Jennifer Loewenstein Archive


From the Foundation for Middle East Peace (

Lessons from Israel's Retreat from Gaza

Settlement Report | Vol. 15 No. 5 | September-October 2005
At 7 am on the morning of September 12, 2005, three IDF soldiers unceremoniously locked the gate at Gaza?s Kissufim crossing point. A few Palestinians approached warily from their side of the just-closed border with Israel. After brief remarks by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) commander before a small crowd of journalists, who except for the distant Palestinians provided the only audience for the historic event, Israel?s failed policy ?creating facts? on the ground came to an anticlimactic end.

The withdrawal, wrote Yehoshua Porath, an Israeli scholar who has written widely on Palestinian nationalism, ?was foreseeable and could have been predicted from the very first moment when Israel commenced its folly of building settlements in the Gaza Strip. . . . Even if Israel had millions of reserve inhabitants and were ready and able to settle there and to transform Gaza?s national character into Jewish- Israeli, there would have been no room for them, either physically or economically. . . . Only a mystical-messianic belief in divine intervention in human destinies can explain why various Israeli governments and parties initiated this folly. The Israeli government decision to evacuate the Gaza Strip results principally from the realization that this situation could not be maintained forever.?

To say that the failure of Israel?s occupation was inevitable, however, does not answer questions critical to understanding the circumstances that compelled Israel to acknowledge it as such. If the collapse of occupation in Gaza was preordained, why didn?t Israel evacuate in 1970, 1980, 1994, or 2003? What lessons can be drawn from the end of Israel?s ill-fated venture? Why did Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decide to leave Gaza? What convinced him and his colleagues that settling in Gaza was no less than a ?historic mistake?? And what does the retreat from Gaza and the abandonment of all settlements there suggest about Israeli policy regarding the sustainablility of settlements in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights? 

1. Facts on the ground are not necessarily permanent.

The Gaza evacuation demonstrates that settlements are not necessarily permanent. Settlement facts on the ground, in and of themselves, do not assure permanent Israeli control over territory or even establish the basis for a secure and permanent Israeli-Jewish presence.

2. An Israeli majority supported the evacuation of Gaza settlements.

The popular antipathy of Israelis toward Gaza and its Palestinian residents is of relatively recent vintage. During most of the 1970s and 1980s, Israelis traveled, toured, and did business with the Palestinians of Gaza, who themselves traveled and worked almost without restriction throughout Israel.

The first intifada, erupting in December 1987, marked the beginning of the end of this comparatively benign relationship. As early as 1992, the Labor Party?s Yitzhak Rabin campaigned for election with the promise to ?Get Gaza out of Tel Aviv,? where knife-wielding Palestinians raised the costs of continuing occupation for Israelis who had hitherto been little bothered by the status quo. Both Sharon and Rabin traced their disenchantment with Israel?s occupation of Gaza to this period.

Gaza?s revolt against Israeli rule did not end during the Oslo years. Settlements became armed camps, and the interests of Palestinians living there were sacrificed to the settlers? wellbeing. This confrontation only hardened during the Al Aqsa intifada of 2000?2004.

In Israel, the depth of popular alienation from the settlement enterprise in Gaza, and the limited social base of its supporters, became clear during the failed campaign led by settlement and rabbinic leaders to stop the evacuation. Indeed, most Israelis were ?disengaged? from the year-long debate about the Gaza settlements? future. According to a poll conducted by The New Wave released on Channel 10 days before the August evacuation, only about a third of those polled even knew where Gush Katif was located. It is difficult to create a national trauma over the evacuation of places that most Israelis cannot find on a map.

3.The decision to evacuate settlements in Gaza marks an
acknowledgement that Israeli security can be enhanced
without settlements and military occupation.

The creation of civilian Israeli settlements in the Gaza
Strip was an integral part of a strategic concept that sought to
create a stable Israeli settler population that would make military
occupation acceptable to the Israeli public. After the June
1967 conquests, Israeli strategists believed that without settlements
to guard and protect, the military occupation of Gaza
could not long endure.

Israel?s withdrawal from Sinai in 1982 challenged this strategy, just as Israel?s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 seemed to confirm it. Under certain circumstances Israeli policymakers believed that Israeli security could be enhanced by withdrawal and evacuating settlements. More recently, Sharon, prompted by a potent combination of increasing human and political costs, determined that settlements in Gaza had become a security liability, whatever the risks posed by withdrawal.

4.The settler lobby is not all powerful.

At the height of the Olso process, a prominent leader of
the settler movement warned a high ranking Palestinian official
that no Israeli policy toward the settlements could be
adopted without settler support. This political axiom, which
was adopted, by choice or fear, by a generation of political
leaders from Israel?s ruling parties, has now been undermined.
Although political opposition to the Gaza disengagement
plan was highest in the ruling Likud Party, popular opposition
failed to resonate beyond a minority in the Orthodox religious
right-wing. The rulings, warnings, and curses of the rabbis
against those who would ?expel Jews? were ignored by most
Israelis. ?There is sympathy for the settlers,? wrote one
columnist during the summer protests, ?but the football game
on TV was more important.?

5. Israel can be compelled to revise its strategy of creating facts.

In 1976 Ariel Sharon was 48 years old. As an IDF commander,
he had defeated a Palestinian insurgency in Gaza earlier
in the decade. Like most Israelis and its supporters in the
West, he believed Israel had established a ?benevolent? and
low cost occupation. In his eyes, ?Arabs,? including those who
were Israeli citizens as well as those living in the occupied territories
under IDF control, were viewed as a monolith. Sharon, like all Israeli leaders of the period, was well aware of the growing Palestinian population west of the Jordan River. But he dismissed its political and moral importance, arguing that the only way for Israel to preserve demographic hegemony and a Jewish democratic state was to retreat to what he mockingly described as ?the patriotic borders of 1947,? that is, the borders outlined in the UN Partition plan. In Sharon?s
view, the 1.2 million Palestinians then living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip represented a marginal factor in Israel?s self-image as a Jewish democratic state and could not be considered a constraint to permanent Israeli rule in territories conquered a decade earlier.

 In a five minute televised address on the eve of Gaza?s evacuation, however, Sharon sang a different tune. ?We cannot hold onto Gaza forever. More than 1 million Palestinians live there and double their number with each generation. They live in uniquely crowded conditions in refugee camps, in poverty and despair, in hotbeds of rising hatred with no hope on the horizon.?

It was not a newfound concern about the demographic contest, which has been an inescapable part of the Israeli/Palestinian landscape for more than one century, that forced upon policymakers like Sharon and Rabin the realization that Israel could not remain in direct occupation of Gaza permanently, but rather Palestinian rebellion that dawned in December 1987 and continued in Gaza for most of the subsequent 18 years. There was no single event, no particular strategy of revolt?knife attacks in Jaffa markets, Qassam firings into Sderot and the Katif bloc, bombings of military convoys moving out of Netzarim or Philadelphi, or suicide bombings in Tel Aviv?that tipped the balance in favor of withdrawal. But only in the context of this broad Palestinian revolt was the self-evident ?demographic threat? able to gain political currency in Israel.

6. Is the Gaza withdrawal a prelude to additional evacuations

in the other territories conquered in June 1967?

Not necessarily. The retreat from Gaza has placed Israel?s occupation squarely within a broader historical experience. When costs outweigh benefits, nations, usually after exhausting all other possibilities, are compelled to do as the balance of forces dictates. It was not easy for Israel?s leadership to reconsider the value of long-held polices that tied Israeli security to the fate of its settlements in Gaza, but persistent
Palestinian opposition to the status quo left them little choice.

Israeli policymakers have yet to solve the crisis caused by Palestinian opposition to Israeli plans to dominate and settle the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Since 1967, Israel, with the international community in tow, has implemented an array of policies meant to keep the the fruits of its 1967 victory at manageable cost. The Oslo accords and the separation barrier now being constructed in the West Bank are two of the more recent examples of this ongoing effort to give Israel both security and settlements. The retreat from Gaza suggests
a different outcome.
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Jennifer Loewenstein