Gaza Decision Correct – Five Years Later (Or is it?)

I posted this article because I have always felt that the case against disengagement was not an open and shut case. We must be open to debate it. T. Belman

by Yisrael Ne’eman and Elliot Chodoff

The decision to disengage from Gaza five years ago was the correct decision, then and now. Today this is an unpopular position as many people are drawn into the populist attacks against the withdrawal in light of the rise of Hamas. According to public opinion polls the average Jew in Israel believes the Gaza withdrawal was mistaken, but then that same average Jew believes the Israeli government should bring home Gilad Shalit at all costs – freeing 1000 Palestinian prisoners, many of them involved in mass murder of civilians. Public opinion is fickle, in May 2000 the Four Mothers protest group and public pressure forced Israel to withdraw from the security zone in south Lebanon. The same public opinion voted the Likud’s Ariel Sharon into the prime minister’s office in February 2001 (at the time he was seen as a super hawk) with a margin of 62.4% to Labor’s Ehud Barak (who was PM at the time of the withdrawal) with 37.6% of the ballots cast.

In the summer of 2005 there were 8,000 Jews living in Gaza surrounded by 1.3 million Arabs, mostly Hamas supporters. Dozens of tunnels (and possibly over a hundred) already existed connecting Egyptian Rafiah with Gazan Rafiah under the Israeli patrolled “Philadelphi” border road. Hamas was on the rise and despite Israeli efforts to the contrary more tunnels were constructed all the time. Arms and ammunition flowed into Gaza from Sinai. Some 85% of the Gaza Strip, and virtually all of the Arab population was controlled by the Palestinian Authority with the remainder held by the Israeli army and Katif/Erez Bloc settlements. The IDF was not present in Gaza City, Khan Yunis, Dir el-Balah, Rafiah or the smaller towns and refugee camps. The PA ruled in these areas. And lest we forget, thousands of Hamas Kassam rockets rained down of Sderot and in the northwest Negev since April 2001, more than four years before the Disengagement.

The Jewish communities in Gaza, with a few exceptions, were militarily indefensible. Placed geographically in pockets, mostly along the Gaza coastline, they suffered from long, exposed access roads and frighteningly close proximity to hostile urban centers. The distance from Khan Yunis to Neve Dekalim, for example, was a few hundred meters, well within effective sniper range.

Overall there were some 3000 IDF troops in the region, most of them tied down in defending fixed positions and responsible for the well being of the civilian population of 8000. Everyone was a “sitting duck” surrounded by Fatah “police” as well as Hamas terrorists. Hundreds of attacks took place (remember the Hatu’el family massacre?) along the unprotectable Kissufim-Gush Katif road, along with constant shelling of civilian targets, but the outside world including the staunchly pro-Israel Bush Administration barely took notice, as long as the victims were “settlers.”

There existed no military method to ensure security for the Jewish population of the Gaza Strip. To recapture and hold all of Gaza would take an investment of tens of thousands of troops in perpetuity, hopelessly pinning them down and rendering much of the IDF ground force useless as a modern military. There are those on the Right, who forgot the bad old days of patrolling the Gaza refugee camps, who at the time advocated such a policy of troop commitment and continue today with the “I told you so” attitude without considering the ramifications in terms of Israeli casualties among troops and civilians. Palestinian losses, in particular civilians caught in the cross fire, would also be a daily occurrence, making this policy less sustainable over the long term.

In sum, the IDF did not have the resources, personnel, or geographical position to successfully protect the Jewish residents of Gaza. The force committed was unable to accomplish its mission, and could not be used in offensive counterterrorist operations. The result was the paralysis of some 30% of the IDF’s infantry capability, with guerrilla and terrorist forces threatening the country from the West Bank and Lebanon, while Syria and Iran waited in the wings. Stretched this thin, the IDF was reducing its missions on other fronts, and had virtually abandoned combat training for the ground forces. These factors contributed significantly to the IDF’s performance failures during the war with Hizbullah in 2006.

Politically, Hamas won the elections for the Palestinian Legislature in January 2006 taking 72 (plus another 4 independent Islamists) of 132 seats in a crushing defeat of the secular Fatah incumbents. Gaza was the stronghold of Hamas power as it had been for close to 30 years. Had there not been an Israeli withdrawal half year previous Palestinian voters would have been even more encouraged to support Hamas in its demands to force Israel from Gaza and to punish Fatah, which they considered collaborationists with Israel for signing the Oslo Accords. Internally the hated Fatah regime was exposed in all its corruption, in particular its theft of development and aid funding coming from abroad. This brought about the short lived hybrid government led by Pres. Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) of Fatah whose cabinet was dominated by Hamas PM Ismail Haniyah and his Islamist cabinet.

In June 2007 a Hamas military force of 6,000 overthrew the regional Gaza PA regime, handily defeating the Fatah led Palestinian Police force of 22,000. Could an Israeli presence in Gaza and direct intervention have prevented such an internal Palestinian upheaval? And who would have Israel placed in power? Fatah? And let’s not be ridiculous in believing an Israeli military administration could have exercised control, having already failed in the late 1980s during the Palestinian uprising of 1987-91. Once replacing the PA and taking full control Israel would need to spend billions of shekels every year for the well being of 1.3 million Gazans (with an estimated birth rate of 5.5% – among the highest in the world) and counting. Costly Israeli military intervention may have postponed a Hamas putsch but not prevented it. How safe would it have been for Israelis living in Gaza after Hamas solidified power? Imagine the Cast Lead Operation with the Katif Bloc still in place. In the end Israel would have left Gaza with more casualties, more condemnations than the UN and Goldstone could ever dream up and much less deterrence. One should also not be so naïve as to think the IHH and Turkish PM Erdogen would not send a flotilla and encourage more.

Israel never intended to annex Gaza and give all its 1.3 million Palestinian residents citizenship. Holding on to Gaza only weakened Israeli security and made the situation much worse than it is today with 8000 civilians and 2000 soldiers held hostage to Hamas fire at any given moment.

Finally in one aspect all governments failed miserably. The Gaza evacuees were not cared for as promised. Some communities rebuilt themselves, certain individuals took initiative and found new horizons, but many were treated with virtual “criminal neglect”. Permanent housing could have been built in the Askelon/Ashdod region for those who could not make a decision for themselves concerning their future. Partial compensation could have been given up front, pending a final agreement.

The government is definitely at fault, however this does not whitewash the settlement leadership and national religious rabbis, many of whom declared that an evacuation “could never happen” or were overconfident they would halt the Disengagement. Many refused to prepare themselves for the inevitable, believing rabbinical declarations to the end. Packing up one’s house at the last moment is not planning for the future. Treatment of the 8000 evacuees once they left Gaza was a disaster then and is still not fully remedied today – and this is fully condemnable. Compensation must be made as soon as possible.

Overall, leaving Gaza was correct five years ago as it is today. Had there been no Disengagement the situation would be much worse today.

August 22, 2010 | 3 Comments »

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  1. E. Chodoff writes

    Thanks for posting Yisrael’s and my article for debate.

    Since I’m not registered, I can’t leave a comment to answer you or Yamit, so I’m sending this e-mail.

    It’s easy to say that our facts are wrong, without any evidence. Fact: until September 2005, the Northern Border was held largely by reserve and non-infantry units. In that month two first-rate infantry brigades were moved up there. Where did they suddenly materialize from? (Hint: less force was needed inside Gaza.)

    The rise of Hamastan and the rockets, etc etc was not caused by the disengagement. It preceded it. Unless you believe that the rising world Islamic radicalization started in September 2005, it is hard to argue cause and effect here. I would ask, what would have happend to Gush Katif’s residents with Gaza controlled by Hamas? Hmmm…

    It is utter nonsense that the disengagement brought the terrorists closer to Israel or Isreli population centers. Look at the map. Gush Katif, Kfar Darom, Morag, and Netzarim were all in pockets with no contact to the Negev-Gaza line. Only the three communities in the North (Elei Sinai, Nisanit, and Dugit) had a common border with the line. The Gaza “border” barely moved, and only in that one area. Beit Hanun is just as close to Sederot today as it was in 2004. The rockets fired from Gaza City at Beersheva and Ashkelon would have reached there anyway.

    We stopped controlling the goings-on in the Palestinian population centers in Gaza (and Judea and Samaria) after Oslo. We returned to the J&S ones during and after Operation Defensive Wall (Chomat Magen) in 2002. We never did the same in Gaza. There were numerous reasons for this, not the least the concern of operating in the densely packed urban centers of Gaza. Right or wrong policy, the fact is that we abandoned those areas to the terrorists in 1995, not 2005. This discussion is about the disengagement, not Oslo. We probably have very little debate on the wisdom of Oslo, in real time or retrospect, but the decisions of 2004/2005 were made based on that reality, like it or not.

    Last, the disengagement permitted the military to operate more effectively against the terrorists, in Gaza, J&S, and Lebanon. That the IDF was misused by an incompetent government and leadership is irrelevant to the argument. After the disengagement, attacks out of Gaza should have been met with scathing responses (Cast Lead was 3 years late, in my opinion). If the terrorists think we’re weak, it’s not because of the disengagement, but because we don’t initiate counterterrorist actions with enough aggressiveness. Hopefully, we’re on the road to changing that. Then there’s Iran… but that’s a different story, right?

  2. First of all, I must have written at least 10 articles against disengagement before I wrote that it wasn’t all bad. But even as I opened up to the possibility that we would be better off for it, I insisted that we control the borders and that we punish them from afar with artillary should they act up. I also was against the evacuation of every inch. A bad precident.

    Now as for the facts laid out in the article that you say are incorrect, I would need to know the truth. Are more troops necessary now then before the disengagement.

    Of course I made assumptions that we could control the place from outside. That has proven more difficult than I thought. On the other hand we have no way of knowing how bad things would et if we had remained.

    In any event I rationalized disengagement on the belief that we would be stronger to get what we wanted in J & S. That was Sharon’s Plan. If that should come to pass then it was worth it. If we are forced into a lousy deal that nothing would have availed us.

  3. Ted you were wrong then and they are wrong now.

    Not a single contention of theirs is accurate! Not a single benefit or aim of the disengagement as given by sharon and his defenders has materialized. The opposite is closer to the reality.

    All of Israel is adjacent to hordes of Arabs both internally and externally. We have allowed an existential threat to develop on our southern border where none existed before. We have invested more money in protecting southern Israel than when we were in Gaza. We have more troops aligned along the border than we had in Gaza. We have above all set several precedents that will come back to haunt us if they haven’t already like removing established settlements and punishing our best most productive and loyal citizens for nothing.

    The creation of a lawless terrorist haven in the Gaza Strip from which the controlling Hamas faction has lobbed thousands of crude rockets indiscriminately into southern Israel, precipitating a new generation of terror attacks against the Jewish state.

    By Richard A. Baehr

    Demographics :As noted by researchers Bennett Zimmerman and Michael Wise in the pages of in-Focus Quarterly, the Palestinian census counters inflated the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza, while also exaggerating the annual population growth rate for the Palestinians.

    A second rationale was that if Israeli settlers were removed from Gaza, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) would have no civilian population to protect, thereby relieving the army of the need to remain. Gaza, after all, had never been a major source of the suicide bombing attacks that had occurred inside Israel’s green line. In fact, throughout the “al-Aqsa intifada” that began in 2000, only one such attack originated in Gaza, when foreign nationals traveling to Israel from Gaza with British passports devastated Mike’s Bar, a popular pub near the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv in 2003. The IDF had simply erected a fence to surround Gaza, preventing untold numbers of suicide attacks.

    In the years since its 2005 withdrawal, the IDF has learned a difficult lesson: suicide bombing is not the only way for terrorist to inflict harm upon Israeli civilians. Indeed, a fence cannot prevent projectiles such as rockets, missiles, or mortars aimed at close-by Israeli communities.

    These attacks began soon after the Gaza fence was completed in 2001, but increased substantially year after year. Over the last seven years, Palestinian rockets have become increasingly lethal, with longer trajectories. Conservative estimates suggest that 3,000 rockets have been fired into Israel, not to mention mortars and missiles. The rockets now reach Ashkelon, a city of over 100,000 people, with key infrastructure, including a major Israeli port.

    It is unclear whether Israel assumed that the Palestinian Authority would want to keep a lid on rocket fire from Gaza, since a period of “quiet” might encourage further Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank. If this ever was the case, things certainly changed in June 2007, when Hamas’ one week military coup decimated the PA’s grip on power in Gaza. Since then, rockets have been landing at an increasingly rapid rate.

    In retrospect, the Gaza withdrawal may have lifted the Jewish percentage in the remaining areas under Israeli control, but the move was premature if not completely unnecessary.

    A third rationale for Gaza disengagement was that Israel, often maligned in the mainstream media, would win a public relations victory from its unilateral withdrawal. This was wishful thinking. While the media has occasionally heaped scorn upon Hamas for its indiscriminate rocket attacks, the disengagement has done little to improve Israel’s steady drubbing when it defends itself.

    Sadly, the occasional criticism of Hamas violence seems to suggest that indiscriminate attacks on Israeli civilian targets were somehow more justified during the period when Israel controlled Gaza. Meanwhile, Israel is still castigated by the United Nations, left-leaning Human Rights groups and NGOs, and, of course, the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. These groups can no longer castigate Israel for occupying the Gaza Strip so they now level new charges of collective punishment against Palestinian civilians in Gaza, when Israel responds with military operations in the areas where the rockets are launched.

    A fourth rationale for the Gaza withdrawal was that it would lead to an improved atmosphere between Israel and the PA, and perhaps nudge both parties towards negotiating peace. The Olmert and Abbas governments are now busy negotiating a “shelf” agreement, but it is one in which even the most ardent peace pundits have little to no faith.

    There are currently two Palestinian entities: Hamastan in Gaza, and the PA under Mahmoud Abbas, which maintains only tenuous control in the West Bank. If not for a steady IDF presence, analysts believe Hamas could easily take over. The PA is negotiating with Israel as if it controls Gaza , and Israel plays along. Only, Hamas is as much at war with the PA, as they are with Israel.

    The final rationale for the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 may prove to be the only one with validity. Optimists viewed Palestinian “sovereignty” in Gaza as a way for the Palestinians to demonstrate that, once in control of their own destiny, Gazans could take responsibility for their quality of life and their economic condition.

    Since the election Hamas has proven that feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, and providing medicines to the sick are among its lowest priorities. Rather, Hamas has focused all of its resources on attacking Israel – and even Fatah.