In the scorching hot days of August 2005, emotions ran high in the lead-up to ending Israeli settlers’ presence in the Gaza Strip. For the Israeli government and the military, it was an anxious time preparing for an operation, which divided the country and risked bloodshed between Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers.
For the settlers in Gaza, it was a last-ditch attempt to prevent their removal from their settlements, or at least stage some semblance of resistance, knowing well that game was up. Their removal from 21 settlements was imminent. Palestinians on the other hand were happy to see the back of the Israeli occupation and its worse symbol – the Jewish settlements.
At the beginning, many of them were hopeful for a new start of political freedom and economic prosperity, while others were more cautious of the power vacuum created by the unilateral nature of the Israeli withdrawal. Very few could imagine that a decade later Gaza would be in the political, economic and social predicament it is in now, enduring three rounds of bloody hostilities with Israel and living under never-ending siege.
On a spur of the moment, on the eve of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, I applied and was granted permission to join the legions of foreign journalists who covered this momentous event. Witnessing first-hand the so-called Israeli disengagement from Gaza, combined with hours upon hours of conversations with settlers, soldiers and fellow journalists, left me with little doubt that what could have been an important step towards peace with Palestinians would turn into another disastrous chapter in the relationship between the two people.
Witnessing first-hand the so-called Israeli disengagement from Gaza, combined with hours upon hours of conversations with settlers, soldiers and fellow journalists, left me with little doubt that what could have been an important step towards peace with Palestinians would turn into another disastrous chapter in the relationship between the two peopleYossi Mekelburg
It was the result of an amalgamation of an Israeli government plagued by flawed strategic misperceptions and typical arrogance, Palestinian leadership which was weak and out-of-sorts, and an apathetic international community.
There is no one single explanation why it all went so horribly wrong for the Gaza Strip and its people in the years following the Israeli withdrawal. However, there is little doubt that the unilateral nature of Israel’s so-called disengagement had a detrimental impact. In his typical manner, the-then Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, pursued his barely thought-through policy without building adequate support at home, or partnership with the Palestinian leadership.
Needless to say, the original sin was building Israeli settlements in a tiny area of no more than 360 square kilometres among a naturally hostile population of more than a million and a half Palestinians; most of which were refugees as a consequence of wars with Israel. Attaching strategic importance to settling 8,000 settlers, or believing that they could somehow change the demographic balance in the Strip, verged on insanity from the very beginning. Eventually, it became a burden for the Israeli army and a constant source of friction with the local population.
Removing the settlers from Gaza should have probably been part and parcel of the 1993 Oslo accords, however, the unilateralism of 2005, especially following 5 years of a ferocious Second Intifada, sent all the wrong messages. First it made it obvious that Israel was keen to leave the Gaza Strip, and it further handed victory to the most extreme factions, who presented Israel’s withdrawal as fleeing from Palestinian militancy. Hamas leaders used this argument, regardless of its accuracy, to claim that it was out of fear for their actions, that Israel was forced to withdraw; an argument which resonated well with many Palestinians. Within a few months the Hamas was handed a victory in the elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council.
Secondly, in the process that led to the withdrawal, Ariel Sharon and his government significantly weakened their most viable partners for peace among the Palestinians, the PLO and the Palestinian Authority. It was a missed opportunity to negotiate the already planned withdrawal with PLO and PA negotiators and consequently empower them vis-à-vis their own people. Not to mention, this approach would have given them a stake in the process, hence committing them to comprehensive development of the place and stopping militancy originating from within Gaza against Israel. Instead, they left the Palestinian leadership looking utterly irrelevant. Both sides would pay a heavy price for this miserable error of judgement by the Israeli government.
The futility of unilateralism
Thirdly, witnessing the removal of Jewish settlers in Gaza, and also in four settlements in the West Bank first-hand, left me with little doubt that a society within a society had emerged in Israel. A growing number of settlers lost any respect for the rule of law on either side of the Green Line, unless it suited their own interests. Regrettably, settlers’ violent resistance against the soldiers and their abusive language and incitement, directed at anyone involved in the operation, faced way too forgiving and lenient of a response from the Israeli authorities.
Prime Minister Sharon never accepted the futility of unilateralism, and only his sudden illness most probably prevented further unilateral withdrawals from the occupied West Bank. In the time since the disengagement, it is obvious that although Israel physically withdrew from the Gaza Strip, it never managed to truly disengage.
Without a political settlement, it found itself compelled to control the people and the territory of Gaza through a protracted siege, as well as being involved in three major rounds of violence, which claimed the lives of many more Palestinians than in the 38 years of direct occupation. While no one should shed tears to see the back of the occupation, a major lesson of the 2005 withdrawal is that without engaging diplomatically partners from the Palestinian side, the so-called disengagement resulted in even worse hostilities along the years.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.