Memories in this part of the world are so short. Only 10 years since the disengagement from the Gaza Strip and the Israeli narrative, led by the settlers, has been completely rewritten. According to recent polls, today even a majority of Israelis say they were opposed to the disengagement, even when we know that at the time a large majority of Israelis supported it. Let see what else we have chosen to forget.
1. Ariel Sharon launched the disengagement plan to deflect international pressure on Israel to accept the Geneva Initiative.
On October 12, 2003, a group of former Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, including former chief of staff Maj.-Gen.
Amnon Lipkin Shakhak, signed the Geneva Initiative. The aim of the initiative was to disprove the myth generated after the failed Camp David summit of July 2000 that a comprehensive permanent-status peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians could not be reached, saving the two-state solution. The agreement signed by the former officials included the establishment of a Palestinian state based on the June 4, 1967 lines, two capitals in Jerusalem, and a solution to the refugee issue granting refugees a number of choices mainly leading to the return to the state of Palestine.
Security arrangements and all other issues were agreed between the sides.
The Geneva Initiative took the Israeli government by surprise.
Israel and the Palestinians were deep into the bloody and tragic second intifada. In November 2003 US secretary of state Collin Powell issued a statement in support of the Geneva Initiative. President Bush in the beginning of December 2003 also revealed his support for the initiative.
Javier Solana, the EU High Representative for Security and Foreign Relations, also congratulated the leaders of the Geneva Initiative and even held a meeting with its primary authors. The initiative was clearly gaining steam, at a time when Israel and the Palestinians presented no initiative or plan to end the intifada and return to negotiations.
Two weeks later on December 16, 2003, prime minister Sharon addressed the 4th Herzliya Conference and surprised the world by unveiling his plan to disengage from the Gaza Strip. (Amazingly, Sharon’s speech is no longer to be found on either the Foreign Ministry or Herzliya Conference web pages.) Just 20 months before, in April 2002, Sharon had stated that “the fate of Netzerim [a small, isolated settlement in Gaza set in the middle of densely populated refugee camps] is the same fate of Tel Aviv!” 2. Israel gained international support and deflected international pressure on issues of Palestinian statehood.
Sharon’s surprising shift immediately gained international attention and support. By April 2004 president Bush and his entire administration were on board, in full support of the plan. There was no more talk about the Geneva Initiative.
Over the next year the international community would engage with Israel and the Palestinians in an effort to coordinate the disengagement, including the appointment of a “special quartet envoy,” James Wolfensohn, former president of the World Bank.
3. Giving the victory narrative to Hamas Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan was appointed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to coordinate the disengagement with Israel. Dahlan established an executive body and nine professional technical committees to work alongside the Israelis to create a smooth transference of power to the Palestinian leadership. Prime minister Sharon declared that he had no intention of coordinating the disengagement with Abbas, whom he described as a non-partner and further insulted by calling him “a chick with no feathers.” In June 2005 when Israel left Gaza, the Palestinian street and the streets throughout the Arab world celebrated the victory of the “resistance” (Hamas) which had successfully chased Israel out of Gaza. Half a year later Hamas won the Palestinian elections.
4. Remaining in Gaza was very costly in Jewish blood From June 1967 until the disengagement in Gaza 230 Israelis were killed in the strip. In the five years prior to the disengagement 97 Israeli soldiers and 52 civilians were killed in Gaza. Tens of thousands of Israelis soldiers were needed to protect the 8,500 Gaza settlers throughout the years.
5. The Gaza settlements were classic colonialism Gaza was not part of the historic Land of Israel. Settlement in Gaza was not aimed at reinstating Jewish presence on ancient and holy Jewish sites. The 21 Gaza settlements occupied some 30 percent of Gaza’s land. 8,500 Jewish Israelis occupied 30% of Gaza while Gaza’s 1.5 million Palestinians (the number of Palestinians in Gaza at the time of the disengagement) lived on 70% of the land.
6. Why was there a need to bulldoze the settlements? Israel left 21 settlements in piles of rubble. Why was there a need to destroy the billions of dollars’ worth of assets created by Israel over the 30 years of settlement building? Some 90% of Gaza’s Palestinians come from refugee families.
While the refugee camps of Gaza are not “camps,” they are slums of urban poverty. Palestinian planners prior to the disengagement were devising a plan to raffle settlement homes to Gaza’s poorest residents. Not only would those people have had a new start with good-quality housing, the offering of those assets to descendants of Palestinian refugees could have been viewed as the first stage of normalizing the lives of those refugees and ending the claims for right of return to Ashkelon, Ashdod, Yavne and other towns that they originated from.
7. Sharon wanted the disengagement to fail On July 2, 2015, Sharon’s son Gilad wrote: “My father was not naïve, and he knew our neighbors only too well.
He realized they would always choose terror over peaceful, affluent coexistence.” But it went beyond that. There were some 1,200 acres of greenhouses in Gush Katif, producing hundreds of millions of shekels in revenue. Nearly 120 acres were destroyed by settlers while they were preparing to leave. Palestinian vandals destroyed another 120 immediately after Israel evacuated and before the Palestinian police took control. About 1,000 acres were left and $14 million were raised by James Wolfensohn to buy them from the settlers (including $500,000 of his own money). In less than two years the project went bankrupt. Goods were produced by the very same farm workers who had worked for the settlers, but the goods never made it to market. Israel closed the border.
It wasn’t the disengagement that was a big mistake. The big mistake was made 30 years before. The idea of settling a few thousand Israelis in Gaza was the mistake. Those settlements should never have been built. Once they were it became inevitable that Israel would have to disengage from Gaza. The mistake of disengagement was leaving without an agreement. This was an enormous error. Rather than a successful diplomatic outcome from an agreement between Sharon and Abbas, Israel decided to weaken the moderates in Palestine who believed in negotiations, and sent a message to the Palestinian people that the only way to remove Israeli presence from their land is through violence. The message was understood quite clearly.
Hopefully the lessons of these tragic mistakes will be learned and turned into new policies for the future.
The author is co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His book Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew and in English as The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas by The Toby Press.