatively peaceful for three reasons: Sharon’s leadership, the support of most of the public (who never saw the settlement of a handful of Jews among the Gaza refugee camps as a wise move) and the high level of implementation of the army and the police.

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

Almost 25,000 soldiers and policeman participated. It was a huge operation, unprecedented for a nonmilitary task. It was done without brainwashing soldiers and without trying to break the settlers and their supporters psychologically. The army approached the task after long and orderly preparation, with the slogan “with firmness and sensitivity.” Then-chief of the IDF’s Southern Command, Dan Harel, who opposed the withdrawal for security reasons, commanded the operation flawlessly. He also succeeded in bringing in the police, despite the large differences in organizational culture between them and the army.

The IDF was worried about two scenarios: overly aggressive behavior by soldiers and police towards those resisting evacuation, or alternatively over-identification, with soldiers sitting on the floor and weeping instead of doing their job. Neither happened. The preliminary planning, the precise psychological preparation, leaving most of the evacuation itself in the hands of police and career army personnel rather than combat units, the relatively forgiving attitude towards the “gray refusal” soldiers who were sent on other assignments — led to an almost flawless implementation.

A critical factor was the evacuators’ numerical advantage. The IDF established a second division to evacuate the small settlements in the northern Strip. The large mass drowned the resistance and the army’s logistical control of traffic arteries and supplies prevented effective organization to prevent the evacuation. An officer who played a major role in preparing the evacuation said the following: “It’s unfortunate, but the disengagement was one of the last major missions that the IDF carried out properly. It was a stinking assignment. There was no reason to distribute medals afterwards, but the army and the police did their part.”

Of course the self-restraint of most of the evacuees (which did not apply to the ugly language of many, mainly young women, against the soldiers) prevented a violent clash. Both sides passed the test of maturity with honor. But some right-wingers saw the disengagement as a failure requiring an opposite approach, and in a confrontation over the destruction of nine houses in the settlement of Amona in the West Bank both the army and the settlers employed greater violence. And the “price tag” phenomenon, which began with the destruction of Palestinian property and concluded (for now) at the end of July with the burning of a house and the murder of a Palestinian child and his father, are apparently rooted in disappointment with the disengagement.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that the activity can easily be repeated on the West Bank, which would involve the evacuation of over 100,000 people from dozens of settlements and outposts east of the separation barrier. Not only is it hard to see the present Israeli — or Palestinian — leadership reaching a decision on a final status agreement or a partial withdrawal, the public’s religious and ideological sentiments for Judea and Samaria as part of the homeland is much greater.

The most problematic element is the army itself. The problem is not with the skullcap-wearing brigade commanders, but with the junior command, with over 30 or 40 percent of religious soldiers in the infantry officers’ course. It is doubtful whether such an evacuation could be successfully accomplished, assuming that most of it will be handled by the army.

Would withdrawal from 90 percent and more of the West Bank create a definite security danger, as the right claims? It would definitely be the gamble of the century, if you don’t count the Iranian nuclear program. But there are questions that are no less dramatic, from Israel’s future as a democracy to its international standing. It’s clear that any evacuation must be backed by the broadest security protection possible, if the future Israeli leadership wants to enlist sufficient public support for it.

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