Lessons of the Gaza Disengagement
Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, February 18, 2016
The Arab Attitude toward Israel’s 2005 Unilateral Disengagement: A First-Hand Account from an Israeli Insider
Brig.-Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser served as the head of the Research Division for Military Intelligence of the Israel Defense Forces in 2005 at the time of the disengagement from Gaza and parts of Northern Samaria. Because of his special vantage point he is able to bring a new insight to the subject.Intelligence professionals were not consulted in the decision-making process. While the Prime Minister and his confidants hoped that this initiative would result in a political advantage for Israel and strengthen its security, it is clear that they did not take possible Arab and Palestinian reactions into account, particularly those of Hamas. In this article Brig.-Gen. Kuperwasser presents the issue of disengagement from a fresh perspective and describes its unintended consequences, which could have been foreseen.
The Arab Perspective
Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip had undeniable consequences for the Arab world, including the Palestinians, but those consequences were not taken into account in the process leading to the dramatic decision. In this essay, I shall provide my own reflections as former head of the Research Division of Military Intelligence at that time when the fateful decision of the disengagement was made. It is noteworthy that intelligence professionals were not consulted in the process at all and their assessment was not requested before the decision was taken. Instead, a small group of decision-makers carried out this plan. Their attitude and thinking suffered from a number of weaknesses characteristic of Western political and strategic thought in the region.
I also will show that the Arabs had mixed responses to the disengagement. Each player, including the different groups in the Palestinian political system, emphasized what was important to its own outlook and interests.
On the one hand, the disengagement was perceived as an achievement of the Palestinian struggle and as a positive precursor to an eventual Israeli withdrawal from parts of the disputed territories in the Land of Israel/Palestine. The precedent of the withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000 opened the way for similar moves in the future. It is important to note that the decision to pursue disengagement was taken at a time when Palestinian terrorist activities, including the area of the Gaza Strip, reached their highest levels. Thus, from the Arab point of view, it exposed the failure of Israeli society to cope effectively with that challenge. This perspective is further supported by the fact that the actual disengagement was implemented at a time, toward the undeclared end of the Second Intifada, when terrorist activities slowly began to subside. In addition, the policy of terrorism failed to produce long-term gains for the Palestinians who regarded their campaign as ultimately ineffective because it came at a heavy price and yielded no tangible results. Nonetheless, the Palestinian leadership appropriated the disengagement and used it as a sign of success in their otherwise futile struggle to motivate other radical actors in the region. The disengagement may have been one of the factors that encouraged Hassan Nasrallah, secretary-general of Hizbullah, to intensify his efforts to carry out an additional kidnapping. This eventually materialized in July 2006 when two soldiers were kidnapped – an act that led to the Second Lebanon War. Later Nasrallah admitted that it was a mistake.
Whereas the radical actors of the Palestinian leadership celebrated the disengagement as a victory, its more pragmatic elements regarded it as problematic. They feared that it would further fuel terrorism and hence harm internal stability within the Palestinian political leadership. Given that the leadership was going through a period of internal strife and instability, they felt that the disengagement might further complicate relations with their political opponents and that they would be forced to cooperate with the extremist factions.
In the neighboring region, the disengagement created far-reaching consequences particularly for Egypt, which – in light of Israel’s decision to evacuate also the border area, the Philadelphi Route – was forced to come to terms with Fatah and Hamas and allow increased smuggling from Sinai to Gaza, particularly by Hamas. Moreover, at the time, Egypt suffered domestically from increasing Islamic terror, especially in Sinai. (Before the disengagement a mass-casualty attack took place in Sharm el-Sheikh on 23 July 2005, and Egypt convened an Arab summit to discuss the disengagement and the terror attacks.)
The Palestinian Sphere of Influence
Concurrently, the Palestinians claimed the disengagement as an achievement and felt vindicated by the dismantlement of the settlements and the Israel Defense Forces’ departure from the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians began to think that the pressure on Israel should continue, which could then bring them closer to their next objective – a unilateral withdrawal from Judea and Samaria, and from Jerusalem. To ensure that Israel would not retract the decision at the last moment, the Palestinian factions resolved to keep things quiet during the disengagement itself, which they did.
The Palestinian leadership unequivocally attributed the Israeli decision to disengage from Gaza to their terror campaign. But once Mahmoud Abbas was elected to replace Yasser Arafat as Chairman of the Palestinian Authority and called for an end to the onslaught of terror, Hamas quickly reacted. It positioned itself strategically as the faction entitled to reap the political fruits of the disengagement. Cognizant of the political threat that Hamas posed, the PA decided to postpone the date of the parliamentary elections to the beginning of 2006, thus separating the elections from the disengagement as much as possible. In retrospect, it is clear that the PA strategy ultimately failed, and indeed, one may argue that the election victory for Hamas may be attributed quite significantly to the perception of the general public, which saw Hamas as the critical player in forcing Israel to seek the political solution of disengagement from the Gaza Strip.
Along with the sense of achievement, many Palestinians were concerned that the disengagement would foster different perceptions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. First, the Palestinians feared that Israel would now claim that it no longer had the status of an occupier in Gaza. This fear was valid because the decision to leave the Philadelphi Route was defended, inter alia, on the basis that it would enable Israel to make that claim. Hence the Palestinians launched an effort to prevent a change in Israel’s status, and despite international support for the disengagement, they easily managed to enlist international support for their position. As a result, the international community and the Arab world now considered Israel as an occupying power in a place where it had neither military nor civilian presence.
Furthermore, the Palestinians were concerned that the suffering of the settlers, who experienced both physical and psychological trauma when they were uprooted from their homes, could deprive the Palestinians of their status as the primary victims of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. For a time, the wide coverage of the disengagement in the international media, and particularly, the traumatic forced removal of the settlers, inspired empathy and sometimes even sympathy for their human story, while the suffering of the Palestinians was upstaged. However, international sympathy with the settlers and their misfortune was short-lived. The international media quickly reverted to depicting the Palestinians as the main victims, while settlers were portrayed as responsible for their own suffering.
Beyond the fears of the Palestinians in general, the disengagement posed much graver concerns for Fatah. Mahmoud Abbas and his comrades in the movement’s top echelon saw the Israeli move as a form of pressure on them to reach an agreement based on an Israeli interpretation of the Roadmap. They feared that if they did not do so, a new, unilateral reality would emerge where the Americans would recognize Israel’s claims regarding Judea and Samaria (President Bush’s letter to Prime Minister Sharon intensified these worries). Abbas, of course, was not prepared to give in to this pressure since it would mean accepting a long-term interim arrangement where, at most, a Palestinian state would arise in Gaza and part of the West Bank without a solution to the problem of the refugees. This fear, however, turned out to have been exaggerated. The disengagement had not really intended to put pressure on the Palestinians. On the contrary, it came from domestic Israeli considerations. The Americans not only did not try to leverage the move but eventually ignored the Bush letter, which lost all significance after President Obama dismissed it.
It had not proved possible to work out an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza by agreement. Moreover, some in Fatah feared that coordination with Israel would fail and the achievement represented by the withdrawal would be endangered. This concern existed despite the fact that James Wolfensohn, representative of the Quartet for coordinating Israel’s disengagement from Gaza and for the development of the Gaza Strip, had devised an arrangement for leaving the Israeli green-houses in the Gaza Strip intact, using his personal finances. Therefore, Abbas repeatedly emphasized Israel’s threats prior to the withdrawal, that the disengagement that if rocket fire continued from Gaza, Israel might exercise its option to re-conquer that land. This led Abbas to demand that Hamas refrain from launching rockets, thereby encouraging Israel to complete the withdrawal. Abbas’ concerns turned out to be somewhat exaggerated: Israel not only fulfilled all its commitments, it refrained from invading Gaza even after Abbas reneged on his promise and shortly after the disengagement, rocket fire from Gaza resumed.
Two additional concerns turned out to be more justified. Firstly, the PA and Fatah feared that after Israel’s withdrawal Hamas would use its increased military power to take over the entire Gaza Strip as it was strong enough (with about 20,000 armed men, according to the PA) to deter the PA’s security forces from fighting it frontally, especially in the areas where Hamas was entrenched. Once Israel’s military presence was gone, the PA’s ability to prevent a Hamas takeover was limited. The day after the Israeli withdrawal, it had become clear that Hamas was doing whatever it wanted in the Strip. It destroyed the greenhouses and the remaining buildings in the Israeli settlements, razed the fence that Israel had built along the Philadelphi Route, and brought in a large quantity of weapons from Egypt while PA security forces stood by passively. Eventually, in 2007, Hamas used its power and electoral gains to take control of the Gaza Strip.
The second concern was that the Israeli move could have been a ruse to expose the fact that the PA was neither capable nor prepared to govern Gaza independently. Thus, it would bolster Israel’s argument that a Palestinian state in the West Bank would endanger Israel and the pragmatic elements in the region, such as Egypt, Fatah and Jordan. The Palestinian Authority’s impotence was indeed revealed. Despite the fact that the government of Israel has emphasized that point, Europe, the United States, and even some on the Israeli Left have preferred to ignore this obvious Palestinian failure. They continue to maintain that the Gaza precedent should be followed in Judea and Samaria by creating an independent Palestinian state there.
For Hamas, the disengagement had positive consequences. Israel’s decision clearly vindicated the movement’s insistence that terror (i.e., jihad or “Islamic resistance”) is the only way to liberate Palestine. It is clear that the disengagement was one of the factors that made Hamas overcome its misgivings and run in the Palestinian parliamentary elections. The disengagement raised Hamas’ hopes for a solid electoral victory.
This achievement was quickly translated into a new reality on the ground because Hamas had gained effective control of the Strip. For Hamas, the main issue became how to leverage their enhanced position in Gaza and increase their ability to hold it in the future, turn it into a base for anti-Israeli terror, and apply pressure on Israel to withdraw from Judea and Samaria and from areas within the Green Line. The movement did not conceal its goal of liberating all of Palestine, and kept calling for the liberation of Jaffa, Haifa, Ashkelon, and, of course, Jerusalem.
At the same time, a disparity arose between Hamas’ achievement in Gaza and its freedom of action in Judea and Samaria – an issue that continues even today. On the one hand, Hamas leveraged its accomplishment in Gaza to consolidate its strength in Judea and Samaria both politically and operationally. On the other hand, Hamas feared that Israel’s success in preventing it from building its power base in Judea and Samaria would endanger its position in Gaza, which was its greatest accomplishment.
So far, despite continuous efforts, Hamas has failed to repeat its Gaza success in Judea and Samaria. A major reason for its failure to do so is Israel’s presence on the ground, along with the lessons that the PA has learned from what happened in Gaza after the disengagement.
Lessons from the Disengagement
From the perspective of a decade, we may learn six lessons from the disengagement, as follows:
First, the Palestinian Authority is not capable of controlling a territory on its own. It cannot overcome radical groups that challenge its authority because of its corruption and because of the conflict between its seemingly pragmatic approach and its commitment to an extremist ideology that claims that there is no such thing as the Jewish people and there is no history of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel. Therefore, there is no justification for the existence of the Jewish nation-state in the land. In fact, the land really is Palestine and, hence, Israel’s disappearance is inevitable. Furthermore, it is incumbent upon the Palestinians to expedite the process of Israel’s disappearance. All means justify the ends, and the choice between approaches must be based upon their effectiveness at a particular time. The Jews are dreadful and appalling creatures that the Europeans removed from their midst. There is no reason for the Palestinians to tolerate them. The Palestinians are victims of the West and of Israel and cannot be held accountable or expected to accept responsibility for their actions. The weakness of the PA, however, makes it dependent on Israel in order to prevent its collapse.
Second, a territory that Israel completely evacuates without retaining a capacity to operate in it, or at least to implement containment of it, undergoes a change. It is impossible to return it to the previous status quo. Just as Hamas exploited the disengagement in order to strengthen its forces and improve its military capabilities in Gaza, as Hizbullah did in southern Lebanon, there will be a similar result in Judea and Samaria, if they are transferred to the Palestinians, particularly if Israel does not retain control of the Jordan Valley.
Third, unilateral concessions are perceived in the region as signs of weakness, and hence invite additional pressure. Conversely, demonstrating resolve discourages pressure. The unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon encouraged the Palestinians to choose confrontation and launch the Second Intifada. The Disengagement convinced the extremist elements among the Palestinians, along with Hizbullah, to continue the armed struggle, including a focus on kidnappings.
Fourth, the ultimate, long-term goal of the Palestinians is the destruction of Israel and gaining control over all of Palestine. This is especially true regarding the “1948 refugees,” whose objective is to return to their former homes. For them, the homeland is not simply an abstract conception, but a concrete idea of a house that they or their parents had left and to which they want to return. Thus, even when a small plot of land that belonged to what they consider their homeland is given to them to control, they do not concentrate on cultivating it, but focus upon how to use it to make progress toward their main goal. Remnants of any Israeli presence in Gaza, including the greenhouses, were demolished. No attempt was made to use them for settling refugees and advancing economic growth. The Western and Israeli “peace industry” refuses to recognize this reality, and facts on the ground will not change their preconceptions, which involve projecting Western norms on the Palestinians. People in the “peace industry” wring their hands and express their disappointment at the bitter reality, and learn nothing. The implications with regard to Judea and Samaria are clear.
Fifth, the political benefit from unilateral concessions is temporary and illusory. It is not possible to translate such concessions into sustainable political achievements. Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza was not acknowledged as the end of an occupation, even after the adoption by Congress of the letter of President Bush. The campaign of delegitimization against Israel continued, as was evident in the Goldstone Report, published four years after the disengagement. In conclusion, we should not delude ourselves.
Sixth, optimism and wishful thinking cannot provide a basis for major political initiatives. There was no justification for optimism about the disengagement. Gaza did not become Singapore and the Philadelphi Route was breached. A continuous supply of weapons was brought into Gaza and large parts of Israel came under the threat of rockets by Hamas. Predictions of a great future for Gaza were not fulfilled.
The Author’s Perspective
From a personal standpoint, looking back at the disengagement after a decade raises the question of how major decisions are reached in Israel. I do not know whether and to what extent Prime Minister Sharon was motivated by personal considerations or public pressure – or, conversely, that he believed he had invented an idea that promised much greater military and political advantages than disadvantages, and decided to implement it. It is clear that he was influenced by the terror attack at Netzarim in October 2003, in which two female soldiers and one male soldier were killed at the base where they lived. This attack further decreased the support of part of the public for deploying the IDF to protect the Gaza settlements. In any event, the readiness of the top decision-makers, along with a small coterie of associates, to take fateful decisions – men neither elected by the public nor chosen by the state because of their professional competence – only increased the chances of making unsound decisions.
This practice is likely to increase the effects of the basic structural weaknesses of Western political and strategic thinking and may continue to influence the decision-making process in Israel. These weaknesses were evident during the period of the disengagement. Perhaps the most important factor is a fundamental naiveté, which makes it difficult for Israel’s decision-makers to see the other side as an enemy whom one must confront until he changes his policy and ceases to be an enemy. Many believe that even when the other side unequivocally regards us as an enemy that must be destroyed or removed, we must view it as an opponent that can and should be placated and turned into a partner. The affair of the greenhouses is a striking example of this wide cultural gap. Such naiveté encourages some of our decision-makers to develop an attitude of exaggerated optimism. This state of mind causes them to favor positive scenarios while belittling problematic ones and to see the importance of the immediate consequences of their decisions while downplaying their medium- and long-term repercussions on the immediate environment (in this case, Gaza) and the broader environment (the Palestinian, Arab, and international spheres). In other words, naiveté compromises strategic foresight, which, in turn, allows our leaders to place excessive focus on the domestic impact of their actions while assigning much less significance to foreign policy considerations.