A negative balance sheet

Back in 2003-4, when then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon explained to his public why he was dismantling Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and withdrawing the Israel Defense Forces, he cited four rationales: security, economics, "politics"–meaning Israel’s international relations–and demography. Today, two years later, only one of these four justifications for unilateral withdrawal– demography–stands up fully to retrospective scrutiny. This is one reason why the unilateral approach has been so badly discredited among the Israeli public: it was marketed wrong. The other is the withdrawal’s major contribution to the perception that Israel’s deterrent capacity against low-level warfare had been weakened, thereby inviting last summer’s war and wreaking serious security damage.

In assessing the withdrawal from Israel’s standpoint, it is not always easy to distinguish the fallout generated by the IDF redeployment from the consequences of the subsequent Hamas electoral victory and violent takeover of the Strip. In this connection, the argument that Hamas won the elections of January 2006 because of the withdrawal is problematic; a heavier influence on the Palestinian electorate appears to have been Fateh’s corruption and inefficiency. In any event, in assessing the withdrawal two years later we should keep in mind that not everything bad (from Israel’s standpoint) that has happened in and around Gaza since then can be traced to that event.

One area where Israeli security has improved since the redeployment from Gaza is the vast reduction in IDF troops needed to secure the fenced-in Gaza Strip, coupled with reduced Israeli casualties now that there are no settlements there. By most indicators– terrorist attacks, suicide bombings and Israelis killed and wounded–the Gaza withdrawal generated a safer day -to-day environment for Israelis. Indeed, Israel has lost only six soldiers and six civilians in Gaza-related incidents since the withdrawal. On the other hand, Qassam rocket fire into Israel from Gaza increased in 2006– nearly fourfold. This relates to the deterrence factor: the Gaza withdrawal emboldened Hamas and Hizballah to abduct IDF soldiers from Israeli territory in June and July 2006, leading to last summer’s war.

At the economic level, the withdrawal produced only losses. A destitute Gaza buys far less from Israel and the siege of Gaza denies Israel over two million dollars per day in revenues from facilitating imports, exports and joint production of textiles. However, here in particular the main negative economic fallout has to be attributed to the Hamas takeover, not the withdrawal per se.

Turning to Israel’s international and regional relations, the withdrawal was popular with the West and boosted support for Israel. But only in the short run; international attitudes are today molded far more by Hamas’ electoral victory and subsequent takeover of Gaza than by memories of the disengagement, which is generally seen as having been counterproductive to the cause of ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the regional level, Israel successfully used the withdrawal and subsequent negative events in Gaza to enhance its bilateral border security cooperation with Egypt, beginning with Sharon’s invitation to Cairo effectively to replace Israel at the Sinai-Gaza "philadelphi" border.

Finally, at the demographic level, even those critics who argue that Israel is still somehow responsible for the Palestinian population in Gaza, acknowledge that the removal of the settlements and the withdrawal of the IDF from a finite Palestinian territory have radically reduced the number of Palestinians under direct Israeli control and thereby improved Israel’s Jewish-Arab demographic balance. Here it behooves us to recall that the concerted grassroots campaign in favor of unilateral withdrawal that began in earnest in Israel shortly after the outbreak of the second intifada derived its primary impetus from widespread popular alarm concerning the threat posed by occupation-linked "Palestinization" to Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic state.

At the time, moderate right-wingers like Ehud Olmert and a variety of civil society activists rarely promoted disengagement for its economic or diplomatic advantages. They described security benefits strictly in terms of manpower and resources saved by abandoning the impossible task of protecting the Gaza settlements, and of improving national morale by reducing the scope of occupation. Had disengagement been "marketed" to the public strictly along these lines and had the response to the first rocket attacks from Gaza following the withdrawal been far more resolute, Israeli public attitudes to the events of August-September 2005 might be more positive today.

Additional Israeli government mistakes surrounding disengagement have compounded the sense of failure. The Sharon government should at least have attempted to coordinate the withdrawal with the Fateh-led Palestinian government of the day. In retrospect, given Fateh corruption and the rise of Hamas, it might not have mattered, but it was worth a try. Domestically, first Sharon and then Olmert made serious mistakes in dealing with the evacuated settlers and their supporters. Resettlement and re-absorption have been mishandled, leaving a large proportion of the former Gazans (many of whom have been deliberately uncooperative) in temporary housing two years later.

On the other hand, those who used force against Israeli security personnel to try to thwart the evacuation have for the most part, in the spirit of national unity, been forgiven rather than punished even as they challenge "police brutality" in the courts. The settlers in the West Bank now argue that the failure to properly resettle 8,000 of their Gazan brethren negates any possibility of removing any more settlers. To make sure, they have staged mass displays of violence to thwart the few meager attempts the Olmert government has made to dismantle West Bank outposts–in the certainty that they can deter security forces from dealing harshly with them and will in any case be pardoned for their patriotic excesses.

When Sharon carried out the Gaza disengagement in 2005, he was clearly motivated by additional, more personal and political needs that he did not cite publicly: rebuffing criticism from the left and the security community over his lack of a program for accommodation with the Palestinians, neutralizing Bush administration pressure over the roadmap and creating for himself a "flak jacket" of popular support against the day when the attorney general would charge him and his family with electoral funding and other abuses. Then too, unilateralism suited him because he never believed Israel had a serious Arab peace partner.

None of these was a viable rationale for the Gaza withdrawal. Demography and ending occupation was. It’s a pity the post-disengagement phase was so badly handled that it discredited the entire idea. The West Bank is still occupied and the settlements continue to expand. Last summer, we saw just how badly 40 years of occupation have degraded Israel’s national and military capabilities.