The on-again, off-again peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority will determine the fate of the West Bank settlements. Which ones will live and which will die; which will rise and which will fall—if indeed a peace treaty is signed and Israel evacuates areas in the West Bank. We have seen this script before, leading up to the 2005 disengagement from Gaza. But what lessons can we glean from one of the most divisive and traumatic episodes in Israel’s recent history?
Whether or not one actually agreed with the necessity of unilaterally leaving Gaza, it was clear that there were questions about its implementation and aftermath.
Five years after the disengagement, only 16 percent of the 1,250 families seeking communal solutions have moved to a permanent location; the others are still in temporary trailer camps. Twenty-one percent of the evacuees do not have jobs—almost double national unemployment rates.
In January 2009, the government appointed a commission of inquiry headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Eliyahu Matza to study the after effects of the pullout. Published in June 2010, the report concluded that the government mishandled the resettlement of the 9,000 people who were evicted, calling them “refugees in the homeland.” It also articulated guidelines for future disengagements. It concluded that the state did not view the “evacuees’ rehabilitation as an urgent national task and neglected working for rehabilitation on a communal level.”
“One of the main problems,” says Moshe Chamiel, a psychologist who works with the evacuees, “was that the government thought in terms of individual compensation, rather than seeking community housing solutions. But it emerged that most people wanted to maintain their communities.” The Sela Authority, later renamed Tenufa Authority, the administrative body responsible for the resettlement, had to shift gears to organizing communal solutions.
However, it takes a long time to establish new living arrangements, and the lack of coordination between government bureaucracies caused further delays. There is, for example, a group that was in Kibbutz Ein Tzurim near Ashkelon that is only now moving to its own neighborhood in Lachish, farther east.
In light of this, the investigating committee recommended prior cooperation among the departments of the housing, infrastructure and settlement authorities. They would identify and map out the areas where existing settlements could be expanded; housing would be made available before any further disengagement began.
Solving the unemployment crisis is even more difficult. “The Sela Authority directed people to government unemployment offices,“ says Judy Loewe, executive director of Job-Katif, a nongovernmental organization that helps evacuees find employment. “But many people from Gush Katif were traumatized and depressed. Standard government offices were not equipped to provide the one-on-one support system needed by victims of trauma.”
In March 2006, Yosef Zvi Rimon, rabbi of Alon Shvut South in the West Bank, created Job-Katif. The organization with a staff of 12 consultants, 10 formerly of Gush Katif, works to rebuild people’s confidence and assist them in starting businesses and retraining.
“Another factor that made employment difficult is that 85 percent of the working population of Gush Katif worked in the Gaza Strip,” notes Loewe, who lives in Tekoa, outside Gush Etzion. “When they were evacuated, they not only lost their homes but also their source of income…. Fifteen percent of all Israel’s gross national product in agriculture came from the Gaza Strip. Many of the farmers were [older than] 50 and didn’t have the energy to start again.”
If the West Bank is evacuated, however, unemployment most likely will not be a major issue, as most residents work outside the area.
Certainly, the primary lesson Israel can learn from the 2005 disengagement, say evacuees, is to never do it again.
Debbie Rosen was evacuated with her six children from Neve Dekalim in Gush Katif. She is still living in a temporary home, a caravan in Yad Binyamin. “For years I built my dream home, and it was destroyed in 60 minutes. And for what?” she asks. “Nothing, no peace. And then after the disengagement, I receive a pamphlet from the government about building a ‘dream home’ again. But it wasn’t simply the home. We lost a special community. It was a mosaic of different kinds of people, Israelis, American, French, Bnei Menashe.
“The disengagement also changed the concept of community for many of us,” notes Rosen, who studied communications at Sapir College in the Negev, worked as a spokesman for Gush Katif and is now job hunting. “It made us more individualistic. It made me realize that I must take responsibility for my life. I don’t want to be seen as a victim. We have had contact with families in New Orleans after Katrina, and the similarity of mothers’ reactions there and here is amazing. Both groups feel betrayed by their government, but as mothers we all feel that we must focus not on the houses lost but on our children and their education, their stability.”
West Bank residents are naturally fearful of losing their homes, but their reactions vary. There are militant young people living illegally on hilltops. “We’ll fight. We won’t give in like the people in Gush Katif,” one young man declared in a television interview.
“We saw that we didn’t get any peace from the disengagement in Gaza, and we probably won’t get anything from another one,” says Dr. Pinchas Renbaum, a soft-spoken geneticist who lives in Michmash. He feels that most West Bank residents would not resort to violence if there is another disengagement, painful as it would be.
“The people who came to settle these areas were idealistic,” he says. “We thought we were being pioneers. I think that the reaction of many people in the territories after the disengagement was to retool their ideals…[and] turn to alternative ways to serve the Jewish people.”
Lessons from Gaza should not be limited to the need for more efficient and sensitive resettlement, point out critics of the Matza report. The effects on Israel’s military and diplomatic situation must be taken into account. In the wake of the disengagement, Hamas took over Gaza, and then showered mortar fire over Sderot, nearby kibbutzim and Ashkelon.
In his blog, https://yaacovlozowick.blogspot.com, historian and author Yaacov Lozowick writes that “the disengagement resulted in an erosion of respect for Israeli strength and deterrence. It led to the Second Lebanon War of 2006 and the Israel-Hamas war that began at the end of 2008. It witnessed the entrenchment of Iran through its clients, Hamas and Hezbollah. It meant the trashing of Gaza’s synagogues and its famous greenhouses. It signified the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, who has been a hostage in Gaza now for more than four years, without having been seen by the International Red Cross.”
Yet he feels that Israelis, including himself, are still prone to wishful thinking and would advocate evacuating settlements if it would mean peace. “Whenever anyone offers us a plausible way to reduce the chances for additional wars, to diminish our domination of the Palestinians and gain approval of the international community, we’ll take it,” Lozowick says.
“The fear is that Hamas can take over the West Bank as well as Gaza,” notes Hillel Frisch of Bar-Ilan University and the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “If it gains power in the West Bank, Hamas could send missiles that could hit Israel’s only international airport. But there’s no one that fears a Hamas takeover more than the Palestinian Authority. With the help of the U.S., they are building up their own security forces, but they still need Israeli Army presence until the Palestinian security forces can do the job themselves. In the meantime, there’s close cooperation between them. And Abbas wants to buy time, give the impression that there’s movement toward a peace settlement.”
While the disengagement allowed Hamas to take over, says retired Brigadier General Shalom Harrari, senior research scholar with the Institute for Counter Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, “it also revealed to us that the PLO isn’t the only representative of the Palestinian people. We can never have peace with only one side, unless that side can control the situation. We learned from Gaza that when you leave an area, you must leave it in good hands, [with] troops that are disciplined and loyal and can control the militants.”
“It was Israel’s mistake to carry out the disengagement from Gaza in a unilateral manner,” notes Amram Dolev, a left-wing social psychologist. “Ariel Sharon was always a ‘soloist.’ He insisted that there was no one to talk to in Gaza…. But I feel that not seeking ways to talk to Hamas was injurious. Also, Gaza is one of the poorest areas in the world and the disengagement didn’t change the economic situation. Israel cannot be blamed for all the poverty, but controlling the border crossings, not allowing trade connections with the West Bank or the rest of the world, contributed to the deterioration of the economic situation and the reservoir of hate.”
Dolev believes that the West Bank situation is different. “First, the economic situation in the West Bank is much better, and a disengagement wouldn’t take place against the background of bitterness and deprivation,” he says. “Most of all, it wouldn’t be done unilaterally, but through mutual agreement. I believe in talking, negotiating with adversaries. We must not make decisions on the basis of narrow security needs, but see the larger human picture as well.”
Shlomo Avineri of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s department of Political Science and former director of the Foreign Ministry echoes the view that Israel must not act unilaterally. “Our decisions must be based on a pragmatic, not ideological, approach,” he says.
But Avineri is skeptical about a peace agreement at this time. “The gaps are too deep,” he says. “The Olmert government negotiated for two years. It was the most moderate government negotiating with a relatively moderate Abbas government. But they couldn’t come to an agreement. There are deeper issues that neither can yield on, namely the refugees and Jerusalem.
“Perhaps,” he concludes, “we must settle for conflict management rather than conflict resolution.”