What: Israel dismantled its illegal settlements in the Gaza Strip, withdrawing all settlers and ground troops from the enclave.
Where: The Gaza Strip, occupied Palestine.
When: 15 August 2005.
On 15 August 2005, Israel began its disengagement from the Gaza Strip, which it had occupied since the Six Day War of 1967. Over the course of 38 years, Israel established some 21 settlements across the coastal enclave and transferred approximately 9,000 settlers into the territory, in contravention of international law.
Faced with spiralling costs of administering the territory, Israel decided to pull its armed forces and illegal settlers from the Strip. As the world’s cameras rolled, those settlers unwilling to leave were dragged from their houses, a perfect PR moment demonstrating Israel’s “willingness” to withdraw from the occupied territories in a bid to “rekindle” the peace process.
Fourteen years later, Israel has not actually disengaged from Gaza; it still maintains control of its land borders, access to the sea and airspace. Gaza’s 1.9-million population remains under “remote control” occupation and a strict siege, which has destroyed the local economy and strangled Palestinian livelihoods.
Sharon’s grand plan
Although disengagement officially began in 2005, the policy had been long in the making. In the midst of the Second Intifada – a popular uprising across the Palestinian territories which took place between September 2000 and early 2005 – the then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proposed disengaging from the Gaza Strip.
Prior to Israel’s January 2003 election, Sharon had expressed support for his country’s continued settlement of the Strip, saying that “the fate of Tel Aviv is the fate of Netzarim”, a settlement located south of Gaza City. Yet following his election Sharon appeared to change his mind, explaining in December of that year that “the purpose of the Disengagement Plan is to reduce terror as much as possible, and grant Israeli citizens the maximum level of security.”
He continued: “The process of disengagement will lead to an improvement in the quality of [Israeli] life, help strengthen the Israeli economy, […] will increase security for the residents of Israel and relieve the pressure on the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] and security forces.”
In an April 2004 letter to the then US President George W Bush, Sharon outlined his vision of disengagement, proposing that Israel “relocate military installations and all Israeli villages and towns in the Gaza Strip.” The plan was to include the removal of four illegal settlements from the northern West Bank.
In October of that year, the Knesset gave preliminary approval for Sharon’s proposal. One of its most vehement critics was Minister of Foreign Affairs Benjamin Netanyahu, who threatened to resign from the government unless Sharon put the plan to a public referendum. He eventually backed down, citing the “new situation” presented by the expected departure of long-time Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who died on 11 November 2004.
In February 2005, the disengagement plan was approved officially by the Knesset, while in March Israeli citizens who did not already live in the Gaza Strip were forbidden from settling in the territory. The stage was set.
Lights, camera, action
On 15 August, Israel began to carry out its disengagement. Gush Katif – a settlement bloc in the south of the Strip – was declared a closed military zone and the Kissufim crossing, the main artery connecting the settlement to Israel, was closed.
At 08:00 local time [05:00 GMT], Israeli forces entered Gush Katif, going door to door with instructions that the settlers must leave. Some agreed to do so peacefully, having been offered compensation packages up to $500,000. Others refused to leave, prompting the Israeli army to drag them forcibly from their settlements.
Images of settlers being hauled kicking and screaming from their homes were broadcast across the world. Israeli soldiers sobbed as they reluctantly followed orders. Some settler children left their homes with their hands up, wearing yellow Stars of David akin to those which marked out Jews during the Holocaust. These “rivers of wailing” were described by the Israeli press as “kitsch” and “shallow”, while many Israelis vehemently criticised the settlers’ invocation of the Holocaust.
As Donald Macintyre — the former Jerusalem bureau chief for the Independent — noted in his book Gaza: Preparing for dawn, “There was something theatrical about this enforced leave-taking – and indeed about the whole Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.”
By 22 August, the evacuation was largely complete. Israeli forces bulldozed thousands of houses, community buildings and places of worship; even the corpses in Jewish cemeteries were exhumed and reburied in Israel.
Most of Israel’s military apparatus was removed and, on 21 September, the government declared the Gaza Strip to be extrajudicial territory and designated the crossings into the enclave as international borders requiring travel documentation.
In the days that followed, Palestinians walked the streets of the now-abandoned settlements, which had been off-limits for decades. Children collected footballs and toys left behind by Israeli children to take home to their siblings. People rejoiced that the occupation had gone, while others rushed to the sea they previously could not reach. The celebrations would not last for long.
What happened next?
As Macintyre points out, although disengagement “was indeed a historic precedent, the paradox was that it also marked the beginning of a crippling decade-long economic blockade of Gaza and three military onslaughts by Israel more devastating than any in the territory’s turbulent history.”
Perhaps the seeds of what was to come were sown in September 2005. Less than a week after Israel declared Gaza extrajudicial territory, Israeli jets bombed the Strip, killing several Palestinians, among them Islamic Jihad commander Mohammed Khalil. Israeli strikes also hit a school and other buildings that it claimed were being used to make rockets.
Israel’s narrative surrounding disengagement claims that, following its decision to pull out of the Strip, Palestinians were given a golden opportunity to become economically prosperous. This narrative often points to greenhouses left behind by the settlers which, as the story goes, were immediately destroyed by Palestinians in a characteristic frenzy of short-sightedness.
However, though some of the greenhouses were looted for their component parts, they largely remained intact. The November harvest yielded $20 million worth of fruits and vegetables ready for export to Europe and beyond, most of which rotted in the autumn heat as it waited for security inspections at Karni Border Crossing. According to UN estimates, just four per cent of the season’s harvest was exported.
Remote control occupation
In January 2006, Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections were held across the Gaza Strip and occupied West Bank. Hamas, then a popular Palestinian movement, won 74 of the 132 seats, beating Fatah — which had dominated Palestinian politics for decades — to the top spot. The Islamic movement’s Ismail Haniyeh was elected as PA Prime Minister.
By February, Israel had suspended the transfer of customs duties to the Palestinian Authority (PA), imposing travel restrictions on Hamas members in Gaza. After Fatah refused to cooperate with the Hamas-led government — and a faction within Fatah was backed by Israel and the US to stage a coup against Hamas — a de facto civil war ensued, leading to the eventual split of the government in June 2007 and the consolidation of Hamas rule in the Strip, with Fatah continuing to govern under Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.
The end of 2007 saw Israel completely seal Gaza’s borders, subjecting it to a strict siege which continues until today.
Over the course of the now 12-year-old siege, Israel has continued to strangle Gaza at arm’s length. Three major Israeli military offensives — in which almost 4,000 Palestinians were killed — and innumerable aerial attacks later, the Strip’s infrastructure and healthcare system lay in tatters. Approximately 54 per cent of Gaza’s population is now unemployed, while 53 per cent live under the official poverty line of $2 per day.
“Unliveable”, “open-air prison” and “remote control” occupation have become commonplace when describing the coastal enclave today. Gaza remains occupied territory, having no control over its borders, territorial waters or airspace. Meanwhile, Israel upholds very few of its responsibilities as the occupying power, failing to provide for the basic needs of Palestinian civilians living in the territory.
Within Israel, disengagement is broadly seen as a mistake, not due to the dire humanitarian conditions affecting the Palestinians in its wake, but because it did not bring any “security or diplomatic advantage” to Israel.
Today, high profile members of Israel’s political establishment, including Culture Minister Miri Regev and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, have expressed regret at Israel’s disengagement from Gaza. Right-wing politicians such as leader of Yamina, Ayelet Shaked, and Transport Minister Bezalel Smotrich have called for the repeal of disengagement and the rebuilding of Israel’s illegal settlements there.
In the run up to Israel’s September 2019 General Election, the second this year, resettlement of the Gaza Strip has been touted by these right-wing ministers as a way of redressing Sharon’s historical mistake. With the same politicians actively advocating for Israeli annexation of Area C of the West Bank, the next Knesset term could see Israel resettle the Gaza Strip and place the Palestinian population under direct military rule once again.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.