Understanding the Gaza Disengagement

The history and politics of the decision to disengage

In June 2004, Israel set a new course in its approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict when the Israeli government approved Ariel Sharon’s plan for disengagement from Gaza. The plan was carried out in the summer of 2005 and had a lasting impact on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as well as on the State of Israel as a whole. To understand the decision to disengage from Gaza and its implications, we must first understand how we arrived at that point.

How Israel Got Into Gaza

In June 1967, after less than 20 years of existence, Israel faced its greatest existential threat since its War of Independence. It was clear that Egypt, Jordan and Syria were planning a joint attack on Israel. The potential repercussions of defeat were enormous. The anticipated losses were feared so great that plans were made to convert public parks into cemeteries. The threat of imminent destruction, compounded by a dire economic climate, created a feeling of malaise that permeated Israeli society.

disengagement protestors

Facing over 465,000 mobilized troops, over 2,800 tanks, and 800 aircraft, Israel’s only potential advantage was the element of surprise. On June 5th, 1967, Israel launched an early-morning preemptive attack against the Egyptian air force. By the end of the day, they had completely neutralized the Egyptian and Jordanian air forces, and destroyed half of the Syrian planes. Six days later the war was over.

Israel had achieved one of the greatest military victories of modern times. Not only had it defeated its enemies, but, for the first time, the Jewish State had substantial strategic geographic advantages. In the north, the Golan had been captured from the Syrians, enabling Israel to protect its most important water resource, the Kineret, and giving it the commanding heights of the Golan. In the east, Israel was able to return to East Jerusalem and other territories it had been forced to vacate in 1948, and gain enough territory in the West Bank to alleviate a previously vulnerable center that could easily lead to the country being cut in two. Finally, in the south, Israel was able to conquer the entire Sinai. This gave Israel a strategic depth it could never have imagined before. With conquest, however, came new populations, and Gaza, the most populated area of the Sinai, would also become the most troublesome.

The Israeli public rejoiced. Only six days earlier they had been facing their doom. Now, spectacularly, they found themselves in possession of the Temple Mount, Hebron, the Gush Etzion bloc, the Golan and the Sinai. Almost overnight, their country had doubled in size. This development would have great impact on two major movements — the Greater Israel movement (Revisionists in the tradition of Zev Jabotinsky) and the Religious Zionist movement — as impossible rhetoric became the reality on the ground.

The religious Zionist movement began to make the idea of Eretz Yisrael (the biblical land of Israel as opposed to the state of Israel) much more of a central focus of its mainstream ideology. With the energy of the traditional kibbutz movement fading, the religious Zionist movement emerged as the new face of settlement. The ascension of Likud, a party with deep Revisionist roots, launched this ideology into the general mainstream. The popularity of the idea of settling the land, coupled with the strategic desire to be able to control and defend it, led to the increased creation of settlements in these new areas that had been started by Labor. While not all settlers were from the Religious Zionist movement, this group certainly made up the greatest number.

Getting Out of Gaza

When the Israeli government made its decision to disengage from Gaza in 2005, Gaza was home to over 1,324,991 people. Roughly 99.4 percent of the population was Palestinian and 0.06 percent was Jewish. Forty-nine percent of the population there was age 14 and under. The birth rate was 40.62 births/1,000 population with a fertility rate of 6.04 children born/woman. Demographically, Gaza was a challenging place for any authority to administer.

Immediately after the capture of Gaza in 1967, Israel took over administration of the territory. During the 1978 Camp David negotiations with Egypt, there was an attempt to come to terms with the needs of the Palestinians in Gaza and establish some form of Palestinian self-rule. However, this aspect of the Camp David Accords was never implemented. Under the Oslo Accords, agreed upon in 1993, the newly established Palestinian Authority was granted a considerable degree of autonomy. Oslo provisions fell far short of complete disengagement, however, and were largely ineffective as Oslo slowly and painfully deteriorated.

The precedent for withdrawal came several years after Oslo. In 1999, Prime Minister Ehud Barak promised to withdraw from Lebanon within a year. Though Barak favored a “Land for Peace” policy, he was unable to find a partner for peace and opted, instead, for a unilateral withdrawal. Though this move was not coordinated with the United Nations, the international body eventually declared that Israel had fulfilled its U.N. commitment to leave Lebanon. Aside from Hezbollah claims that Shebaa Farms in the Golan Heights is Lebanese territory, most of the world agrees that Israel has completely withdrawn from Lebanon, a reality that has weakened Hezbollah’s political strength locally and abroad.

Ironically, Sharon’s implementation of the disengagement looked quite similar to what was proposed by his opponent, Amram Mitzna, who led Labor in an unsuccessful bid against Sharon in January 2003. Mitzna stated “…separation, separating ourselves from the Palestinians is the key to understanding my approach. Either it will be by an agreement that will lead to political borders between the two entities or by a unilateral approach. Without an agreement Israel is ready to withdraw to the 1967 borders, leaving some blocs of heavily populated Jewish settlements.”  Mitzna even went as far as saying there was a need “…to make very deep and very painful concessions…”   Sharon marshaled opposition to this platform and crushed the Labor party in national elections.

On December 18, 2003 over three years after the second Intifada began, Sharon unveiled the first pieces of his disengagement plan. While there had been hints at “painful concessions” earlier, only now were they coming into full view. Sharon declared that he was committed to the Road Map, a plan developed by the U.S., Russia, the E.U. and the U.N. (known as The Quartet), but that Israel would not be held hostage to Palestinian intransigence. If the Palestinians would not hold up their end of the Road Map, Israel would act in its own interest and withdraw unilaterally.

This sent ripples through the Likud party, which had traditionally represented the Greater Israel movement and the Religious Zionist camp. The Religious Zionist camp was extremely invested in the settlement projects — both physically and ideologically — and for them, disengagement posed difficulties on many levels. They made up a large percentage of those who were actively opposed to disengagement, and of those who were eventually removed from Gaza.

While Sharon was open to the possibility of coordination with the Palestinians, he made a commitment to stick to his schedule regardless of the outcome of coordination talks. Furthermore, he warned that Israel would use great force against any Palestinians interfering with the withdrawal — both to limit casualties and to prevent the appearance of “withdrawing under fire.”

In the months leading up to disengagement, Israel was also occupied with the removal and resistance of its own people from Gaza. Steps were taken to stop new protestors from getting into Gaza. In addition, there was considerable debate on how to use the police and the army. There was also serious concern that Israeli soldiers would resist the orders to evacuate the settlers, refusing to implement them on religious or moral grounds.

The Future of Israel

While there were many questions regarding the decision to withdraw, the main question was: Will Israel be safer? Those who supported the disengagement believed that moving Israel out of Gaza would reduce friction between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as free up vast sums of money (then being spent on the small settler population) to advance other issues on the national security agenda.

They argued that Gaza, surrounded on all sides by Israel and Egypt, would be far less of a threat to Israel. With preliminary agreements in place for Egypt to police its border with Gaza, Israel’s withdrawal would be comprehensive, with all the tactical and political benefits that would bring. Israel would no longer have any obligations to Gaza, and the Gaza population would have no claims to make against Israel.

Those who opposed the disengagement pointed to the example of Lebanon. It was no coincidence, they maintained, that the second Intifada broke out a little more than a year after the unilateral withdrawal. They cautioned that radical Palestinian groups, specifically Hamas, would declare that they had gained all of Gaza without any concession to the Israelis, strengthening and emboldening the Palestinian rejectionist movement. Further, by ceding control of the borders, Gaza would have greater access to weapons, both in quantity and quality. This would make security infinitely worse for Israel.

The stakes were extremely high for both sides. The victory in 1967 fundamentally changed the Israeli/Arab conflict. The physical conquest led to fundamental philosophical changes within Israel, and likewise changed how the world perceived the Jewish state. It was quite possible that the disengagement would have the very same effect. Had Sharon advanced a coveted peace or made a tragic mistake? Only time would tell.

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