Hey! I’m Noam Weissman and you’re listening to Unpacking Israeli History, the podcast that takes a deep dive into some of the most intense, historically fascinating, and often misunderstood events and stories linked to Israeli history. This is actually the last episode of season 1 – kind of hard to say goodbye….which is actually super relevant to today’s content. Yalla, let’s get into it.
Every Jew has seen heart-wrenching images of Jewish families with yellow stars being dragged out of their homes to an unknown future. In most cases, this imagery would lead people to think about the Holocaust, the most horrific atrocity to face the Jewish people in which ⅓ of world Jewry was lost. Yet, this image appeared once again only 15 years ago in the summer of 2005 in an entirely different context when some Jewish residents of Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip adorned these yellow stars in protest to the Jewish State’s decision to remove Jewish settlers from this area. To be sure, the choice to wear stars was denounced across the Jewish world.
Yad Vashem director Avner Shalev was taken aback when seeing this, saying. “It is important that the memory of the Shoah — the Hebrew word for the Holocaust — remain a unifying factor in Israeli society — not the opposite,”
Meanwhile, Abraham Foxman, who was the head of the ADL, the Anti-Defamation League, at the time was equally unnerved, “The residents of Gush Katif are sending an appalling and misguided message to the people of Israel.”
I take no issue with what Shalev and Foxman said, but having spent much of 2003 – 2006 in Israel, and looking back 15 years later, I want to ask, what provoked these residents to go this far?
In this episode of Unpacking Israeli History, the very last one of this season, we’re gonna delve into Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip. We’ll look at the historical context, the political and religious debate leading up to the pull out, the trauma it caused for Israelis, the questions it provoked for the Palestinians and what it means for the future of Israel.
Before we learn why Israel decided to leave the Gaza Strip, the tiny 25 mile long region on Israel’s southern border, let’s find out how Israel got there in the first place. Jewish history in Gaza goes way back, all the way to biblical times. In fact, Jewish patriarchs Avraham and Isaac lived in the Gerar area of Gaza. The region also makes appearances in the story of Samson, and was also known to have been conquered by the Hasmoneans. In the 4th century, Gaza was the main Jewish port to the Land of Israel for commerce and trade. Jews basically lived there throughout the centuries.
Fast forward to the day the United Nations voted there should be a Jewish state. On November 29th 1947, the UN declared there should be a Jewish and Arab state. The Arab states were less than thrilled about this, waged war on Israel, and lost. (it’s obviously much more complex than that, but we’ll leave it there). After Israel’s War of Independence and what the Palestinians refer to as the Nakba, the catastrophe, Gaza came under the control of Egypt. It wasn’t until the summer of 1967 that Israel took control of the Gaza Strip once again, following what is commonly known as the Six-Day-War, and what Palestinians call the Naksa, or the setback.
Over the years, many Israelis started to move to the different areas that were conquered/liberated or whatever word you want, including eastern parts of Jerusalem, the West Bank, aka Judea and Samaria, Gaza, the Golan Heights and the Sinai. The people who moved to these areas are often referred to as settlers. Settlers come all in shapes and sizes. There are secular settlers, religious settlers. There are black, brown and white settlers. Nothing monolithic about this group. You gotta check out our series on settlements on YouTube. Anyway, although eventually Israel officially annexed or applied sovereignty over all of Jerusalem in 1980, it stated its willingness to hand over control of some of the other regions to Arabs in exchange for an end to hostilities and peace agreements, a concept that came to be known as land for peace. Until then, Israel would retain control, a situation that largely remains until today.
In 1979, this idea of land for peace started to take form. Egypt, the most powerful Arab nation and Israel’s most threatening enemy made peace with Israel, in exchange for Israel returning the Sinai to the Egyptians. Israel made the difficult move of uprooting its settlements in Sinai, in a tense and emotionally charged atmosphere. There was a famous town there called Yamit, which was apparently gorgeous! I was born after it was evacuated, so I never got to experience it firsthand, but my parents told me they used to love visiting it when they were in college.
The evacuation of Yamit was only a taste of what would come two decades later during Israel’s evacuation of Gaza, which is to the northwest of Sinai.
Over the years since 1967, Israel built several bustling Jewish towns and kibbutzim in the Gaza Strip that became home to upwards of 9000 Israeli Jews.
Over the years, there were many more conversations about this idea of land for peace, highlighted by the Oslo accords in the 90’s, but in what feels like a last ditch effort before his second term ran out, President Clinton hosted then Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat at the 2000 Camp David Summit, during which Arafat was presented with an unprecedented offer. Arafat walked away, stunning President Clinton. Now there are many different perspectives and claims on what happened there, but for the purpose of this episode, I just want to quote the president himself who said years later
“I killed myself to give the Palestinians a state. I had a deal they turned down that would have given them all of Gaza, between 96 and 97 percent of the West Bank, [and] compensating land in Israel.”Politico
With the breakdown of Camp David, the violence of the Second Intifada erupted in September of 2000. Check out our last episode on the Second Intifada to hear more. What you might remember from that episode is that many Israelis became disillusioned about the prospects for peace, and the country moved to the right as they elected a far more right wing government than before. This new government was headed by former military officer Ariel Sharon who was known as a champion of the settlements. (You’ll see why this becomes quite ironic soon…)
The Political Context
Now, after five years of relentless suicide bombings of the Second Intifada and the election of a military hawk in Ariel Sharon, you’d think that the new government would have dealt with the Palestinians with an iron fist. Think about the career of Ariel Sharon. He was the commander of the military raid on Qibyeh in 1953, where he led the notorious unit 101. You can check out our video on that underrated historical event — lots of plugs today! — and he was the defense minister during Sabra and Shatila, for which he was removed from office after Israel’s Kahan commission and bore “personal responsibility” for “ignoring the danger of bloodshed and revenge” and “not taking appropriate measures to prevent bloodshed” by the Christians against the Palestinians in Lebanon. I mean, this is a man who was known by the moniker, “the bulldozer.” Yet, in December of 2003, Sharon made what can only be described as an astounding announcement: declaring his plans to unilaterally withdraw 100% of Israeli military forces and civilians from Gaza. Withdrawal from territory, really any territory was something he had always campaigned against.
People could not believe it.
It was almost too shocking to be true. For our American listeners, this would be the equivalent of a Republican President suddenly deciding to pass universal healthcare. To accomplish this, Sharon formed a coalition with the left wing opposition, led by Shimon Peres of the Labor Party, in order to pass the plan, calling for the complete withdrawal of all Israeli settlers and forces from the Gaza strip and four settlements in northern Samaria, otherwise known as the northern West Bank by the summer of 2005. Just so we understand and I want to paint an accurate picture for you — the towns and kibbutzim in Gaza which were collectively referred to as Gush Katif were not some small tent cities. Gush Katif in the south of Gaza was a block of 17 towns populated by 8,800 Jews in fully built communities with roads, infrastructure, industry, even state of the art greenhouses, much of which had been there for decades.
Saying that the debate within Israeli politics leading up to the disengagement was heated would be a massive understatement. I was in Israel at the time studying in yeshiva in a suburb just outside Jerusalem, called Mevaseret. When I and my peers heard of the plans to disengage, what in Israel was called the Hitnatkut, we could not believe this to be true, and I remember taking like three buses to get to Gush Katif and protest it (of course peacefully :). Was I right to protest this or not? I’ll let you make up your own mind. In Israel, EVERYONE seemed to have an opinion on the disengagement, and as is the Israeli way, EVERYONE felt comfortable sharing their opinion. The Knesset was pretty much divided by ideological and religious lines. Sharon and his supporters made the argument that the Israelis living in Gaza were outnumbered by Palestinians more than 170 to 1 (there were over a million Palestinians surrounding the 8800 Jews) , and in the five years of the Second Intifada, 124 Israelis had been killed by Palestinians in the strip. They believed the cost of maintaining a force of thousands of soldiers in Gaza to protect a relatively small Jewish population no longer made sense. In Sharon’s own words he said
“The purpose of the Disengagement Plan is to reduce terror as much as possible, and grant Israeli citizens the maximum level of security. The process of disengagement will lead to an improvement in the quality of life, and will help strengthen the Israeli economy. The Disengagement Plan is meant to grant maximum security and minimize friction between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Many to the left of Sharon on the political spectrum viewed the settlements themselves as an obstacle to peace as they prevented the establishment of a future Palestinian state, and just the optics of protecting 8,800 Jewish settlers surrounded by one million Palestinians was also problematic for them.
On the other side of the political divide, there were a variety of arguments against the disengagement. Within his own party, the famous Bibi Netanyahu (I believe he needs no introduction considering he has been the prime minister for over a decade) publicly chided Sharon for this decision, which he believed would put Israeli lives in peril. Many argued that the settlements in Gaza acted as a buffer to Palestinian aggression, warning that without them, Gaza could turn into a breeding pool for terror and a launching pad for attacks against all of Israel. The disengagement in their view also was a violation of Jewish values in that it would uproot Jewish settlement in the land of Israel. Some feared that dismantling the settlements in Gush Katif would lead to the eventual dismantlement of more and more settlements in other parts of the land of Israel, giving up on the dream of a “Greater Israel.” Ultimately, the strongest argument against the disengagement was that of security. The disengagement was seen by many as a surrender to Palestinian terrorism who would only step up their terror after the withdrawal. In Gaza, Hamas helped prove Netanyahu and others right when in 2004, Hamas fired 882 mortar shells and 276 Qassam rockets at Israel.
The Protests within Israeli Society
The process of passing the Disengagement Law was no easy task and was marked by weeks of opposition and major public demonstrations by settlers and their supporters against the very concept of disengagement. The protests reflected the understandable hesitancy of people to leave their homes, many who moved to the area as pioneers with the encouragement of the government and were now leaving as grandparents. In one protest called “The Human Chain” tens of thousands of Israelis held hands for almost 60 miles connecting Gaza to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Naturally, there were counterdemonstrations by supporters of the Disengagement Plan. Although opinion polls showed that the majority of the country, approximately 70%, was in favor of the plan, a formal referendum was never called for by Sharon.
In the months leading up to the withdrawal, the country was virtually split in two. Sharon’s supporters, needless to say, felt betrayed, considering he literally ran on a platform promising not to leave Gaza. Those opposing withdrawal tied orange ribbons to their cars and backpacks while those in favor used blue ones. Objections from the orange side cried, “Yehudi Lo Migaresh Yehudi” — “A Jew Does not Expel a Jew,” continually referencing painful imagery from Jewish history of Jews being expelled from their homes by countries sworn to the destruction of the Jewish people.
The opinions were passionate on both sides, and there was serious tension between the two camps.
Removing almost 9,000 civilians from their homes was as complex as it was heartbreaking. There had been a serious concern that some IDF soldiers might even disobey their orders to carry out the evacuation and that heavy violence would ensue between the residents and soldiers. Many rabbis, including Rav Avraham Shapira, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav, was on one side of the debate, strongly urging soldiers to disobey orders. Other major leaders of the religious zionist community, such as Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and Rav Ovadia Yosef, saw it differently, and while not being huge fans of the disengagement, they instructed soldiers not to disobey orders. Without getting overly Talmudic here, indeed, Rav Shapira ruled that soldiers were obligated to obey orders to evacuate Yamit some 23 years prior since some rabbis permit exchanging land for peace (assuming there will be genuine peace). The difference, which I saw explained by Rabbi Chaim Jachter seems to be the planning on behalf of the evacuees.
The residents of Yamit were generously compensated for their homes and successfully relocated elsewhere in Eretz Yisrael. However, there was not a clear, formulated plan for relocating the evacuated residents of the Gaza Strip. Shapira’s argument was that you can’t evacuate a group of people from their homes without a proper plan for relocation. But ultimately, the soldiers followed command. There are many stories of soldiers crying with the residents as they removed them from their homes, and some soldiers simply prayed together with their brothers and sisters.
Gush Katif residents felt betrayed by their country. Many spent their final hours in the area praying and crying in the beautiful synagogues in the community and like I mentioned at the outset, some residents even went so far as to wear stars of David to emphasize they way they felt about the actions of the Israeli government as they chanted “Yehudi Lo Migaresh Yehudi” — a Jew doesn’t expel another Jew. As I mentioned at the outset, this sparked outrage from much of the Jewish community across the globe, feeling like donning a yellow star was going too far.
Nevertheless, people like former chief rabbi of Efrat, a big settlement city in the West Bank, Shlomo Riskin, declared, “The greatest heroes of this episode were the evacuated residents of the Gaza Strip who behaved “like princes during the evacuation,” to use his words. He felt like notwithstanding their adamant opposition, that all in all they transcended their personal beliefs in favor of the well-being of their county.
The almost 9000 residents of Gush Katif had been promised new homes and compensation but unfortunately due to government bureaucracy, there were some instances in which many of the Gush Katif residents became refugees living in their own country, unable to find employment or have a home to call their own. A third of all of the residents remained in this situation of limbo until 2016, when they were finally given permanent housing, and the scars continue to remain.
So where does this leave us?
I spoke about why the disengagement happened, the arguments for and against it and that it did ultimately take place...but, how did Palestinians feel about the disengagement? They surely appreciated this, right? Not so fast. Sari Nusseibeh, someone I’ve quoted from often, and former president of Al Quds University had a different view on Sharon’s decision. He explained it this way, “Sharon’s unilateralism immortalized mistrust and suspicion, and so guaranteed the low level of violence needed to preclude negotiations. By clearing out settlers from Gaza – a classic red herring – he could divert international attention while he cut the WB [West Bank] to pieces.”
Is there something to what Nusseibeh is saying? Was this a political chess move by Sharon?
Dov Weisglass, a close adviser to Sharon, said something interesting about the very purpose of the disengagement.
“The disengagement is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians…The significance is the freezing of the political process. And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda.”
Nusseibeh goes further:
“The predictable clashes between Hamas and Fatah, not to mention the occasional Qasam rocket fired over the wall, would prove to the world what sort of unruly neighbors the democratic Israelis had to live around. Meanwhile, more Palestinian land in the WB would be massively populated with Israelis. the key to this plan, of course, was that there be no dialogue, no trust, and no negotiations between the two sides.”
As we saw, there are many different perspectives on the thinking behind the disengagement, and it’s critical to hear one Palestinian view on it.
But, beyond the politics, did it work? Was it a good move?
Let’s be honest, most people who have read or watched the news coming out of Israel over the last 15 years would probably argue that the disengagement, while probably necessary in many ways, at least in regards to security, was a dismal failure. Only four months after the Israeli military, the IDF, locked the border fence and called it a day for the last time, Hamas, the Islamist, rabidly antisemitic terrorist group was elected to power. Since Fatah, the political party that had dominated Palestinian politics for the entirety of their history wasn’t so eager to hand over the reigns, a civil war broke out in Gaza during which Hamas militants executed Fatah supporters, and around 600 Palestinians were killed from early 2006 to mid 2007 from Palestinian infighting within the strip.
Once Hamas took control over the strip, instead of building up the economy and infrastructure and providing for Palestinians’ daily needs, the Hamas leadership used its resources to wage war on Israel. Since that time, hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid and supplies were used to launch thousands of rocket attacks at civilian population centers in Israel. Materials were repurposed to construct miles of underground tunnels in order to infiltrate Israel and conduct terror attacks, abductions, and smuggle weapons. A generation of children in southern Israel were raised to have a Pavlovian reaction to the sound of a siren. It means they have 15 to 30 seconds to find shelter. The continuous terrorism and rocket attacks provoked Israeli military retaliation time and again. Israelis and Palestinians were forced to endure three consecutive wars in Gaza between 2008 and 2014, (resulting in too much death and destruction).
The aggression also led Israel to enforce strict borders — both on land and sea — to prevent further terrorist activity and Israeli civilian casualties. A few years later, Egypt enforced strict borders with Gaza on their end as well. In Gaza now, there is a terribly performing economy, and an awful unemployment rate. Hamas’ misappropriation of financial aid towards the building of weapons and tunnels doesn’t help the economic situation either. With all these factors in play, peace between Israel and Gaza seems to be less and less of a possibility.
So, what was the return on investment? Did Ariel Sharon achieve his goal? Hmmm, not so sure. Did Israel succeed in reducing animosity, breaking through boycotts and acquiring more international support through the move? Not so much. Many argue that the disengagement did not benefit Israel and also did not benefit the Palestinians who are now living under Hamas rule with a divided Palestinian Authority.
Before we wrap up this season of Unpacking Israeli History, here are your 5 fast facts about Israel’s disengagement from Gaza.
Five Fast Facts
- In the summer of 2005, Israel unilaterally pulled out all of its citizens and troops out from the Gaza Strip
- Soon after Israel’s pullout, Hamas was elected to power and a Palestinian civil war broke out in Gaza between Hamas and Fatah
- Since Israel’s withdrawal from the strip, there have been three wars between Israel and Hamas, in 2008, 2011 and 2014 in response to rocket attacks and the building of terror tunnels.
- A third of the settlers to evacuate Gush Katif did not receive permanent housing until 2016
- Although Israel pulled out of Gaza, Israel and Egypt still control the land and sea borders of the strip which the Palestinians refer to as a blockade.
Those are the facts, but here is one enduring lesson as I see it. Yes, there was tremendous tension in Israeli society. There were debates, disagreements and differences of worldviews, and yes, there was resistance to the disengagement, but you know what? Notwithstanding the pain of this day, notwithstanding the fact for many Israelis, the summer of 2005 is the most painful one to think about, this day and this process was a proud one for Israelis. Israel is a young democracy. Israel was born in 1948. Less than 75 years old. There is one constant in Israeli society. No matter the divisions, when the people need to come together, they do. Think back on our episode about the Altalena in 1948. Consider the evacuation of Yamit in 1982. Think about Gush Katif in 2005. No matter what, the Israeli people have proved to the world and most importantly to each other that they will not allow ideology to be their defining character trait. Rather, there is a constant yearning to follow in the footsteps of the psalmist who declared, “hinei mah tov shevet achim gam yachad.” behold how good and how pleasing / for brothers (people) to sit together in unity. …and that brings us to the end of this first season of Unpacking Israeli History. Thank you so much for tuning in, and make sure to check out the episodes you may have missed. We’ve covered some of the most interesting and intense moments in Israeli history, explored many conflicting opinions, political leanings, wars, elections, and more. As I mentioned in the first episode, my hope for this podcast is that we all can have the chance to explore the nuances of Israeli history — to really get to know the stories, including the confusing grey-areas. As an educator, I really believe that taking a nuanced approach to history can help us think about current events in a more honest way as well, shaping how we view the world around us. Thanks for tuning in.