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Five Lessons From the Gaza Disengagement That Israel Still Hasn't Learned, 15 Years On

The first step toward peace should be an Israeli-Palestinian separation

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
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Soldiers remove people from a synagogue during the disengagement from Gaza, 2005.
Soldiers and police remove people from a synagogue during the disengagement from Gaza, 2005.Credit: Miki Kratsman
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

August 15 is the 15th anniversary of the disengagement from Gaza. Unsurprisingly, with the anniversary approaching, Hamas has renewed rocket fire and hostilities aimed at Israel’s southern communities.

Does the disengagement have anything to teach us about the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace?

LISTEN: Trump's tragedy, Netanyahu's debt and Jewish unityCredit: Haaretz

It does, although those lessons are not easy to digest. And the place to begin is the Israeli right.

The right focused on the pain of evacuation while ignoring the big-picture issues that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was addressing.

Sharon, in fact, saw what all Israelis should have seen: The settlement project in Gaza was an unworkable absurdity.

A little more than 8,000 Jewish settlers lived in a Palestinian sea of 1.5 million Gazans, most desperately poor. In one of the most densely populated areas on earth, the small group of settlers occupied a quarter of the Strip’s territory. And their presence did not contribute to Israel’s security but detracted from it; the Israel Defense Forces were required to divert their attention from broader security needs to worry about the day-to-day safety of settlers.

Some claim, of course, that withdrawing from Gaza led to Hamas aggression and rocket fire. But Hamas had started firing rockets as early as 2001, long before the disengagement.

What would have been the outcome if the evacuations had not been carried out?

The likely answer is that the Gaza settlements today would be far more vulnerable than they were in 2005, and the IDF efforts to protect them would be impossibly onerous.

In addition, if the settlements were still in place, even Israel’s friends and allies would be likely to attribute violence in Gaza to Israeli imperialism rather than to unremitting Hamas terror.

And what should we make of the settlers who were forcibly evacuated? Sympathy is appropriate; losing a home is wrenching and sad.

But, as I read their stories, I think of my relatives, penniless Holocaust survivors, who arrived in Israel in its earliest days. They rejoiced in Jewish sovereignty. They knew that Zionists do not defy Israel’s army, disregard the legitimate authority of the Jewish state, or whine about sacrifices that Israel might require of them. For them, Zionism was about giving precedence to the Jewish collective over personal needs. And so, one wonders: Do those evacuees of Gaza who complain the loudest meet the standards of Zionism that my relatives set?

But if the right made grievous errors, so did the left.

Shimon Peres and others on the Israeli left thought that Gaza would become the Hong Kong or Singapore of the Middle East. So too did many political leaders, economic experts, and philanthropists in the international community.

After all, Israel had withdrawn every last soldier and settler from Gaza. And the Palestinians were free to develop the Strip’s economy and build a thriving mini-state that could pave the way for a more general peace.

Palestinians climb to the roof of the destroyed synagogue in the former Jewish settlement of Netzarim after Israel completes its disengagement from Gaza, September 2005.Palestinians climb to the roof Credit: Kevin Frayer / AP

But, in early 2006, Hamas won an unexpected victory in elections for the Palestinian parliament, and the situation in Gaza quickly deteriorated into violence and chaos. As tensions between Fatah and Hamas grew, armed gangs took over the streets. When Hamas finally evicted the Palestinian Authority from Gaza in June of 2007, what emerged was not a liberal mini-state but a jihadist one – not an economic paradise but a Hamas-run government devoted to war on Israel.

Then, as now, there was no shortage of commentators prepared to blame Israel for Gaza’s collapse. Peter Beinart, for example, writing recently in the New York Times, asserted that Hamas has long been willing to make peace, and that violence will decline “when people gain their freedom.” But this is nonsense. The Gazans had gained their freedom, which gave way to Hamas extremism, rocket attacks, and kidnapping.

And it is nonsense as well to argue that it was Israel’s economic blockade that led to Hamas rejectionism. From August of 2005 to June of 2007, the border crossings remained open, despite the fact that Hamas was taking control of the territory. And after the Hamas election victory, the Quartet – the United Nations, the European Union, Russia, and the United States – offered to include Hamas in negotiations for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. There were three conditions: cessation of violence, recognition of Israel, and acceptance of previous international agreements. Hamas refused then, and refuses today, to meet these conditions, leaving Israel no choice but to impose control over the crossings.

Nearly a million Israelis in southern Israel have spent two decades fleeing to shelters to escape Hamas attacks. Israel was created so that Jewish children – and other citizens of the state as well – would no longer be required to grow up in fear, worrying each day for their lives and safety. Israel has made its mistakes in Gaza, but blaming the Israeli government for Hamas rejectionism is insanity.

The right chose a strategy of colonialism in Gaza, and when Ariel Sharon rightly decided to bring it to an end, the left responded with wishful thinking and naivete.

But where does that leave us, and what does it say about a strategy for peace in the future, in both Gaza and the West Bank?

This is far from a simple matter, but I would suggest the following conclusions:

First: Separate. Sharon’s fundamental insight was the need to separate Israelis and Palestinians. This was true in Gaza and is true in the West Bank as well.

Second: Not all settlements are alike. Settlements may make sense in some cases – such as blocs on or near the border – but not in others. Sharon understood that isolated settlements were a liability in Gaza, and isolated and illegal settlements are a liability in the West Bank as well.

Third: Unilateral withdrawal was a reasonable risk in 2005 but is no longer an option in the West Bank. What if Hamas were to take control in the evacuated territory and begin raining rockets on central and northern Israel? Given the experience in Gaza, no Israeli government can take this risk.

Fourth: Even absent a Gaza-like unilateral withdrawal, Israel can take steps to separate from the Palestinians in the West Bank and advance the cause of peace. It can stop building isolated settlements outside of the blocs. It can announce its intention to withdraw from those settlements as part of a peace agreement. It can make clear what it proposes for its final borders. It can urge the American government and the Sunni states to facilitate negotiations with Palestinian leadership.

Fifth: Security remains supreme, and absent a true peace, Israel’s army must remain in the West Bank to protect Israeli lives. And while reoccupying Gaza is neither possible nor desirable, Israel’s military must do what is necessary to provide security in southern Israel and end the attacks on civilian life there.

If Hamas wants political respectability, it still has the option of accepting the Quartet’s conditions. It should be strongly encouraged to do so.

But if Hamas wants to fire rockets into cities in the south, drive civilians into shelters, and disrupt the normal existence that is the reason for the Jewish state’s very being, it should know that the cost will be – and must be – exceedingly high. The citizens of southern Israel have suffered enough.

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie

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