The Sky Did Not Fall Down

The withdrawal may emerge as more important than the four decades of occupation.

The nearly 40 years of Israeli rule in the Gaza Strip that have now come to an end leave behind a terrible heritage of oppression, bereavement and hostility. The occupation destroyed a number of the fundamental values of Israeli society. The cheap laborers that came from Gaza helped to heap wealth on some of their employers; but from many aspects, they also damaged the Israeli economy.

Many Israelis warned this would happen. Here's a story that requires a psychologist more than a historian.

On the eve of the Six-Day War, Israel Defense Forces officials debated the question of whether or not to conquer the Gaza Strip. Then chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin was opposed to the idea, commenting, "We can forgo the Strip." And then, "There's no point in getting involved with the Strip."

At most, Rabin believed that the Strip could be conquered as a bargaining chip, with his idea being that immediately after its occupation, the area would be returned to Egypt in the framework of an agreement that would ensure free sailing in the Tiran Straits, and other terms too perhaps.

A number of the officers who participated in the discussions tried to persuade Rabin "to take" Gaza. "Brigade 60 will not have any trouble with the Strip mission," said then GOC Southern Command Yeshayahu Gavish, while deputy chief of staff at the time, Haim Bar-Lev, promising that "the cleansing" of the Strip would take no more than four hours.

At some stage during the discussions, then newly appointed defense minister Moshe Dayan joined the fray. He opposed occupying the Strip because of the Palestinian refugees who had settled there after fleeing and being evicted from their homes in 1948 and thereafter. According to Dayan, Israel had no interest in taking responsibility for looking after them. "Let others worry about them," he said, deciding that during the first stage of the war, at least, the IDF would not move into Gaza.

However, the minutes of the discussions (kept at the IDF archives) include an argument in favor of occupying the Strip, and it is an eye-opener because of its irrational nature. "It's a shame to forgo the headline: 'Gaza is in our hands,'" was Rehavam Ze'evi's contribution, which expresses the essence of most of the decisions that led to the occupation of the territories in the Six-Day War.

As long as the alternatives facing the state ahead of the Six-Day War were considered in a level-headed manner, most of the decision-makers agreed that most of the territory that Israel was likely to occupy shouldn't be occupied. Nevertheless, the territory was occupied, because when the battles began, the decision-makers acted on gut feelings and from the heart, and not from the head.

The case of Gaza is particularly disturbing because the Strip was occupied already during the Sinai Campaign in October 1956. To its good fortune, Israel was forced to withdraw from the area after just a few months; but its short stay there was enough to show that Gaza is a wasps' nest that cannot be governed.

When Dayan said that Israel should refrain from occupying Gaza because of the Palestinian refugees, he completely ruled out the option that Israel would expel them from the area. The issue came up for discussion more than once, prior to the Sinai Campaign, too, when David Ben-Gurion raised the proposal in the cabinet - but most ministers were opposed. Then labor minister Yigal Alon suggested expelling the refugees from the Strip on the eve of the Six-Day War, too. Dayan was against the idea. "That would be a barbaric operation," he commented.

The number of individuals who lost their homes in 1967 exceeded 200,000, and the vast majority were not allowed to return. But most of the Palestinian stayed, including in Gaza. On the other hand, Israel has hardly done a thing to resolve the problem of the refugees, such as by moving them out of Gaza and rehabilitating them in the West Bank. This has been the big historical failure of the 38 years of occupation in Gaza. It stems not only from the hope of settling Jews in the West Bank, but also from the difficulty in admitting that Israel bears some of the guilt for the creation of the refugee problem.

The Six-Day War led to nationwide agreement that Gaza is not to be given back "for all eternity" - even in return for peace. Gaza and Jerusalem were one and the same. And this consent formed the basis for the logic in establishing permanent Israeli settlements in the Strip. The residents were able to believe that that they would remain there forever.

But the dismantling of the settlements shows that they did nothing to further the Zionist dream - and they may go down in history as nothing more than a footnote. The settlers in the Gaza Strip were not a part of the Israeli experience; most Israelis never once visited the settlements, and even had a hard time locating them on a map.

Those who dispute this claim are welcome to write down the names of the Gaza settlements they are able to remember.

The immediate lesson to be learned is that settlements can be dismantled without the sky falling down. Most Israelis support this; there is no national trauma. Hence, the withdrawal from Gaza and the dismantling of the settlements may turn out to be a landmark in the cultural war that is taking place in Israel. The limited tactical nature of the withdrawal does not yet facilitate making a declaration that it signifies the victory of the State of Israel over the Land of Israel, but it could be one step back from the messianic trend that took over Zionism in the wake of the Six-Day War, and one step toward the rational trend that characterized it before the war.

From this point of view, the withdrawal may emerge as more important than the four decades of occupation.