Lessons and legacies of Israel’s Gaza withdrawal
Five years after then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon embarked on a landmark withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, the disengagement continues to dominate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Here are some of the key lessons and legacies:
Although disengagement enjoyed broad support at the time, almost no one calls it a success today.
The Israeli left says the pullout was bungled because Israel never gave up control over borders, air rights and the sea, and didn’t follow through with a permanent peace deal. The Israeli right says it has been proved correct: The government never should have given up land without getting something in return.
The Palestinian Authority lost credibility after it was chased out of Gaza by rival Hamas militants in 2007. Hamas, though now in control of Gaza, has seen its popularity erode over the last three years because of its inability to improve Gaza’s economy amid international isolation.
The withdrawal helped put Hamas in power.
After Israel unilaterally disengaged instead of working with Palestinians in an internationally sponsored peace process, Hamas got to crow that its policy of armed resistance and attacks on Israeli civilians had led to the withdrawal.
Immediately after the pullout, 84% of Palestinians viewed the disengagement as a “victory” for armed resistance, Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki said.
The pullout also undercut the more moderate Palestinian party Fatah, which leads the Palestinian Authority but was shut out of the process and couldn’t claim credit for it. Perceptions of a Hamas triumph over Israel and frustration over Fatah’s alleged corruption propelled Hamas — which in 2004 was polling at just 20% — to victory in several local elections a few months after the withdrawal. In 2006, Hamas won parliamentary polls; a year later, it seized control of Gaza by force, creating the current Fatah-Hamas rift.
It reshaped Israeli politics too.
Under pressure from right-wing members of the Likud Party who opposed the disengagement, Sharon formed the centrist Kadima party, the so-called Big Bang of Israeli politics. The struggle between Likud and Kadima reshaped the political map and remains key. Kadima, now in opposition, all but replaced the left-leaning Labor Party as the only other party with enough support to lead the government. Kadima remains the strongest party to fully embrace the idea of giving up land to create a Palestinian state.
“One of the deepest implications of the disengagement was on internal Israeli politics,” said professor Yoram Meital of Ben-Gurion University.
Security didn’t improve.
Sharon sold the disengagement as a way to extricate Israel from a costly occupation. Military protection of Jewish settlements in Gaza was fueling regular clashes and casualties.
But Israel traded a low-intensity quagmire for what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today calls an “Iranian port” south of Tel Aviv, referring to Iranian support for Hamas and other extremist groups in Gaza.
Despite Israel’s attempts to seal off borders, seaports and airspace, longer-range rockets were developed, and soon thousands were being launched at southern Israeli cities.
In the two years before disengagement, seven Israelis were killed by rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza. Since the pullout, 28 have been killed, according to the Sderot Media Center. In late 2008, Israel launched a 22-day offensive against Hamas; the fighting left 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead.
“The false vision whereby leaving the strip would improve our security situation was foolish and baseless,” Israeli columnist Shlomo Engel wrote on the Ynet news website.
A plan intended to circumvent the peace process ended up leading back to it.
Sharon bet that unilateral disengagement from Gaza would freeze the formal peace process and buy time from the international community, his aides later said. Senior advisor Dov Weisglass once famously called disengagement a form of “formaldehyde.”
For a while, it worked. The U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan was largely shelved. But after the Hamas takeover and subsequent rise in rocket attacks, Israeli leaders realized that unilateral moves can backfire, and formal peace talks resumed.
“The disengagement is proof that the only option is separation by agreement,” said Yohanan Tzoreff, Palestinian affairs expert at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.
Rather than improve Israel’s international standing, it contributed to increased isolation.
Sharon promised that disengagement would win Israel points with the U.S. and others by reducing friction with Palestinians. But international reaction was always a bit leery, and many were waiting to see whether Sharon would expand the policy to the West Bank. The question remains unanswered given Sharon’s stroke and subsequent coma in January 2006.
But Israel’s policy of isolating Hamas and Gaza, including economic sanctions and tight border controls, gradually drew widespread international condemnation, as did Israel’s handling of its Gaza offensive and its raid in May on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla trying to break through its naval blockade.
Dismantling settlements was easier for Israel than most expected.
Gaza was a key test of whether an Israeli government would pay the political price needed to remove 9,000 settlers. Dire predictions that such moves would tear the nation apart turned out to be exaggerated.
“This proves that when there is consensus on evacuating settlements in the political system, it can be done,” said Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
It nevertheless made Israelis pessimistic about future settlement evacuations.
A common refrain in Israel these days goes like this: “We gave them Gaza and got rockets in return.” The perceived failure of the Gaza withdrawal has made Israelis more cynical about the chances for future land-for-peace deals, according to figures from the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace.
In 2005, 58% of Israelis predicted that some or all of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank would be evacuated. Today, only 35% envision West Bank evacuations.
It raised doubts in the West about whether Palestinians were ready for statehood.
Palestinian infighting, including armed clashes between Fatah and Hamas, started weeks after the disengagement. Then Palestinian voters elected Hamas, a movement that refused to disavow violence and recognize Israel. That spurred international sanctions and an economic blockade that gave little chance for a new state to emerge.
Statehood in Gaza was never going to be easy because of its poverty and radicalism. Also, critics say Israel, rather than handing over the keys in an orderly fashion, essentially threw them into the sea.
But many in the international community blame the Palestinians for bungling their first test of statehood, leading to an effort by the U.S. and others over the last three years to strengthen Palestinian institutions.
Batsheva Sobelman in The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.