Gaza Disengagement: Reporting from the trenches

‘The Jerusalem Post’s then-defense correspondent opens up his reporter’s notebook on the disengagement, 15 years on.

OPPONENTS OF the disengagement plan from Gaza confront Border Police at the synagogue in the settlement of Kfar Darom in August 2005. (photo credit: REUTERS)
OPPONENTS OF the disengagement plan from Gaza confront Border Police at the synagogue in the settlement of Kfar Darom in August 2005.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On Monday, August 22, 2005, Rabbi Yehoshua Bisbut, wrapped in a tallit and bound in phylacteries, spoke loudly and sardonically into his mobile phone as he watched the IDF and police pour into Netzarim, the last Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip.
“There are all sorts of people in uniform here. I don’t know to what army they belong. They have high ranks and I’m sure they’ll be decorated for their heroism,” he said.
The Jewish settler movement was at its lowest on this day. It was a steady decline from the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin a decade before that bloodily exposed the deep schisms in society. It degenerated to the gradual abandonment and downright resentment and ultimately the apathy by the rest of Israelis.
Prime minister Ariel Sharon, one of the bulldozers of the settlement movement, was the one to pull the plug and order the eviction. While the settlers cried on Tisha Be’av as if the Temple itself were being torn down again, the rest of Israel – while not rejoicing – was having a beer. They were tired of the reserve duties and the burden of protecting the Gush Katifers.
Weeping, the Katif residents found out that Gaza and Gush Katif were just too far from mainstream Israeli consensus for anyone to care. “Your Zionism is not our Zionism. Yours failed. Ours succeeded,” each side told the other. But one message was clear that day: The Palestinians’ dream had come true. One day they would wake up and would see that all the Jews were gone.
Two years later, Hamas took over in a bloody coup and has advanced that dream to the next level among its people.
THE DISENGAGEMENT, a tale of historic proportions, continues to affect us to this very day. The pullout from the Gaza Strip’s Gush Katif in the tumultuous summer of 2005 cleaved a rift into Israeli society as it heralded in a new hope for a peaceful arrangement for the region. In retrospect we know it did not.
In 2002, Sharon was losing two key elements in his war against Palestinian terrorism: 1) internal unity and 2) a sympathetic ear in Washington, then presided over by George W. Bush.
Domestically there was greater unwillingness to participate in the crushing of the Palestinians. Pilots wrote letters refusing to fly. A “gray refusal” was growing among reserve units called up to protect the settlers.
Internationally, there was growing isolationism for Israel. Outside initiatives were threatening and Sharon knew he could no longer wait for the Palestinian leadership (Yasser Arafat) to make a deal – and thus unilateralism was born.
The idea was an answer to Washington’s demand for a “political horizon.” Besides, it also lopped off 1.8 million Palestinians and relieved the IDF of a huge target it had to protect. These were the 21 Jewish settlements of Gush Katif (including three on the northern tip by the Erez Crossing) and four in Samaria. Sharon was keenly aware that the vast majority of Israelis no longer believed these settlements were vital to Israel’s existence.
Yet this was a painful, an outrageously painful, proposal: to forcibly remove 1,500 families (8,000 Jews) from their homes that the government had sent them to in the first place.
Israel captured the Gaza Strip from the Egyptians in the first two days of the 1967 Six Day War with a brigade of tanks and a brigade of paratroopers. For the evacuation, it planned for more than 25,000 security forces in three ad-hoc divisions.
DEFIANT SETTLERS pour a cement roof on a new home on the morning of the evacuation of Netzarim, August 22, 2005. (Credit: Arieh O'Sullivan)DEFIANT SETTLERS pour a cement roof on a new home on the morning of the evacuation of Netzarim, August 22, 2005. (Credit: Arieh O'Sullivan)
By the beginning of the summer, the western Negev looked like the fields of south England on the eve of D-Day. They were swollen with military vehicles and camps. The whole region surrounding the Gaza Strip was filled with crates and boxes and pyramids of supplies piled on the roadsides and in the fields, with tanks and guns, trucks, shipping containers and strange machines, bulldozers and cranes, armored buses and jeeps creeping along the tight roads.
The IDF initially planned a withdrawal for 12 weeks, then eight weeks and finally three weeks. (It ended up taking less than a week.) It was dubbed Operation Brothers United, but that soon got dropped and it was just called The Disengagement.
From the spring, the IDF began dismantling its bases, including the pillboxes and reinforced rooms. The defense establishment also began to choke off Gush Katif. First no one could move there. Then to halt the opponents to the withdrawal, roadblocks were set up to prevent anyone from visiting.
But thousands began slipping in, first during the Passover break, hiding in car trunks and then any way they could; bunking in abandoned caravans or public buildings. Some even tried to get in from the sea on makeshift rafts.
At one point, some 70,000 settlers and their supporters began marching toward Gush Katif from Netivot. They were encircled by security forces at Kfar Maimon where a three-day standoff took place.
Opponents to the disengagement took on the color orange. They tied orange ribbons on their car mirrors, hanged them wherever.
In early August, just after the 17th Maccabiah Games closed, an AWOL soldier, Eden Natan Zada, killed four Israeli Arabs on a bus and was lynched. He was wearing an orange ribbon, and it was assumed he was opposing the disengagement.
Thousands of reservists had been called up to relieve a large chunk of the standing army along the borders and in the West Bank so they could take part in the disengagement.
The army had been feverishly preparing for this most unwanted task of evacuating the 8,000 Jews from Gush Katif when Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz took over the command of IDF on June 1. With his predecessor Lt.-Gen. Moshe “Boogie” Ya’alon at his side, he vowed to carry out the evacuation of Jewish settlements from Gaza with “utmost sensitivity,” adding there was no place for refusal.
The army had feared a phenomenon of massive refusal by angst-filled soldiers to evict the settlers. Ya’alon had opposed the unilateral withdrawal and his term was not traditionally extended because of this. Military reporters joked that ironically, it was Ya’alon who became the first refuser.
The army began preparing troops for the task. It devoted huge resources in the “mental preparation” kits. I spent time with the mixed combat Caracal unit where its male and female soldiers trained not only how to literally cart off resistant settlers, but simulated, with actors, the pressure and abuse they’d face. Don’t accept food offerings. Don’t look them in the eye. The IDF was vying for “robots who feel angst.”
And the whole world was watching. It was going to be a media circus. This was the hottest story of the year. Even the Pulitzer Prize for 2005 went to an AP photographer who captured the evacuation. Every media outfit had a presence because doom and gloom were promised daily. This was an apocalyptic moment in the history of the Middle East. The headlines went:
“The country will be paralyzed by the disengagement.”
“Settlers will commit suicide.”
“Thousands of soldiers will disobey orders.”
The media, especially the Israeli media, were addicted to sensationalism. In the end, when you look back at the headlines you see how ridiculous it was.
For a journalist, being there was like being a part of reality TV show, up close, authentic and fast-paced.
A huge media center was set up on Kibbutz Eshkol where the army offered shuttles to the various evacuations. It turned into a bizarre camp of reunions and drinking on deadline as hundreds pounded away on laptops and fought for spots on the shuttles. It was a reunion for foreign correspondents and Israeli journalists, each seeking to have a bite of this front-page saga. For many of them this would be their first time into Gaza.
We wore red hats identifying us as the media and were rewarded with unprecedented access. Initially, the IDF was trying to severely limit the coverage inside the Gaza Strip. As a military reporter, I was given a coveted posting embedded with the Caracal Battalion I had been covering for weeks. But the new IDF Spokeswoman Brig.-Gen. Miri Regev, in a highly unprecedented move, dumped their plans at the last moment and opened it up for all accredited journalists.
The effect of this access was an information overload. There were literally thousands of personal stories and photos. The drama in every case overtook the representative.
GRAFFITI ON a Neveh Dekalim home. It reads, ‘Bye bye my home/I love you so much/Gush Ketif (sic),’ August 17, 2005. (Credit: Arieh O'Sullivan)GRAFFITI ON a Neveh Dekalim home. It reads, ‘Bye bye my home/I love you so much/Gush Ketif (sic),’ August 17, 2005. (Credit: Arieh O'Sullivan)
THE SUMMER of 2005 was for me a crazy time. I was traveling like mad in my old Suzuki jeep between the Gaza Strip, army bases in the Negev and briefings at the general headquarters, banging out stories daily for the perpetually hungry Jerusalem Post. But it was also the summer of my son’s bar mitzvah and family visits from abroad. On top of all this, I was the head of a team from my moshav that was participating in the Red Bull Flugtag competition. We were building a flying machine that we were going to throw off a stage into the Yarkon River in Tel Aviv with over 100,000 spectators who couldn’t care less about the disengagement.
Sunday, August 14 was Tisha Be’av. Eviction orders were to be issued the next day. I picked up reporter Margot Dudkevitch and we accompanied IDF chief Halutz to the South. On the road out of the Gaza Strip, local kibbutzniks erected signs reading, “We feel for you brothers,” “Good luck,” “Be strong.” All day, trucks and cars hauling trailers filled with possessions rumbled out of Gush Katif. The army and police were still mulling over going for the “easy” settlements first, like Dugit, Eli Sinai and Nisanit, and then the “hardcore” ones like Netzarim and Kfar Darom, or the opposite.
“There are those who believe that it’s best this evacuation be as long and as painful and as noisy as possible,” Halutz said. “I believe, in all modesty, that it is best for the nation for it to be as short and as quick as possible.”
In typical Israeli style, the government couldn’t make up its mind on anything until the last moment. Would they destroy the homes in Gush Katif, but leave the buildings and 38 synagogues? What about the greenhouses, factories? The Palestinians said they didn’t want any “wailing walls,” so it was decided to demolish the homes and synagogues and also to disinter 48 graves of soldiers and civilians and redo their funerals.
But then-defense minister Shaul Mofaz flip-flopped and decided to leave the synagogues intact.
“As a Jew it was hard for me to give orders to the IDF forces to blow up a synagogue,” Mofaz explained later, adding rabbis told him it would be better if they were destroyed at the hands of the Palestinians than the IDF.
Settlers had two days to leave on their own, with IDF help, after which they would be forcibly evicted. The IDF estimated that some 5,000 right-wing activists had succeeded in infiltrating into the Strip to oppose the evacuation. On the eve of the evacuation deadline of Wednesday, August 17, I slipped inside Neveh Dekalim, the largest of the Gush Katif settlements, where some 400 families lived. I was officially embedded with the Ya’ar battalion but was only using them for access.
Other Jerusalem Post reporters had also managed to get in. Tovah Lazaroff had been there for weeks and police reporter (and current editor-in-chief) Yaakov Katz managed to get in, too. We crashed that night on the floor of a house in Neveh Dekalim where Lazaroff was staying, which The Jerusalem Post had rented along with other media outlets.
AS TROOPS fanned out on the pretext of helping the residents pack, they also provided them with the proverbial tree to climb down from as they began to accept the reality that the end of their presence in Gush Katif was very real, albeit surreal at times.
Some residents chose to destroy their own homes, bitterly wailing as they swung sledgehammers through their windows and smashing their floors. Others heeded the orders of the police and army and agreed to leave on their own, boarding buses that transferred them out of the Gaza Strip.
And in Neveh Dekalim, at least one family watered the grass and drank coffee on their porch in complete denial that they would soon lose their home of 20 years forever.
At one point, 15 Lubavitcher Hassidim barricaded themselves in a bomb shelter and threatened to set themselves on fire. But police eventually talked them out of this and they were loaded onto a bus for evacuation.
Units swept through the neighborhoods with aerial photos of specific houses they were to evacuate as well as the roster of people in the house and number of rooms.
Senior officers also flooded into the settlements to personally talk with the residents and persuade them to leave. Deals were reached with rabbis and yeshiva heads.
“The moment the settlers cracked and decided not to oppose the evacuation, it was over,” said Col. Imad Fares, deputy head of one the divisions responsible for emptying the settlements.
OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Dan Harel held court beneath a row of large olive trees lining the entrance to Neveh Dekalim. Through noon, the general came under repeated harangues and bitter tongue lashings from the residents who saw in him the epitome of evil coming to remove them from their homes.
“I hear you,” he said often to the man/woman chastising him, begging him not to remove them from their homes.
Harel reached out to give a comforting touch to a woman’s arm.
“Don’t touch me. You should salute me. I was an officer once, you know,” she said. “And don’t crack a smile at me either.”
Shortly later another man yelling at Harel collapsed, apparently from emotion. Harel grabbed him and gently brought him to the grass and poured water on his face.
Verbally defiant, but not wanting to raise their hands against soldiers and police, settlers and right-wing opponents peppered them with epithets or long speeches begging them to quit.
“Lose your Nazi heart,” one mother cradling an infant cried.
“Look at me and then remember me under your huppa,” hissed another.
“Here come the Gestapo,” a youth shouted as Border Police riot squads in black uniforms approached.
In Morag, a settler stabbed a female soldier, slightly injuring her. In Gan Or, a settler burned down his own home. Still unknown was the fate of the evacuation for at least two settlements: Kfar Darom and Netzarim, where hardcore opponents to the disengagement, some still armed, had converged.

THE END was swifter than the IDF and police anticipated. The initial critique showed that the use of overwhelming might with compassionate angst and strong persuasion appeared to have been a success, officers were saying. The sight of columns of disciplined soldiers and police backed by Border Police in haunting black jumpsuits lining streets drove home the total futility in attempting to resist the evacuation.
The army also used the divide-and-conquer rule by separating the local residents from the more fanatical infiltrators. While both were extremely zealous in their opposition, the residents tended to be more pragmatic in arranging their departure.
But even here, an agreement to wink on both sides proved instrumental in evacuating them from at least one settlement. In Tel Katifa, the infiltrators had holed up inside the central synagogue. Col. Yeheskel Aggai, commander of the 188th brigade, entered with some troops and began praying together with them. At end of prayers he told them, “Guys, it’s over. The residents have all already left. Let’s go.”
They said they couldn’t. Aggai said, “I’ll help you.” And they all agreed for Aggai’s forces to carry them out “squirming,” each side knowing they didn’t betray themselves.
The next day the focus was on Kfar Darom where most of the zealots had perched themselves on the roof of the synagogue. A huge sign read: “Kfar Darom will not fall again,” invoking the last stand against the Romans at Massada. They pelted police and soldiers with eggs and paint, but fears of worse violence never materialized – and by dusk it was over. Only the settlement of Netzarim remained.
That weekend, there was a huge beer festival in Tel Aviv.
SETTLERS CARRY out the giant menorah from the synagogue at Netzarim, the last Gaza settlement to be evacuated, August 22, 2005. (Credit: Arieh O'Sullivan)SETTLERS CARRY out the giant menorah from the synagogue at Netzarim, the last Gaza settlement to be evacuated, August 22, 2005. (Credit: Arieh O'Sullivan)
NETZARIM. AUGUST 22, 2005. Dawn in the Gaza Strip that Monday brought an eerie domestic scene to what would be the final day for this last, isolated settlement between Gaza City and the Nuseriat refugee camp. Mothers pushed their strollers through the streets, residents watered their lawns and men crowded the central dome-roofed synagogue for morning prayers.
Adding to the surreal scene was a group of about a dozen young men energetically laying the concrete foundations of a roof of an unfinished house. Flatly rejecting any claims that the roof building was a media ploy, they cited Jewish lore, which says that acts of building can cause miracles. One of the men, named Eviatar, said: “It doesn’t matter what will happen in five minutes. We are building for God.”
By 9:15 a.m., convoys of buses arrived with about 2,500 police, Border Police and soldiers. As they fanned out in the intense morning heat, they were only rarely greeted by the harrowing protests that had characterized many of the evictions elsewhere.
At 1:30 p.m., residents of Netzarim left their homes and gathered for a final prayer in their synagogue before they permanently left the settlement. Rabbis and settler leaders gave emotional but conciliatory addresses. But youth leader Yonatan Sarid, a 20-year-old Golani soldier, struck a chord when he wailed his pain.
“The Arabs couldn’t force us out with all of their attacks, but I ask you all, how can a Jew expel another Jew,” Sarid moaned.
Many worshippers wept and hugged each other supportively. A man fainted and IDF medics quickly treated him. Soldiers stood by outside as some joined in the final afternoon prayers.
As the day wore on, the Netzarim residents held a final procession around their settlement, bidding a final farewell to their home of decades. Netzarim was first established as a military farming outpost in 1972 and 12 years later became a religious kibbutz. In 1992, it became a community village with the influx of dozens of young couples. The IDF had to deploy a full battalion to protect it; 17 soldiers died defending Netzarim.
“The army might have said we were a bone in their throat, but you know, Israel is a bone in the throat of the Arab countries,” said Shlomit Ziv, a longtime resident with eight children.
The rabbis and residents of the settlement carried five Torah scrolls, a two-meter-high menorah, and flags of Israel around the community, evoking images of Roman soldiers carting off the treasures of the Second Temple as depicted on the Arch of Titus in Rome.
After the procession, settlers began to board buses for the Jerusalem to visit the Western Wall, the only remnant of that Temple. They were the last to exit and when they left, it ended 33 years of Jewish settlement in the coastal strip.
The IDF had assembled two ad hoc divisions of soldiers, Border Police and police to carry out the evacuation. Some of these troops were dispatched to Samaria to help evacuate the four settlements there.
Thousands of soldiers remained over the next three weeks, destroying the homes and dismantling the infrastructure.
On August 30, Benjamin Netanyahu announced he was seeking to topple Sharon as Likud Party leader.
On Sunday, September 11, I joined the bizarre, somber ceremony at the IDF’s divisional headquarters next to Khan Yunis. The parking lot had been converted to a parade ground and at exactly 6:49 p.m. the flag was lowered as “Hatikva” was sung by soldiers, commanders and bereaved family members. The Palestinians were supposed to receive maps depicting the infrastructure, agriculture plots, electricity and industrial sites but they boycotted the meeting. Security officials said this was in anger over the decision to leave the Gaza synagogues intact.
The only time the Palestinians had shown any restraint since gaining control of the Gaza Strip in the Oslo peace accords was during the six days of the disengagement. By the time the troops pulled out at dawn on September 12, all control was lost and anarchy erupted. The Palestinian Authority tried to get control of the settlements by passing a law. But the moment Gaza Division commander Brig.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi locked the gates, thousands of Palestinians stormed the remnants of the settlements. The synagogues were looted and destroyed in fire. Everything was carted off, from aluminum window frames to cinder blocks. The hothouses were supposed to have been transferred to the Palestinian farmers, but they too were demolished in the frenzy. Many Israelis spoke of a schadenfreude at the loss. Eventually the former settlements became the realm of armed gangs from various factions.
Sharon had put the burden on the Palestinians to show what they could do on their own – and they utterly failed. They wound up ousting their corrupt Fatah and elected a terrorist, genocidal party called Hamas.
The very day the IDF pulled out, and despite Israel’s stern warning, Palestinians fired Kassam rockets into the Negev.
Israel’s reaction was to do absolutely nothing. Why? It was tired. So the belief took hold that if you shoot at Jews… they run away.
Graffiti in Gaza said: “10 years of Oslo – nothing; four years of intifada – victory.”
THE IDF locks the gate and lowers the flag at dawn on September 12, 2005, as IDF Gaza Division commander Brig.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi salutes. (Credit: Arieh O'Sullivan)THE IDF locks the gate and lowers the flag at dawn on September 12, 2005, as IDF Gaza Division commander Brig.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi salutes. (Credit: Arieh O'Sullivan)
AS FOR the settlers, immediately after the disengagement, as they were sitting in hotel rooms or tent villages, settler leaders began asking themselves some tough questions. How is it that we – lovers of the Land of Israel – ended up losing the People of Israel?
The answers were harsh. Was it their deep inner sense of being in the right that caused their blindness of their waning support in the country?
On the positive side, the disengagement made the settlers’ existence, if not their positions, more familiar to mainstream Israel. Their plight was brought in nightly to everyone’s living room. Israelis saw they were not just some Ashkenazi elites or crazy religious fanatics from Brooklyn. They were farmers of Atzmona, surfers from Shirat Hayam, fishermen from Dugit and Torah scholars from Neveh Dekalim.
They came and produced a viable agriculture and thrived for 30 years in a hostile area, turning it green and fertile – a feat on the order of the first kibbutzim. The last five years they lived in hell, suffering the brunt of Palestinian mortar fire where over 6,000 rounds hit them and whole families were wiped out by armed attacks on their convoys of armored cars.
Many settlers felt that Gaza settlements were a divinely ordered mission and couldn’t fail. The fall of Gush Katif was paramount to the collapse of their ideology and a lack of faith in Israeli leadership. There was a sense that the government was abandoning them.
Israel and the world stared wide-eyed as the 8,000 people – Jewish patriots and salt-of-the-earth-Zionists – were transformed into homeless wandering Jews in the Land of Israel. They found out that Gaza and Gush Katif were just too far from mainstream Israeli consensus for anyone to care.
And I, who spent months in reserve duty in the Gaza Strip over the years, who covered the first and second intifadas there, reported the entry of PLO leader Yasser Arafat to the coastal strip and the lives and deaths of soldiers and the Jewish settlers in their magnificent villages, haven’t been allowed to set foot back into the Gaza Strip ever since. 
The writer was the defense correspondent for The Jerusalem Post from 1996–2006.