A year on

An in-depth look at disengagement one year later, and in a post-unilateralist war in the North.

zimevac 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
zimevac 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The original sin was the Egyptians'. In 1948, Gaza, Rafah and Khan Yunis were just small sleepy towns when thousands of Palestinian refugees arrived there, fleeing the victorious Jewish forces. They were barred from moving on, and the festering refugee camps were founded in the small area that the Egyptian Army had succeeded in grabbing in their futile attempt to strangle the new Israeli state at birth. That was the first "occupied territory," a narrow coastal enclave that was given the name "the Gaza Strip." Rather than annexing it to Egypt or laying the foundations for the Arab state that the UN partition resolution had envisaged, the Egyptians kept the refugees in abject poverty, fuelling their resentment with empty promises of revenge on the Jews and return to their lost homes. As an outlet for their frustration and to keep up the pressure on Israel, Egyptian intelligence officers organized and armed the Fedayeen, groups of bandits that nightly roamed the Negev, murdering, pillaging and spreading terror in the isolated southern kibbutzim and on the lonely roads. The death toll mounted and Gaza became synonymous with the terror threat that would bedevil Israel throughout all its history, a barbed thorn stuck in the country's side. "Retribution" raids by Arik Sharon's 101 Unit and the paratroopers battalion that evolved from it briefly alleviated the South's plight, but the threat wasn't eradicated, not even when the IDF briefly occupied the strip during the 1956 Sinai Campaign. The Six Day War that saw Israel's lightning capture of the entire Sinai Peninsula was also the end of the Egyptian influence in the strip, at least for the next 38 years, but the terror didn't disappear. It was swiftly regenerated by Yasser Arafat's Fatah which quickly established terror cells and concentrated their attacks on IDF troops and Israeli citizens who flocked to Gaza's cheap markets immediately after the Six Day War. The army's main attention in those years leading up to the Yom Kippur War was on the war of attrition on the Suez Canal, and it was ill-equipped to deal with the micro-warfare of the refugee camps. In 1970 it was Arik Sharon again, this time as OC Southern Command, who gave the order to stamp out the Fatah in the strip. He authorized Meir Dagan, a then young captain, now Mossad Chief, to set up the small Rimon unit, which used ruthless urban warfare and counter terrorism tactics to kill hundreds of Fatah members. Dagan's controversial methods were effective, and widespread terror was to return to Gaza only fifteen years later when the first Intifada broke out in December 1987. Rimon was disbanded in 1972 and during the 15 years in which relative calm prevailed in the strip, Israelis continued doing their shopping there. Some even took advantage of the lower prices and did their dental treatment in Gaza and driving lessons in Khan Yunis. It was during this lull in terror activity that the second original sin took place. In the decade following the 1967 war, Israel's leaders were waiting for the proverbial "telephone call from the Arab leaders." The territories acquired in 1967 were seen either as the redeemed biblical homeland or legitimate spoils of war. In the new border-areas, the Labor government reverted to the traditional Zionist method of securing the land not only by military means but also by building new settlements. One of the most overlooked historical facts about the Gush Katif settlements is that they were originally founded by the governments of Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin, long before the right wing came to power in 1977. Kfar Darom, scene of the most protracted struggle against evacuation, was founded in 1970 as a Nahal outpost and gained civilian status in 1975. Over the next three years the same process took place in Netzarim, Katif and Netzer Hazani. The government's intention was to build small villages at strategic points to contain and control the surrounding burgeoning urban slums. No one gave a thought to the future, two or three decades down the line, when the Gaza Strip would be seen by other governments as more of a burden than an asset. Golda and Rabin were perfectly happy to give the young farmers, mainly of the religious Hapoel Hamizrahi (that was still seen then as Labor's historical political ally), hundreds of acres of empty sand dunes on which to build their greenhouses. It was a natural extension of the Zionist ethos. The small farming communities would have no real political significance until the 1980s. THE MID-1970S saw the birth of a new political movement. The young generation of the national-religious movement saw the liberated Judea and Samaria, the land of the Bible, as the homeland that had been forgotten since the beginning of the Zionist movement and took it upon themselves to reclaim the Jewish people's historical birthright. Not deterred by governmental opposition and international disapproval, the Gush succeeded in setting up dozens of settlements over the length and breadth of the West Bank. As with the original Zionism, this was a fusion between ancient belief in the ownership of the land and a more secular notion of nationalism and security. Gush Emunim's spiritual founder, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, cried out on Independence Day at his Merkaz Harav Yeshiva in May 1967, "Where is our Hebron, are we forgetting it? And where is our Nablus, and our Jericho, and the other side of the Jordan [which] is also ours; every piece of the land, can we forsake even a millimeter of it?" Two weeks later the IDF indeed captured Hebron, Nablus and Jericho. The Gaza Strip was also acquired then but it wasn't part of the rabbi's timely prophecy. Despite the fact that the Jews had lived in Gaza for many generations up to the widespread pogroms in 1929, it wasn't even considered by most rabbis as part of the historical Eretz Yisrael. Gush Emunim's efforts were concentrated in Judea and Samaria and to a slightly lesser degree in the Golan Heights. The attitude of the settlers' movement changed in the 1980s - and that was the third original sin. The settlements around Gaza first gained political importance immediately after the pullback from Sinai as part of the Camp David accords with Egypt. Gush Emunim tried to mobilize public opinion against the dismantlement of the Sinai farms and the town of Yamit in 1981. Thousands traveled south to bodily block the evacuation, but in the end they gave up with only a token fight. "The nation is not with us," they belatedly realized. Euphoria at the prospect of peace with Egypt had swept public opinion and the settlers had embarked on a path of marginalization. They were viewed as extremists by mainstream Israelis. The Gaza Strip remained the only territory captured in 1967 on the southern front in Israeli hands and the settlers vowed to strengthen the area. New settlements were set up and more ideological members joined them. Two other events spurred their determination. The "territorial compromise" plan set forward by the Labor Party led by Shimon Peres included the relinquishing of control over the strip, and in 1987, when the first Palestinian Intifada broke out, most Israelis stopped seeing the strip as a convenient shopping venue. Instead, they began regarding it as a hellish terror center, one that should be cut off from the rest of Israel and if possible set adrift in the Mediterranean. The Jews who insisted on living there were seen as lunatics. These feelings were utilized by Yitzhak Rabin when he signed the Oslo Agreement in 1993 with the PLO, granting Yasser Arafat control over the Gaza Strip and Jericho. Overnight the peaceful settlers of Gush Katif were forced to live and work in small enclaves. They were surrounded by hostile Palestinian police and their agricultural communities were regarded as an obstacle to any future "peace" agreement. They were to hold on tenaciously for another twelve years, developing their communities, expanding their farms and businesses, raising children and welcoming new families who saw living there a sacred mission, but in effect they were fighting a losing battle. The settler's leadership - none of whom actually lived in Gush Katif - had encouraged them to hang on and to believe that remaining in their homes was only a matter of perseverance and faith. All the while, the wide majority of the Israeli public, including many on the Right, had already come to terms with the fact that Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip had no long-term future. The Oslo process failed, Rabin was assassinated, Peres lost yet another election, Ehud Barak tried his hand and the terror returned under the guise of the Second Intifada. But the settlers of Gush Katif were living on borrowed time. IN THE END it was Sharon of all people, Sharon who had said only a year earlier that "Netzarim is just like Tel Aviv," who gave the order for disengagement. His supporters, those who remained loyal to him, gave rational reasons for his about-face. His old and now betrayed allies were convinced that he was bowing to pressure from the left-wing "law and order establishment" who had the goods on him. None of that mattered. Sharon had the necessary majority in the Knesset, despite open rebellion within the Likud. The settlers were capable of bringing tens of thousands to anti-disengagement rallies, but despite opinion polls that showed one-third of the population opposed to the pullback, only a few thousand (mainly) young diehards actually joined their brothers in active opposition to the evacuation. The Israeli public stood by while the bulldozers began rolling southward. Many of them sympathized with the families about to lose their homes, but they had already given up Gush Katif in their hearts years ago. The media was full of apocalyptic visions of mass suicides and settlers firing on soldiers; none of that materialized. Six days were sufficient for the massive force assembled to evacuate 21 settlements in the strip and four more in Northern Samaria. Most of them left quietly. Some had to be bodily removed by the soldiers but few put up a struggle. The siege scenes in Kfar Darom, Neveh Dekalim, Sa-Nur and Homesh mainly involved youngsters who came from outside. The settlers of Gush Katif never gave up. Right until the end they saw themselves as the small vanguard of a whole nation - a nation whose leaders in their opinion were wrong, tragically wrong. But at the last moment, they made a collective decision not to fight their own nation. The settlers had looked over the abyss and taken a step back from the brink. Sharon had taken a gamble on the settlers' loyalty and sense of responsibility. He had won his gamble, the settlers had won their moral victory. They had sacrificed their homes, their livelihood, decades of hard work and their children's birthplaces. They resigned themselves to an uncertain future of refugee status on the altar of national unity and Klal Yisrael. A year has passed and few still appreciate that sacrifice. The anniversary events were poorly attended and received scant media attention. The main reason is, of course, the new war in Lebanon but it's hard to claim that even if we were going through a period of calm, many more people would have come out. Gush Katif has been forgotten by those who didn't fight for its survival. The capture of Corporal Gilad Shalit and the fact that the IDF is once again operating within Gaza has given the opponents of disengagement a sense of vindication and obviously converted some of the original supporters. But most Israelis still heave a sigh of relief that there are no more settlers there and hope that our soldiers will also leave as soon as possible. The only uncontested conclusion is that Gaza remains a painful thorn in our side and will continue to hurt us for the foreseeable future.