ישראל נאמן | Lectures, Articles, Tours: Israel | Mideast onTarget | Elliot Chodoff & Yisrael Ne'eman | Gaza Decision Correct – Five Years Later 22.8.10

Gaza Decision Correct – Five Years Later

22 August 2010

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.