FIVE YEARS AGO THIS WEEK, the Gaza Strip was forcibly purged of its Jews. In the largest non-combat operation in the history of the Israeli Defense Forces, 50,000 troops were deployed to expel some 9,000 residents and destroy the 21 pioneering communities in which some of them had lived for nearly four decades. (Four communities in northern Samaria on the West Bank were also evacuated.)
The name given to this expulsion by Israel’s government, then headed by Ariel Sharon, was “disengagement.” The name implied, and a majority of Israelis appeared to believe, that by totally withdrawing from Gaza they would no longer be trapped in a dysfunctional relationship with Gaza’s hostile and sometimes violent Arabs.
“What will we have gained by destroying thriving communities, dividing Israeli society, and embittering some of our most idealistic citizens?” one thoughtful Israeli commentator, Yossi Klein Halevi, wrote at the time in The Jerusalem Post. “The most obvious . . . gain is what we will lose: We will be freeing ourselves from more than a million Palestinians.”
Many Israelis — and many supporters of Israel internationally — bought this argument, persuaded, perhaps, by the Sharon government’s sweeping vision of the blessings that would flow from so radical an act of ethnic self-cleansing. “It will be good for us and will be good for the Palestinians,” forecast then-Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was to succeed Sharon a few months later. “It will bring more security, greater safety, much more prosperity, and a lot of joy for all the people that live in the Middle East.” Olmert prayed that with disengagement, “a new morning of great hope will emerge in our part of the world,” and that Israelis and Palestinians together would make the Middle East “what it was destined to be from the outset, a paradise for all the world.”
Had any of this actually come to pass, the trauma and destruction of the Gaza expulsion might have been justifiable. In fact, disengagement was a staggering failure, a disaster in every respect. It was seen by most Palestinians not as a courageous act of goodwill and an invitation to peace, but as a retreat under fire, much like the Israeli flight from southern Lebanon five years earlier. It led therefore not to less terrorism but to more, as Palestinian militants vastly expanded their arsenal of rockets, guns, and explosives, and launched thousands of attacks over the border into Israel.
Far from encouraging Palestinian moderation, disengagement energized Gaza’s most extreme and hateful irredentists. Five months after the Jewish residents left, Hamas swept to victory in the Palestinian Authority elections; a year later, it seized total control in Gaza, routing Fatah in a savage civil war.
The fruit of disengagement was not the “new morning of great hope” that Sharon and Olmert — and their countless enablers in the West — envisioned. Instead, it was an erosion of respect for Israeli strength and deterrence. It was the Second Lebanon War of 2006 and the three-week Israel-Hamas war that began at the end of 2008. It was the entrenchment of Iran, via Hamas and Hezbollah, on Israel’s northern and southern borders. It was the burning of Gaza’s synagogues and the trashing of its famous greenhouses. It was the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, who has been a hostage in Gaza for more than four of the five years since Israel abandoned the territory to its enemies. It was the further blackening of Israel’s international reputation. It was the immiseration of Gaza’s Palestinians under a fundamentalist Hamas dictatorship.
Most Israelis who supported disengagement now express regret. But too many of them remain in the grip of the “peace process” delusion — the Oslo chimera that peace with the Palestinians is achievable through diplomacy, concessions, and transfers of land. It isn’t, and Israel and its friends must start saying so. Rather than endlessly professing its willingness to negotiate and its appetite for a “two-state solution,” Israel should tell the truth: Peace will never be possible with “partners” that refuse to accept the permanent legitimacy of Jewish sovereignty in the Middle East.
Disengagement was an abomination for a lot of reasons, but for one above all: It began from the premise that any future Palestinian state must be wiped clean of Jews. Did Israel really need to learn the hard way that peace will never lie down that road?
Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.