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New secrets about Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank that has not materialised

August 11, 2020 at 2:13 pm

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon welcomes French Jewish immigrants July 28, 2004 on their arrival at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv [Uriel Sinai/Getty Images]

While Israel is commemorating the 15th anniversary of the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, a number of senior Israeli officials have revealed what they are calling new secrets that are coming to light for the first time. These secrets are related to a plan prepared by Ariel Sharon, the then prime minister of Israel, to implement the second part of the disengagement in the occupied West Bank moments after the evacuation of Gush Katif and a few months before he fell into a coma.

Fifteen years ago, 1,751 settler families, consisting of 9,000 settlers, were evacuated from the Gaza Strip and 22 illegal settlements were turned into ruins. This unprecedented move, which Sharon began as a political manoeuvre, is still etched in the hearts of Israelis, across the right and left wings, as a severe emotional shock and a clear security failure.

Over the years, little news was published about the second phase of the disengagement that Sharon planned in the West Bank in the last months of his premiership. However, Ehud Olmert tried to implement what was known as a reconciliation plan during his time as prime minister after Sharon.

Details of the Israeli secrets that have been published for the first time included Sharon’s request for a legal team to prepare a security, economic, legal and political framework for another withdrawal, based on the lessons of the disengagement plan, without specifying the withdrawal plan, or the settlements to be evacuated. However, the discussion focused on evacuating 15,000 settler families, estimated at 100,000 settlers from the West Bank: ten times more than the Gaza settlers.

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Sharon’s office manager at the time, Attorney Dov Weissglas, revealed that these were initial ideas because the prevalent Israeli belief at the time was the need to reorganise the Israeli presence in the West Bank. There is no doubt that if Sharon was not absent today, the situation would be very different, and that withdrawal would have been implemented.

The idea was a similar withdrawal from the West Bank and that the illegal Separation Wall would help create this reality, prompting the Jews living on the other side of the wall to return to Israel. Sharon thought the Israeli forces would also gradually withdraw from the Palestinian cities without any noise.

The little data available indicates that in August 2006, eight months after Sharon fell into a coma, the new political authority, Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni, presented a huge report consisting of hundreds of pages, revealing a series of problems in the field measures to withdraw from the West Bank. It also outlined a series of important differences between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Amongst the most important of the differences is that the West Bank is geographically controlled, while the Gaza Strip is less important topographically to Israel. Also, there are important water sources for Israel in the West Bank, which is not the case in Gaza. Moreover, the borders in the West Bank can all be closed and easily controlled from the outside and in the West Bank, Israel will find it difficult to find a response to the threat of missiles from the mountains.

A fundamental difference between Gaza and the West Bank is Israel’s fear of Hamas gaining control over large residential centres in the West Bank. Therefore, the logical security option to prevent this is a constant Israeli security presence in the major areas in the West Bank.

Sharon planned another withdrawal from the West Bank and therefore he established the Kadima Party. It was not an easy decision for him to leave the Likud Party, which he founded, and to create a new party, be he knew that after the withdrawal from Gaza, Likud’s objection to more withdrawals increased. Hence, Sharon was convinced that the only way to preserve what Israel needed in the long run in the West Bank and ensure that it does not become a dual nationality state is to implement another limited withdrawal.

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In February 2005, Sharon was offered three options: refuse the American pressure to implement the disengagement across the West Bank, evacuate four settlement blocs in the West Bank, or evacuate 17 individual areas. Sharon supported the second option, which was the option that was implemented, and since the moment he decided, there was no thought of anything else. Just 6 months later, Olmert announced the reconciliation plan as part of the Kadima programme, and he adopted it as prime minister.

Sharon knew that even if the left was not keen on this step, those seeking to end the occupation would not have the chance to vote against the withdrawal from Gaza. Therefore, the left-wing camp gave him the majority he needed in the Knesset, but they warned him that without a peace process, the withdrawal would be a great achievement for Hamas and will encourage violence against the Israelis.

Sharon viewed the withdrawal from Gaza as a political and security achievement for Israel in all respects, and he began to seriously consider this plan after fears emerged that the American “road map” would change at Israel’s expense, as a result of various pressures. Ultimately, it was Sharon himself who implemented the withdrawal from Gaza, not anyone from the left camp, even though shortly before, he was seen as the father of the Israeli settlements.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.