KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip — Ten years ago this month, the Israeli army undertook one of its most controversial missions, uprooting more than 8,000 Jewish settlers from their homes here in Gaza, some by force.
Many Israelis today believe all they got for their troubles were more rockets.
The evacuation of all Israeli troops and civilians from the Gaza Strip, a unilateral “disengagement” ordered by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2005, at the urging of President George W. Bush, was a searing episode for Israel, and a gamble.
But after three wars in six years, Israel has not “disengaged” from Gaza at all.
For the Palestinians, the Israeli withdrawal offered a chance for self-rule.
But Gaza today is governed by the Islamist resistance movement Hamas, branded a terrorist organization by the United States and Europe. The last elections in Gaza occurred almost a decade ago.
The disengagement remains a subject of soul-searching and finger-pointing in Israel. The lessons that today’s Israelis say they learned from the pullout reverberate now more than ever.
For many Israelis, especially on the right, the aftermath of the withdrawal serves as a kind of object lesson that supports the open-ended 48-year military occupation of the West Bank and continuing mistrust and resistance to a two-state solution.
The Gaza withdrawal highlighted the deep ideological divide between Israel’s national religious movement, whose members believe that Jews should live on all the Land of Israel from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, and more secular political forces who saw the 21 settlements in Gaza, and the thousands of Israeli troops needed to occupy the strip, as a security threat that would undermine the Jewish and democratic core of the state.
“It is out of strength and not weakness that we are taking this step,” Sharon vowed in 2005, hoping to mollify critics of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. Bush hailed the move as “courageous.”
After weeping mothers were escorted from their kitchens by teenage soldiers, the army razed the emptied homes and even uprooted the palm trees, because the settlers of Gush Katif did not want to see their neighborhoods occupied by Arabs.
“I hope the departure of our forces from the Gaza Strip symbolizes the beginning of a period of tranquillity,” Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, head of Israel’s Southern Command, told the small crowd of Israeli soldiers who lowered the flag 10 years ago.
There was little peace.
The departing troops left two dozen synagogues standing, although the Palestinian leadership had begged them not to; they were desecrated by Gazans celebrating the Israeli withdrawal after 38 years of occupation. The remaining greenhouses were looted.
A few months after the pullout, Hamas won parliamentary elections against the weak and unpopular Fatah party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The following year, after street battles between Hamas and Fatah militias, Hamas seized control of the strip, and promises made by Israel and the United States to Gaza for eased travel and trade evaporated.
Hamas and Israel fought their third war last summer. Both sides say they are preparing for a fourth. Israel controls Gaza’s airspace and coastline and restricts imports, exports and passenger travel. Egypt’s land crossing with Gaza has been mostly closed in the past year. The enclave’s 1.8 million people often say they are living in a prison.
Today, many Israelis point to the unilateral withdrawal of troops to argue, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does, that Israel cannot risk giving the Palestinians an independent state.
The premier and his allies warn that if Israel pulled out of the West Bank, Hamas would take over as it did in Gaza and expose Israel’s major cities to more rockets at closer range.
“Hamastan,” Netanyahu warned on the eve of winning a historic fourth termin March, pointing to the West Bank.
“The Palestinian Authority without Israeli protection won’t last five minutes” in the West Bank, said Yossi Kuperwasser, former director general of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs. “They exist by Israel’s bayonets.”
The rise of Hamas in Gaza “undermines the credibility of a two-state solution,” said Efraim Inbar, a professor at Bar-Ilan University. “It shows the Palestinians are not capable of establishing a state as the world understands the word.”
Inbar told an audience at a recent conference on the Gaza pullout that the years since have only “strengthened the Israeli consensus that there is no partner” for a peace deal.
The best evidence, he said, is Gaza.
Emotions are still raw among the Gaza evacuees and their supporters, who believe the Israeli government betrayed and then abandoned them.
Hundreds of the former Gaza families live in temporary mobile homes, and when Sharon died last year after a prolonged stroke, they were not among the mourners.
Orit Strook, a former member of the Israeli parliament and a settler in the West Bank, called Sharon “one of the great builders of the land of Israel, and its greatest destroyer.”
“We lost everything for a big mistake,” said Sammy Hilberg, who moved to Gaza in 1979 to farm tomatoes he sold at a price guaranteed by the Israeli government.
“And in addition to losing everything for a big mistake, we still have rockets falling on us and the whole world is still bad-mouthing us,” he said.
“We were alone in the world,” said Einat Bloch-Yeret, who was born in a Gaza settlement and was 17 at the time of the disengagement. She lost her brother in Gaza; he was shot by a Palestinian sniper at the start of the second intifada in 2000.
She moved to the United States for a time. “I could see more of our country from the outside,” she said. “All the time we are trying to show the world how good we are to the Arabs. We give them everything and we get nothing.”
Israel Ziv, a major general in the Israel Defense Forces, was responsible for planning the 2005 evacuation. “My biggest issue then was preventing an internal war — Jews against Jews,” he said. “We had never confronted such a challenge before in the army.”
Israeli commanders feared that soldiers, even officers, might refuse orders to remove the settlers.
“There were those who said it was impossible to withdraw from Gaza. But if the government wanted to do it, it could be done,” Ziv said. “It left a wound, but it did not turn into a war.”
But Ziv wonders whether the army could do it again.
Under terms outlined by Secretary of State John F. Kerry, a future peace deal with the Palestinians might give them a state based on 1967 armistice lines with agreed-upon land swaps. Those swaps might allow Israel to retain the so-called settlement blocks that contain most of the 350,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank today. Under this scenario 50,000 or 100,000 settlers still might find themselves living outside of the land retained by Israel. Could more ideological, well-armed settlers be evacuated, too?
Ziv said, “I expect it will be harder.”
“The people would have weapons, and I hope they will not use them against their own soldiers,” he said.
A recent poll sponsored by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies showed that half of Jewish Israelis thought Israeli civilians should return to the coastal strip. The results surprised some of the researchers.
“I thought it was a stupid act at the time, and I think so today,” said Yaakov Amidror, a former national security adviser and head of the National Security Council in Netanyahu’s government, of the withdrawal.
“But that doesn’t mean we can go back to Gaza today,” he said. “We cannot unscramble the eggs. I suggest we forgo this dream.”
Eglash reported from Nitzan, Israel.