Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza 10 years ago was a strategic disaster. But it could have been much more devastating if the ideologues behind it had had their way.
Formally, the withdrawal was supposed to do two things. It was supposed to strengthen Israel’s diplomatic position vis-à-vis the US and Europe by demonstrating Israel’s commitment to Palestinian statehood, and it was supposed to enhance Israel’s security by redeploying the IDF along more defensible lines.
Neither argument for the withdrawal was particularly plausible. But due to the media’s lockstep support for it, neither was seriously challenged.
The truth is, these justifications were never anything more than a smoke screen to hide the true purpose of the withdrawal from the public. The real purpose of the withdrawal from Gaza was to deal a strategic blow to Zionism and the Jewish character of the state.
The destruction of those communities – and the expulsion of the 350,000 Jews who live in them – was also not an end unto itself. For the leftist ideologues who invented the idea of unilaterally withdrawing from Gaza, destroying the settlement enterprise is a necessary precondition for destroying religious Zionism.
And religious Zionism has to be destroyed in order to destroy Zionism.
This true purpose of the Gaza withdrawal was made clear by leftist ideologues in the months that preceded the withdrawal.
For instance, Haaretz published an editorial a month before the withdrawal explaining, “The real question is not how many mortar shells will fall, or who will guard the Philadelphi Route [between Gaza and Egypt], or whether the Palestinians will dance on the roofs of [the destroyed communities].
“The real question is who sets the national agenda. The disengagement of Israeli policy from its religious fuel is the real disengagement currently on the agenda. On the day after the disengagement, religious Zionism’s status will be different.”
As the leftist ideologues perceived things, it wasn’t enough to simply kick the settlers out of their homes and destroy their communities. They had to be humiliated and made to suffer in order to ensure that no one would dare to identify with them.
Haaretz columnist Avirama Golan explained that doing so would empty the expulsions of political significance.
In her words, “Transferring the evacuees from Gush Katif to a brand new neighborhood built especially for them along the beautiful strip of Nitzanim transmits a problematic implicit message. This is a message that says to the Jewish settlers in the territories: ‘You are a chosen group. You will not be like all the other Israelis.’ If this is what the government does in the evacuation of Gush Katif, the main sting of the evacuation of the settlements will be neutralized. It will be as though nothing has been done.”
The goal of the Left in destroying the Jewish communities, and indeed the goal of the so-called peace movement was laid out explicitly in November 2013 by Ron Pundak, Yossi Beilin’s partner in negotiating the Oslo Accords with the PLO in 1993.
In an interview with the International Crisis Group Pundak explained, “Peace is not an objective by itself. It is a way to transition Israel from one era to another: to an era of what I consider is a normal state. Israelization of society rather than its judaization.”
Demonization and disenfranchisement were key components of the Left’s campaign against Jewish Israel. For the withdrawal from Gaza to serve as a stepping stone toward a withdrawal from Judea and Samaria, the public needed to become fully alienated from its fellow Israelis whose lives were being shattered.
Opinion-makers from Dan Margalit and Ari Shavit to Yair Lapid jumped on the anti-religious bandwagon and sought to outdo one another in stirring up irrational hatred for the 8,500 Jews of Gaza and their supporters.
Margalit called for the institution of a numerus clausus against religious Zionists serving in the IDF. Strict limits, he said, should be placed on the number of religious Israelis permitted to serve as officers.
Lapid insisted that the settlers were not his brothers and he wouldn’t have a problem going to war against them.
Shavit wrote that the settlers deserved no protection from the IDF, because as far as he was concerned, they weren’t Israelis.
Day after day the media machine spewed out hatred and derision against the Jews of Gaza. Day after day the public was told that religious Zionists were fanatics and potential terrorists.
The police, public prosecution and Supreme Court all joined the action. The civil rights of opponents of the withdrawal were trampled. Organizers of lawful protests were subjected to warrantless pre-dawn raids on their homes. Protesters, including children, were arrested without charge and often held in custody for months.
Police interdicted licensed buses en route to lawful demonstrations to prevent law-abiding citizens from protesting the planned expulsions.
Given the atmosphere of hatred that blanketed the country, as the expulsions approached, the Left had every reason to believe that it was on track to destroy its harshest ideological opponents and so remake Israel in its post-Zionist image.
Perhaps the most promising aspect of the expulsions, from the Left’s perspective, was that the IDF was tasked with carrying them out. Having the most beloved and revered institution in the country carry out the Left’s dirty work meant that any attempt by the settlers to defy the expulsion orders would be viewed by the public as an assault not on the Left, but on the army. And that would finish off whatever residual public sympathy for the settlers that the pre-expulsion demonization hadn’t successfully expunged.
But then someone gummed up the works.
Five months before the expulsions, then-IDF chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Moshe Ya’alon appointed Brig.-Gen. Gershon Hacohen to command the expulsions from Gush Katif.
Hacohen was a tank division commander appointed to the Northern Command. He was appointed because he was a prince of the national-religious community.
Hacohen’s grandfather had been one of the founders of Mizrahi, the religious-Zionist movement.
His father was one of the founders of the Gush Emunim settlement movement.
After Ya’alon appointed him to command the expulsions, Hacohen came under massive pressure from the Right to resign his commission. If you quit in protest, he was told, then the expulsions will be canceled.
But Hacohen felt differently. As he saw it, the minute the Knesset approved the plan, there was no turning back. The expulsions would happen. And if he resigned his commission, the Left would have wrecked his reputation in a heartbeat. As the son of settler leaders, his action would have been immediately explained away as the act of a settler fanatic and as proof that religious soldiers shouldn’t be promoted.
Hacohen understood the Left. He knew that it meant it when it said that its goal was not only to destroy the settlements in Gaza but to discredit religious Zionism in order to de-link Israel from Judaism.
Because Hacohen recognized the Left’s purpose in conducting the expulsions, he understood that it wasn’t simply the fate of Gush Katif that hung in the balance, but the future of Israel itself.
And so, when he set about preparing the expulsions, Hacohen conceived an operation that would prevent the expulsions from serving any larger destructive purpose.
For the Left’s plan to succeed, the expulsions had to be perceived by the public as a physical and ideological clash between the settlers and the soldiers.
Hacohen worked to prevent the public from receiving that impression. Rather than prepare the soldiers for a clash with the settlers, Hacohen set up the expulsions as a national tragedy which the soldiers and the settlers would experience together.
To this end, in the weeks before the expulsions, Hacohen ordered his officers and soldiers to mingle inside the communities of Gush Katif they were set to evacuate. Rather than treat the villages as hostile zones, soldiers and officers were given the opportunity to see that the settlers were no different from them.
By the time the expulsions were carried out, the soldiers felt little alienation from the settlers. Consequently, the clash the Left anticipated never happened.
Instead, Israelis glued to their television sets watched as soldiers and settlers prayed and mourned together at the soon-to-be-abandoned synagogues of Gush Katif. They watched as the commander of the Golani Brigade embraced the youth of Moshav Gadid and cried with them.
Far from destroying the Jewish character of the state, let alone destroying the bond between religious Zionism and the state, the expulsions strengthened both.
Weeks after the withdrawal was completed, Haaretz’s Orit Shochat lamented, “Soldiers who experienced the evacuation won’t travel to an ashram in India because they discovered that there is an ashram next door. The same Jewish religion that they hadn’t seen up close for a long time embraces them into its fold with song and a tear and a common fate.
“They have now sat arm-in-arm at the synagogues in Gush Katif, they have now felt the holiness mixed with sweat, they have now moved rhythmically and sung songs, they have stood in line to kiss the Torah scrolls, they are now half-inside.”
Shochat was a lone voice on the Left. Most of her comrades didn’t understand what had just happened.
Ehud Olmert for one didn’t get it at all. When the next year Olmert ordered the police to forcibly evacuate Amona, a neighborhood in Ofra, he expected that it would be easy. He assumed the public would support the move, just as it supported the withdrawal from Gush Katif. In the weeks leading up to the evacuation, the media conducted the same demonization of the settlers in Ofra that they had of their brethren in the Gush Katif.
But the public wouldn’t stand for it. When the police attacked the youth holed up in the homes set for destruction, the public sided with the settlers, not with the police.
Far from preparing the psychological foundation for further expulsions, the IDF’s conduct of the withdrawal from Gush Katif destroyed that foundation.
The public was no longer willing to accept the lie of settler fanaticism.
The settlements of Gaza were destroyed 10 years ago. Israel has been paying the physical price of the strategic lunacy of the withdrawal ever since. But due to a significant degree to Hacohen’s leadership, ironically, Israeli society emerged stronger, more Zionist and prouder of its Jewishness than ever before.
Reprinted with author’s permission from The Jerusalem Post