The tragic mistake was settling Gaza in the first place

The Gush Katif settlements constituted a futile security risk.

abandoned settlement 311 (photo credit: Gaston Zvi Ickowicz)
abandoned settlement 311
(photo credit: Gaston Zvi Ickowicz)
Five years ago, on April 16, 2005, I published an Op-Ed article in The Jerusalem Post, “A mistake from the start,” in which I pointed out that many of our top military and political thinkers were fully aware of the tragic fact that the settlements in Gush Katif were a strategic mistake from the start. Not only did they not contribute to Israel’s security, but they resulted in a serious security burden for the army and the nation as well as a futile and tragic security risk for the settlers who were sacrificing themselves and their children for ideological goals. I also pointed out that according to Halachic authorities, Gush Katif was never considered part of historic Eretz Yisrael.
Today, I think it is appropriate to refresh our memories on the many, geo-political, strategic and human reasons that justified Israel’s withdrawal from Gush Katif five years ago. This is particularly appropriate at this time to balance the crocodile tears being shed by the media and the former settlers over the “ tragedy” of the disengagement.
The resettlement of the settlers was badly bungled and led to much pain and many personal hardships, particularly for those settlers who refused to accept the timely offers of re-settlement before the final date of the withdrawal. The withdrawal, without the politically essential element of reaching a prior agreement with the Palestinians, has resulted in a painful and costly security threat to the communities surrounding Gaza, which have been exposed for many of the past years to thousands of deadly rockets that turned their lives into a life-threatening nightmare.
While all of this is sadly true and despite these serious political mistakes and the gross mismanagement, the disengagement itself was an essential and unavoidable strategic step needed to save the lives of the settlers and to free the army and the country from an intolerable and indefensible military burden of unneeded settlements of no security value.
IT IS fitting at this time to review the important strategic and geopolitical reasons which justified the withdrawal. These reasons convinced prime minister Ariel Sharon, the cabinet, the majority of the Knesset, most of the senior officers of the IDF and the vast majority of the nation to accept the idea of the planned evacuation of the settlements in Gaza and Northern Samaria as vital to Israel’s strategic and political interests.
The settlements in Gush Katif lost whatever strategic justification they may initially have had after the peace agreement with Egypt and the withdrawal from Sinai. This was stated clearly by Likud leader and former minister of defense Moshe Arens. “…the idea that we needed Israeli settlements in the Rafah salient (Gush Katif) to constitute a wedge between the Palestinians and Sinai was erroneous… and Sharon’s idea of expanding these settlements after the withdrawal from Sinai made no sense at all” (Ha’aretz, February 17, 2004).
In the words of defense minister Shmuel Mofaz “The settlements of Gush Katif are of no security importance and were a serious strategic error!”
Most military authorities agreed that the Gush Katif settlements never were the front line of Israel’s defense as claimed by the settlers.
The IDF had come to the conclusion that the settlements in Gush Katif and Gaza, surrounded by a million Palestinians, were essentially indefensible and had become a serious security burden which stretched the army to its limits as a result. Policing Gaza and defending the settlements there resulted in the exhaustion and demoralization of many key IDF units, whose readiness as essential combat units was undermined.
Military Intelligence experts warned that the real strategic danger to Israel’s existence was developing in the north as a result of the Syrian- Iranian military/political alignment which presented a serious threat to Israel. These two countries, as we now know, created a new, dangerous alliance encompassing Hizbullah and the Islamic Jihad. In order to regroup to meet that danger from the north, the IDF had to be relieved of the exhausting burden of the useless defense of the Gaza settlements and the agonizing task associated with the disengagement.
IT SHOULD be remembered now, five years later, that the plan for withdrawal of the settlements in Gush Katif, Gaza and Northern Samaria became the Law of the Land, having been fully approved by Israel’s democratic processes with a clear majority vote in the government and Knesset. The proposed legislation for a referendum was rejected by a massive vote of the Knesset of 72 to 39. The political struggle to bloc the withdrawal ended in failure, as did the dream of winning over the hearts of the Israeli public. Survey after survey showed that a majority of the Israeli public supported the withdrawal plan.
The human tragedy of the Gush Katif settlers deserves our deepest understanding and compassion. They were and are the tragic victims of political manipulations and strategic errors made by political and ideological leaders who sent them to settle in the area and encouraged them to stay on. Undoubtedly the need to remove people from their homes and relocate them in Israel was an agonizing event and there is naturally much justified public empathy for the plight of the settlers.
However, the withdrawal from Gush Katif was not a “tragedy.” The decision to settle there in the first place was the tragic mistake.
The writer, a former officer in the Israel Defense Forces and Professor Emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is a member of the Israel Council for Peace and Security.