Gaza Disengagement was 'absolute mistake,' says withdrawal commander

Fifteen years later, Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Gershon HaCohen: Gaza withdrawal gave Hamas ability to increase rocket arsenal

Israeli security forces drag a protester opposing Israel's disengagement plan from Gaza, in the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom in the southern Gaza Strip, August 18, 2005 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israeli security forces drag a protester opposing Israel's disengagement plan from Gaza, in the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom in the southern Gaza Strip, August 18, 2005
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Gaza Disengagement was “an absolute mistake” that allowed Hamas to increase its rocket arsenal, the man who commanded the operation told The Jerusalem Post.
The unilateral evacuation of 8,500 Israeli civilians and soldiers and the demolition of 21 Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip in August 2005 was ordered by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon and carried out by Maj.-Gen. Gershon HaCohen, then commander of the 36th Division.
“I was absolutely aware that the whole idea would lead to catastrophe,” HaCohen told the Post ahead of the move’s 15th anniversary.
Israel occupied the coastal enclave in 1967 following the Six Day War. In the years until it evacuated, countless civilians and troops were killed in Palestinian terror attacks.
Some thought it would bring peace. Others thought giving land would only further encourage violence and terror. Though HaCohen personally opposed the move, he still carried out his assigned duties as commanding officer.
“I had two choices: to disobey and retire or to follow and do it as per my own belief and vision,” he said.
In some ways, the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip is reminiscent of the IDF’s withdrawal from South Lebanon five years earlier with one main difference: In 2000, only soldiers pulled back from the occupation of Lebanese land; in 2005, civilians were removed from their homes.
At 8 a.m. on August 15, 2005, troops entered Gush Katif – the Jewish settlements in Gaza – and went door to door instructing settlers it was time to leave. While some agreed, others refused and barricaded themselves in their homes, leaving troops no choice but to forcibly drag them out of the Strip.
The camera lenses clicked as children, teenagers, mothers and fathers were carried out by the soldiers, many shedding tears. The images remain imprinted on the national psyche.
The evacuation of settlers was followed by the bulldozing of thousands of homes and synagogues. The remains of Jews buried in the Strip were also exhumed and reburied in Israel. On September 21, the Disengagement was complete, the Gaza Strip was no longer in Israeli control and IDF troops no longer patrolled the streets protecting Jews.
With no presence in the Palestinian territory, there should be no cause for continued terrorism, some thought. With no more Israeli civilians or soldiers there they would no longer lose their lives to Palestinian terrorism emanating from the coastal enclave.
But they were wrong.
For many, the withdrawal was perceived as Israel running away from its enemies.
Less than a year later, Hamas terrorists abducted soldier Gilad Schalit in a cross-border raid via tunnels (a tactic the IDF would again meet with deadly consequences in 2014’s Operation Protective Edge). He was released five years later for 1,027 Palestinian terrorists held in Israeli prisons, many of whom have since been rearrested.
The Disengagement not only bolstered support for Hamas, but it gave the terror group free rein to increase its rocket arsenal to threaten deep into Israel and not only the settlements around the enclave.
Less than six months since Israel unilaterally withdrew, elections were held across the Strip and the West Bank and were won by Hamas, placing the movement’s leader, Ismail Haniyeh, as Palestinian Authority prime minister.
The elections caused a rift between Hamas and Fatah, which led to an eventual split between the two the following year and the consolidation of power in Gaza by Hamas. The resulting imposition of a naval and land blockade by Israel remains in place.
Hamas fired its first rocket in 2001. After that there was a near free flow of weapons – such as rocket-propelled grenades and sniper rifles from Sinai – and the newly created opportunity to freely manufacture rockets locally that accelerated to a rate not seen before the Disengagement.
According to data released by the Foreign Ministry, 12,355 rockets and mortars have been fired into Israel since 2006. While weapons smuggling into the blockaded enclave from Egypt’s Sinai has decreased over the years, groups in Gaza have invested in producing their own locally-made rockets.
Before Operation Protective Edge began, Hamas had about 11,000 rockets, and while by the end of the war it was estimated that a third of its rockets remained, by 2018 it was already in possession of more rockets than before 2014.
Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have carried out tests on an almost regular basis since the conclusion of Operation Protective Edge, firing rockets toward the sea to increase their range and destructive power.
HAMAS HAS been producing their Qassam rockets since 2001, which had a range of 4 km. After 19 years they are able to strike as far away as Nahariya. The group also has a fighting force of close to 40,000, as well as highly trained naval commandos who are expected to take part in the next conflict with Israel.
“Hamas could not have made that arsenal before the Disengagement,” HaCohen said, adding that “there would have been fewer rocket attacks because Hamas now has that strategic capability that they didn’t have before.”
But not only has the number of rockets increased, the human cost in the number of Israelis killed since the Disengagement is high.
From 2000 until 2005, 76 IDF soldiers and 33 civilians were killed in attacks by Hamas and other terror groups.
Israel has gone to war with Hamas and the various terror groups three times since the Disengagement and has had countless rounds of violence.
In the last war in 2014, Israel lost 68 soldiers and six civilians. Some 2,500 Palestinians are believed to have been killed, roughly half civilians and half terrorists.
And the estimates for casualties in the next war are that both sides will suffer a much higher toll – both soldiers and civilians.
Gaza has been absolutely destroyed over the past 15 years since the Disengagement. And with a population of two million living in dire humanitarian conditions, Hamas is desperate to secure an easing of restrictions on the beleaguered coastal enclave and an end to Israel’s blockade.
The terror that emanated from the Strip in the years following the Disengagement “created better conditions to convince leaders, including the international community, that Israel could not afford to build another Lebanon in the West Bank. There’s no way to defend Israel if that happens,” HaCohen told the Post.
“Disengagement was an absolute mistake but I thank God for this stupid mistake because that way we can learn,” he said.
“We learned... it’s not so easy to change the situation by engaging and fighting,” HaCohen said. “The Israeli idea was that we would get international legitimacy to fight against terror, in every way, but since [Operation] Cast Lead [in 2008-2009] we have realized that our dream of international legitimacy is an illusion.”
The Disengagement, he said, had the settlers “lose the battle but win the war” as now “it’s much more difficult to carry out such an operation. It made it more difficult to remove settlers from the West Bank.”
Holding onto the West Bank and entire Jordan Valley in its “broadest interpretation... soldiers and settlements [there] are necessary for the protection of Tel Aviv.”