Israel should never again carry out forced evacuations of Jews from their homes, retired Brig.-Gen. Agay Yehezkel, an officer who commanded over some of the forces that participated in the Disengagement from the Gaza Strip, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday, 15 years after the unilateral withdrawal.
Yehezkel served in 2005 as commander of the 188th Armored Brigade. The IDF operation to withdraw from Gaza, he said, purposely began the day after Tisha Be’av, the fast day that marks a list of tragedies that befell the Jewish people. Nevertheless, it has been added to the list by those who opposed the Disengagement.
In retrospect, Yehezkel does not regret the withdrawal itself. He does not believe the communities totaling 8,000 Jews scattered throughout the Gaza Strip had staying power, nor does he believe they justified the resources needed to maintain and protect them.
“I still think it was the right thing to do,” Yehezkel said. “The step we took was correct. I don’t think withdrawing from Gaza was a mistake. Leaving Gaza was the right decision.”
The thousands of rockets fired at Israel from the areas evacuated have persuaded many who backed the withdrawal that it was mistaken in retrospect. But Yehezkel says there is no way of knowing whether those rocket attacks would not have happened had Jews still been living in the Gaza Strip and absorbing those blows themselves.
Nevertheless, Yehezkel separates the departure from Gaza that he deems justified from the challenge of evacuating the Jewish residents that he commanded. He said he is not sorry the IDF carried out the operation, but he is sorry that people had to lose their homes and that some of the evacuees have never recovered.
“Removing people from their homes, no matter how legal and legitimate, was difficult,” he said. “Those who didn’t live it can’t possibly understand through words and pictures. I can now understand why they saw it as abandonment. Even though we prepared it well and carried it out as sensitively as possible, it was dramatic for all those involved: The individual evacuees, the evacuators and the state.”
Lessons from the Gaza Strip withdrawal should be learned before decisions are made about the fate of Jewish communities in the West Bank, Yehezkel said.
“I hope we don’t have another disengagement in Israel,” he said. “No one should have to go through the pain of the evacuated and those who carried it out, and the rifts that ensued should not be repeated.”
To that end, Yehezkel supports reaching an agreement with the Palestinians that would be as comprehensive as possible and enabling Israel to keep settlement blocs and other communities with as many Jews as possible staying in Israel.
Even the most isolated Jews in Judea and Samaria he calls “a logistical defense challenge” but says should not be evacuated by force.
“I don’t want to do it again, and I don’t want anyone else to have to do it,” he said.
After completing his service, Yehezkel entered politics, helping run operations for former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz’s Hosen Le’Israel Party that morphed into Blue and White.
He is now director-general of Blue and White, and his latest operation is guaranteeing the staying power of the party, unlike its centrist predecessors that have come and gone. To that end, he is forming departments, computer systems and teams made up of mayors, deputy mayors, city council members and volunteers across the country.
“Blue and White was formed running and then had to go through campaign after campaign after campaign,” Yehezkel said. “But now we are successfully building long-term infrastructure.”
He promised that Blue and White would justify entering the government. He said there is huge value in Blue and White being in the government that does not come through from the press, citing protecting the legal establishment, fighting the coronavirus and grants to students, IDF soldiers and Holocaust survivors.
Asked if preventing the advancement of US President Donald Trump’s Middle East diplomatic plan was on that list, he said Blue and White was responsible for preventing unilateral steps from being taken in the West Bank.
Rachel Saperstein, who was a resident of Neveh Dekalim in Gush Katif and now lives in the new community of Bnei Dekalim in the Lachish region, said she would not forgive Yehezkel, despite him expressing regret for her losing her home and his opposition to a further disengagement.
“He is not repenting,” she said. “He has an ulterior motive. I don’t believe he is sorry. I will never forgive the army or Ariel Sharon for spearheading this. They are planning to do it again in Samaria. He is lying to you. Don’t get taken in.”