In August 2005, Ariel Sharon, then Prime Minister of Israel, launched the Gaza Disengagement Plan. Over a period of days, c. 8,500 Israeli citizens were forcibly removed from the Gaza Strip by the Israeli military in a gesture of peace to the Palestinians. The Palestinians were given control over the Gaza Strip, except for the borders, the airspace and the territorial waters.
Jewish families were forcibly uprooted from land they had owned and cultivated for decades. Empty homes were razed to the ground, palm trees uprooted and very soon the land was free of Jews. ‘I hope the departure of our forces from the Gaza Strip,’ said Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, ‘symbolizes the beginning of a period of tranquillity.’
Sharon insisted that the move would ‘grant Israeli citizens the maximum level of security’. Motivated by high ideals, his was the hope that land could be exchanged for peace with the Palestinians. Commentators around the world anticipated that the Gaza Strip would be transformed into the Hong Kong of the Middle East. The result? No less than five wars since 2005 and a perpetual barrage of Hamas rockets against Israelis.
Following Israeli withdrawal, the Islamic Resistance Movement (i.e. Hamas) subsequently won the elections in Gaza and have remained in power there ever since, removing all political opposition by force. Jewish synagogues left in the area were desecrated and greenhouses looted. A designated terrorist organization, Hamas started firing rockets into Israel as early as September of 2005. Their rocket attacks have necessitated a military blockade of Gaza on the part of both Israel and Egypt. The rocket attacks continue to this day and with ever greater potency.
Since December 2005, Palestinian terrorist attacks have claimed at least 203 Israeli lives. That death toll would be even higher if it were not for Israeli defence systems. This is to say nothing of the intense psychological damage and disruption to daily life that said terrorism causes in Israel. When Hamas fire rockets, the targets are always innocent civilians. It goes without saying that we are no nearer a peace deal between Israel and Palestine than we were in 2005.
This would explain the contemporary reluctance of the Israeli government to give up settlements in the West Bank. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stated clearly:
‘There cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.’
Indeed, to abandon settlements in the West Bank would be to repeat the catastrophe of 2005 but on an even larger scale. As in Gaza, so-called ‘moderates’ in a West Bank free of Israeli security would be swept aside by the extremists who would operate as proxies for the Islamic Republic of Iran, a state fully committed to destroying the State of Israel and exterminating its Jewish populace. Densely populated Israeli cities would be easy targets for Iranian-manufactured rockets in the hands of Hamas terrorists in the West Bank.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog of the centrist Zionist Union party called Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza a “mistake” in terms of its security implications for Israel. ‘Security,’ said Cicero, ‘is the highest law’. Israelis are not willing to compromise on security in the hope that the extremists will see sense. They will never see sense. One need only consult the Hamas Covenant to appreciate that reason is not their language and that negotiation is not their intention. Israel, like any other state in the world, has every right under international law to defend itself. That is why it simply cannot relinquish its settlements as it has done in the past.
The supreme irony, of course, is that the weight of international opinion expects Israel, and not the Palestinians, to make concessions and to broker peace. This is despite the fact that the Palestinians have been offered statehood on no less than five occasions, and rejected it each time. Israeli settlements are condemned in international forums – despite their being crucial to Israeli security – whilst the illegal seizure of Palestinian land by neighbouring Arab states occurs without condemnation (e.g. the Egyptian seizure of Gaza and the Jordanian seizure of the West Bank).
This is but on example of the double standards that permeate the Arab-Israel Conflict. To paraphrase Alan Dershowitz (himself a critic of Israeli settlement policy) writing in The Case for Israel, the Conflict is too complex for simple finger pointing in only one direction. Unfortunately, that is the motif of the Conflict and the Israelis suffer the brunt of it.
The classic charge is that Israeli settlements constitute an insurmountable obstacle to the peace process. This accusation is undermined by the simple fact that Palestinian opposition to the peace process pre-dates Israeli settlement policy. Since its inception, the State of Israel has fought three defensive inter-state wars: 1948, 1967 and 1973, before construction of settlements.
In each case, Israelis were fighting to survive. The Arabs were fighting to eliminate the State of Israel due to its very nature as a Jewish State. Until Arabs can come to accept the right of the Jewish people to self-determination there can be no peace in the region. It is, at root, a war not of settlements or legal technicalities but of religion. It is not Israeli settlements that Palestinians oppose but Israel itself. To quote Melanie Phillips:
‘[History tells] us this has always been at base a war of religion. In the 1920s, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, incited pogroms against the returning Jews by claiming falsely that the Jews intended to destroy al-Aksa. Virtually the same words are being used today by the mufti’s contemporary cheerleader, Mahmoud Abbas…the way this issue has been framed is fundamentally wrong. It is not a “conflict” but a war of annihilation.’
The Two-State Solution?
The 2005 Gaza Disengagement – a stain on Israel’s history – can be seen as a microcosm of the wider Arab-Israeli Conflict: Israel relinquished territory in a gesture of peace and received Hamas rockets in return. 2005 offered the Palestinians a real chance at self-rule and self-determination. That chance was squandered. The rise of Hamas in Gaza undermines the credibility of a two-state solution,’ stated Efraim Inbar, a professor at Bar-Ilan University. ‘It shows the Palestinians are not capable of establishing a state as the world understands the word.’
It comes as no surprise, then, that for many the Gaza Disengagement serves as yet another crack in the fragile edifice of the two-state solution. That paradigm presupposes that both sides are committed to peace and co-existence. Unfortunately, history would suggest that one side is still no where near that essential compromise.
If the Palestinians truly desire to live side by side with their Jewish neighbours and to have a state of their own they would have achieved this by now. This is the tragic crux of the Conflict. And this is hopefully why Israel will never again repeat the mistake of 2005.