The same pundits who claimed that evacuating Gush Katif would improve Israel's security and dismissed the Palestinians' "flying objects" as inconsequential, are now offering the government advice on dealing with the threat they did not see coming.
08 August '14..
Four years prior to the 2005 evacuation of Gush Katif, acclaimed author Aharon Meged penned a jarring essay in which he warned of a "rose-colored blindness." It is an affliction that "causes people to only see pink by choice," he said. Meged was convinced that the peace camp was beset by such a condition.
In recent weeks, as what was once considered a causal link between the disengagement on the one hand, and the enhanced capabilities of the terrorists in Gaza Strip on the other hand, became poignantly clear, we returned to the press archives and worn-out news clippings of that era. We refer back to the news sites and the newspapers that documented the fierce debate that raged in Israel a decade ago between the Right and the Left over the disengagement plan and the eviction of the residents of Gush Katif.
We reacquainted ourselves with the rosy future outlined by defense analysts and politicians who, as it turned out, were also suffering from "pink-colored blindness" given that they predicted a calm, tranquil future in the wake of Israel's withdrawal from Gaza. "The disengagement is good for security," they vowed. The scenarios that they envisioned were far rosier than could be imagined.
If they had the chance to do things differently today, what would they do? We asked those who at the time dismissed the prophecies of doom offered by the skeptics. We were indeed surprised to discover that only a few of them had recanted.
Some of them have appeared on television and radio shows as guest analysts over the course of the past month. With no shortage of self-confidence and brashness, they offered their commentary on how Operation Protective Edge in Gaza Strip was progressing, even going as far as to offer the government and military their advice.
The archives, which document everything, however, do not spare them. The legal petitions against the disengagement submitted to the High Court of Justice by The Legal Forum for the Land of Israel, as well as 11 other plaintiffs, also helped to grasp the full picture.
The petition, which was turned down by the High Court, is a good place to start. It was a legal motion which the state did not even bother to fight. The state did not offer any rebuttal or affidavits intended on supporting the claim that the move was expected to pay dividends in terms of security.
It should be noted that the judges who heard the petition did not lean on the state to provide any explanation. They rejected the cogent, professional arguments, which were backed by evidence and sound defense reasoning offered by the petitioners, who relied up the expertise of Maj. Gen. (res.) Ya'akov Amidror, among others.
The judges refused to visit Gush Katif. They also refused to summon the former chief of staff, Moshe Ya'alon, to the witness stand. They assumed that "the evacuation will dampen the desire of the Palestinians to harm the civilian population," though it is unclear as to where they derived the logic for this argument.
This was a frustrating time for Yossi Fuchs, the attorney arguing the petitions before the High Court. In his view, the judges were "putting up fortified walls" in front of him.
"All of my efforts to ascertain the basis for the state's claims that the security situation would improve [as a result of the withdrawal] crashed against these walls," he said. "I felt that the judges were willfully shutting their eyes for fear that if they opened them, they would be compelled to grant the petition and stop the disengagement plan."
Those who implored the court to listen to the heads of the security services were members of the Knesset's Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee. They discussed the disengagement plan, but the state prevented them from summoning the various defense officials and have them appear before the committee.
Then-Shin Bet security agency chief Yuval Diskin (who declined the request to be interviewed for this article), then-IDF chief and current Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, and Giora Eiland, who at the time served as national security adviser (and who was "too busy" to respond to our questions), were all told that they were barred from appearing before the committee. At the time, all three were very critical of the disengagement plan.
Nonetheless, the state did send one official to represent it before the panel -- Eiland's acting replacement, Itamar Ya'ar, a member of the Council for Peace and Security, an organization which at the time publicly advocated the disengagement plan. Ya'ar mentioned that the move would result in "a significant reduction in the military forces required to maintain day-to-day security in the region."
Then-committee chairman Michael Eitan challenged Ya'ar with competing assessments from experts who said that the withdrawal would whet the appetite of terrorists seeking to expel Israeli forces from the area.
"The decision establishes that, as opposed to what was said here, there will be an overall improvement in the situation," Ya'ar replied.
When Eitan asked Ya'ar which defense experts he cited in his arguments, Ya'ar refused to give a name.
The technocrats and experts made their views known only in internal discussions. The political establishment offered full backing to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. His deputy, Ehud Olmert, gave a speech in New York in 2005, in which he said: "We are tired of fighting. The disengagement will result in more defense, more security, much more prosperity, and much more happiness to those people living in the Middle East."
"Together, we will move forward in the direction of building different relationships, better understanding, and better faith," Olmert said.
Shaul Mofaz, who served as Sharon's defense minister and who also declined requests to be interviewed for this atricle, stated his view that the move was a necessary and correct one, since it would provide "more security to Israel's citizens."
Avi Dichter, the man who at the time was wrapping up his stint as Shin Bet director, believed that the disengagement would not worsen the security situation near the Gaza border. Dov Weissglass, Sharon's chief of staff, spoke dismissively of "the problem of flying objects," saying that "in national security terms, they are not a significant factor, and they are not a national threat."
A heartfelt thanks to Sharon
The supporters of the disengagement spoke of the demographic benefits that Israel would reap by abdicating responsibility for the fate of 1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza, as well as the diplomatic windfall. They also never missed an opportunity to play up the supposed security benefits and the dramatic improvement in Israel's defense that would result from the withdrawal.
Former Meretz MK Ran Cohen, verbally sparred with "right-wingers who spoke of Qassam rockets that will be launched from here to there."
"I say to you that whoever wants to spare the people not only of Sderot but also resident of Ashkelon needs to understand that if we don't leave the Gaza Strip, within two to three years, perhaps even one year, the range will encompass Ashkelon," he said. "So, for obvious security reasons, we need to get out of there."
Labor MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the former defense minister who acknowledged years later that the disengagement was a major mistake, said at the time, "The plan has immediate ramifications for strengthening national security."
"By virtue of it being done unilaterally there are certain advantages because perhaps it may be the only [plan] that could stop the increasing quick countdown to Hamas taking over on the ground," he said.
Hatnuah MK Meir Sheetrit, who was then one of the founding members of Kadima and who nearly became president, brushed off the objections voiced by the plan's critics. "There are those who claim that the plan will endanger the towns of the Negev," he said. "I haven't heard anything so ridiculous until now."
Yuval Steinitz, who currently holds the position of intelligence and strategic affairs minister, predicted at the time that "this is not an easy plan," though he added that "there was a pretty high probability that it would improve our geo-strategic situation."
Former Mossad Director Danny Yatom said that he believed "a separation would bring about a better security, diplomatic, and geo-strategic situation."
Sharon, who masterminded the plan, made it clear that the goal was to minimize terrorism to the greatest extent possible and to provide the Israeli public with as much security as possible. Then-Labor MK Ofir Pines-Paz expressed his heartfelt gratitude toward Sharon for giving him and his wife hope, for when their son enlists in the Israel Defense Forces, "he won't have to serve the nation of Israel in the Gaza Strip."
Likud ministers, chief among them Benjamin Netanyahu, spoke in great detail of the dangers of the plan, but after much back-and-forth, they eventually voted in favor. Netanyahu himself fiercely advocated for a referendum, but he made clear to Uri Ariel: "Let there be no doubt, in a referendum, I am voting in favor." Just a few days before the disengagement plan was put into motion, he resigned from the government.
Then-MK Ephraim Sneh (Labor) predicted that the plan would not bode well for Israel. As time went by, Sneh's prediction was remarkably accurate.
"We will end up with Hamastan just eight kilometers from Ashkelon," he said. "There is no such thing as a vacuum in life. Just as the IDF left south Lebanon and Hezbollah took its place, giving us Hezbollahstan, here we will get Hamastan." Nonetheless, Sneh, who was a member of the Knesset's foreign affairs and defense committee, voted in favor of the plan.
The error of a belated response
Nine years later, we contacted the aforementioned individuals. We were particularly interested in talking to those who were frequent guests of TV shows, where they offered their expert opinions. Alon Liel, the former director-general of the Foreign Ministry who supported the disengagement and who touted its security benefits, says today: "I don't want to talk about the past and about history, but to deal with the present and the future instead of dealing with nonsense. I supported the disengagement, and now I support a comprehensive diplomatic process that would include Gaza and the West Bank that would turn this war into the Palestinian war of independence."
Yatom said that even today, he would vote in favor of the plan. "We can't say with certainty what would have happened if we had stayed in the Gaza Strip and which security problems we would have to grapple with in such a scenario," he said. The former Mossad chief said that before the withdrawal from Gaza, "we had on average more killed every year than in the years that followed."
He acknowledged that "there is a causal link" between the disengagement and the present-day security situation which Israel is facing, but he is convinced that "we needed to deal with this situation by means of much harsher military measures against Hamas back when the rocket fire started. For years, we knew about Hamas' armament drive and that it was digging tunnels throughout the Gaza Strip. We erred when we did not respond immediately in a much more forceful, painful manner against Hamas and the other terrorist organizations."
Cohen also has no regrets. "If we had stayed in Gaza, we would be in a much more complex military and diplomatic dilemma," he said. "We'd be in the midst of an insane reality whereby 2 million Palestinians are hanging on our necks like an albatross, with thousands of Israeli settlers living in their midst. Israel's real mistake was that it did not aim for a diplomatic package encompassing both Gaza and the West Bank."
The former Meretz lawmaker rejects the claim made by critics that the evolution of "underground Gaza" -- the tunnel infrastructure -- and the amassing of thousands of rockets and missiles were made possible by the disengagement plan.
"I served on the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee for 13 years as well as on the Intelligence Subcommittee," he said. "[The Palestinians] were prepared even then, when we were still in Gaza. There were tunnels back then, right under our noses. There were tunnels under [the settlements of] Netzarim and Gush Katif."
Sneh says that even today "under no circumstances would I support a plan that would leave 8,000 Israelis inside Gaza. Had we left them in there, their lives would be much worse -- by far -- than the lives of those living in Kisufim and Nahal Oz today."
Sneh reveals that a year before the withdrawal, he showed Sharon a proposal that he had crafted jointly with two Palestinian academics who were tapped by Mohammed Dahlan, all with the knowledge and approval of Mahmoud Abbas.
"We sketched out a plan for a gradual Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, which would entail eliminating terrorism and enabling the Palestinian Authority to take over," he said. "The plan was given the title 'Pilot -- Gaza.' Sharon rejected it. He made a mistake. Afterward, he erred in that he effectively handed control of Gaza over to Hamas, and then his successor [Olmert] erred by not crushing Hamas' military capabilities during Operation Cast Lead. We came very close to doing that."
The modest aims of the current operation "was also a mistake," Sneh said. "Israel should have stated that its goal was to topple Hamas' regime and dismantle it completely, while also engaging in diplomatic negotiations with the Palestinian Authority."
'There is security -- for Hamas and Islamic Jihad'
On this day, the 12th day of the Hebrew month of Av, we mark nine years since the eviction of the residents of Gush Katif. It is an appropriate time to once again revisit the issue with those who foresaw what would happen in the wake of the withdrawal. There were many, including former residents of the communities, journalists, and right-wing lawmakers.
However, since this article deals with the security aspect, we chose to focus on the expert opinion of Amidror, whose views were submitted to the High Court of Justice as part of the petition filed by The Legal Forum for the Land of Israel. We also refer to the minority opinion of Justice Edmond Levy, who passed away earlier this year, and who believed that the High Court should have accepted the petition against the disengagement.
Until about nine months ago, Amidror headed the National Security Council. At the time of the disengagement, he wrote: "The IDF's withdrawal from Gaza has the real potential to bring about a deterioration in the security situation, and not just because Ashkelon will immediately fall within range of rockets currently stockpiled in Palestinian arsenals ... A unilateral withdrawal is far worse, since it concedes everything without getting anything in return, not even a promise to combat terrorism ... Absurdly, the Palestinian Authority, operating under the nose of the IDF, will be one of the only places in the world in which Hamas and Islamic Jihad will be protected ... And this is what is being referred to as 'a better security situation'.
"I would not have been asked to provide the detailed analysis before you if the truth was acknowledged by the law: The State of Israel, for reasons that have yet to be clearly spelled out, decided to gamble on the security of the residents of northwest Samaria and near the Gaza Strip, is conceding its ability to defend them and is transferring security responsibility for them over to the Palestinians, who are not obligated to answer for any actions or misdeeds," he wrote.
"The law, if there is something that links it to the truth, needs to make clear that the government cannot point to any evidence that suggests the plan will bring about an improvement in terms of security or Israel's diplomatic standing, but the government is nonetheless recommending that the bill becomes a law without explaining why."
Levy also wondered why "the state did not bother to consider the expert opinions that would have helped to make clear whether the declared goals [of the disengagement] are attainable."
In his minority opinion, Levy quoted a number of senior defense officials and statesmen who saw a unilateral withdrawal as a disastrous undertaking.
The head of the Shin Bet said of the plan that "we will get south Lebanon in southern Israel." The IDF chief of staff said that "the disengagement would provide a boost for terrorism." Netanyahu warned that the disengagement "would strengthen terrorism and whet its appetite for more attacks."
Former Meretz MK Yossi Beilin predicted that "the disengagement was liable to bring about a renewal of hostilities."
Shlomo Gazit, the former head of Military Intelligence, warned that "we may soon find ourselves dealing with 'Super Qassams' capable of reaching Ashkelon."
According to Levy, the least that the state could do -- and which it refused to do at the time -- was "to explain to the court what it has not explained to the public, what caused such a dramatic turnabout in its conduct and policies ... what is the justification not just for uprooting thousands of residents from their homes, but also making them vulnerable to another wave of terrorism, which very senior government and defense officials are warning will come about."
Levy came away with the impression that the reasoning behind the disengagement plan -- as he understood it after it was presented to him -- was not just insufficiently explained, but was also "fraught with far-reaching dangers, which makes the reasoning unworthy."
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