There were two phrases that could be heard constantly at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in the capital on Sunday, at the ceremony marking this week’s anniversary of the Gaza Strip withdrawal on the Jewish calendar: “We told you so,” and “Déjà vu.”
The ceremony took place as IDF soldiers were leaving the Strip after 19 days inside. It was attended by dozens of people who were forced to leave their homes by some of the same soldiers nine years earlier, including former MK Tzvi Hendel and current MK Zvulun Kalfa.
As they were gathering their belongings then, the residents of the Gush Katif settlement bloc told the soldiers they would both be back.
They said the soldiers would return to fight in the Gaza Strip and that they, the residents, would soon be back to rebuild their homes.
The second prediction has not come true and still looks unlikely, even after Operation Protective Edge. But the first prognostication has now become a painful reality – twice.
At the ceremony, a video was shown marking a decade since one of the most powerful demonstrations in Israel’s history: A chain of people symbolically joined hands from the Gaza Strip to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
It was an impressive logistical maneuver organized by Kalfa, among others. It cannot be called a success because it failed to persuade then-prime minister Ariel Sharon to change his mind, but it did demonstrate the extent of the opposition to the move.
The Hamas takeover of Gaza, tens of thousands of rockets and mortars, and at least 32 terror tunnels, have since changed many minds among those who supported disengaging from Gaza.
That is true of ordinary folks. But getting politicians, advisers and military men to admit mistakes is harder.
With the obvious exception of Likud MK Miri Regev – who was the IDF spokeswoman during the disengagement, and is now embarrassed by her role in it – those who backed it then still do now, and those who opposed it then have only had their views reinforced.
Politicians on the Right mocked Sharon for saying at the 2004 Herzliya Conference that “the purpose of the disengagement plan is to reduce terrorism as much as possible, and grant Israeli citizens the maximum level of security.”
“These steps will increase security for the residents of Israel, and relieve the pressure on the IDF and security forces in fulfilling the difficult tasks they are faced with,” he said. “The disengagement plan is meant to grant maximum security and minimize friction between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar (Likud), who was coalition chairman at the time of the withdrawal, mocked Sharon at the Begin Center ceremony.
“Where there are no settlements, there is no IDF, and where there is no IDF, there is terrorism,” Sa’ar said.
“Terrorism was not defeated by withdrawing.
It was strengthened by the withdrawal.”
Sa’ar warned that the lesson of the disengagement and Operation Protective Edge must be that forming a Palestinian state would endanger Israel’s future.
“After withdrawing from Lebanon brought Hezbollah to power and withdrawing from Gaza brought Hamas to power, the lesson must be not to form a terrorist state in the heart of our land,” he said.
Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett went further, writing on Facebook Tuesday night that the disengagement had taught Israel that “he who runs from terror has terror chase after him, and that those who chase after terror will live in security.”
He warned that forming a Palestinian state in the West Bank would destroy Israel’s economy and endanger Israelis throughout the country.
“What a tunnel from Gaza did not succeed in doing, a tunnel into Kfar Saba or Route 6 will accomplish,” he warned. “We have a country that has seen amazing development in 67 years, 50 of them with Judea and Samaria. We won’t let everything be destroyed because of messianic fantasies of peace with murderers.”
From a security perspective, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s former national security adviser Ya’acov Amidror told Israel Radio Thursday that the withdrawal was an unquestionable disaster. He then questioned the motives of the politicians who initiated it.
“The disengagement plan was an extraordinary strategic mistake that could have been predicted in advance,” Amidror said. “It was not done for any reason of security for the state. Anything that they said would happen for good, did not happen and everything they said would not happen, happened even worse.”
But those who supported withdrawing from Gaza nine years ago for security reasons still feel the same way – even after two IDF operations returned soldiers to the Strip.
Then-defense minister and current Kadima MK Shaul Mofaz has attempted to remind people that the security situation before the disengagement was also problematic.
He emphasizes the large amount of soldiers who protected Gush Katif and were often under attack, and the legitimacy gained for responding to attacks now that Israel is no longer occupying the Strip. He has not given up his hope that the withdrawal laid the groundwork for a regional solution to the Middle East conflict.
“We don’t know who we saved by leaving Gaza, but I can definitely guarantee that many dozens of civilians and soldiers are alive today because of it,” he said. “Money that would have been used to support the people living there has instead been used for the welfare of citizens here.”
When Galei Israel radio asked Sharon’s then-bureau chief Dov Weissglas whether he regretted withdrawing from Gaza, he answered that he emphatically did not. He denied making strategic or tactical errors, except one.
“One thing happened unlike what we expected, and that is Gaza falling into the hands of Hamas,” he said. “It did not enter our minds that in June 2007, less than two years after the disengagement, Hamas would take power.”
Blaming the miscalculation on “the wonders of the Middle East,” he said: “We estimated that the Palestinian Authority would not have difficulty maintaining control over Gaza, despite the opposition of Hamas and the other groups.”
Then-Likud minister Meir Sheetrit has been mocked for telling Knesset in October 2004 that he had never heard such a ridiculous claim as the assertion that rockets from the Gaza Strip would threaten communities in the Negev.
He told The Jerusalem Post Thursday that the quote had been taken out of context and that he had warned in the same speech that if fired upon from Gaza, Israel would respond forcefully.
He said he maintained Israel should fire 1,000 times at Gazan terrorists for every time they fired at the Jewish state, but his advice was not accepted.
Sheetrit said the real mistake regarding Gaza was Menachem Begin not insisting that Egypt take the Strip when Israel returned Sinai to Egyptian control. He said it was also a mistake not to give Gaza to the PA in a coordinated way when the IDF withdrew in 2005.
“It was a mistake for us to be in the Gaza Strip to begin with,” Sheetrit said. “It was a waste of energy, effort and money. Imagine what the NIS 60 billion-70b. invested there could have done for the Negev. When we were there before, they fired on the settlers and on the forces.
“I don’t regret the disengagement for a moment. I just hope [PA President Mahmoud] Abbas can return to Gaza, help it recover and make it blossom.”