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Israel’s Gaza Redeployment, 2005

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Israel’s Gaza Redeployment, 2005
Exacerbating the Siege and Targeting the Land of the West Bank

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The redeployment of all Israeli settlers from Gaza and a significantly smaller number from the West Bank in mid-2005 was an important step in Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s plan, adopted during the second intifada (the al-Aqsa intifada), to expand Israel’s borders unilaterally, without resorting to peace talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The redeployment, combined with construction of the separation barrier in the West Bank, marked an important step in the Israeli strategy to dissociate the Gaza Strip from the West Bank and retain permanent control over large parts of the latter, including East Jerusalem.

Sharon first announced the Disengagement Plan from Gaza on 2 February 2004, on the backdrop of developments that were not entirely to Israel’s advantage. The Israeli army had invaded and tightened its control over the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) areas in the West Bank, but Palestinian armed resistance was not completely quelled. Israeli destructive operations in the Gaza Strip had not succeeded in cowing residents and disarming militants. Yasir Arafat was weakened locally and isolated internationally, but he was still in control of the PA. The United States, followed by the other members of the Quartet, had officially presented (in April 2003) a road map to a two-state solution which, though imposing stringent conditions on the Palestinians, was designed to offer them a “political horizon.” And finally, while the PLO approved officially the road map, Sharon put so many substantive reservations on his acceptance that he effectively undermined both the road map and the US and Quartet initiatives. Faced with this complex situation, Sharon put forth a plan whose implementation would change the rules of the game and impose a new status quo (favorable to Israel) that would at the same time be viewed positively by US allies. 

Sharon’s plan to redeploy and evacuate Israeli settlements from Gaza constituted a historic reversal if compared to his position back in 1971 when, as military chief of Israel’s southern command, he recommended the establishment of several Jewish settlements (he called them “Jewish fingers”) that would divide the Gaza Strip in order to control it permanently. However, some Israelis had long viewed Gaza as a strategic liability, and, in 1994, it was the first region, including its densely populated areas, to be evacuated by Israeli forces as part of the Oslo Process. Sharon’s reversal on maintaining settlements in Gaza was now backed by several strategic considerations. He wished to get rid of the intractable problems posed by ensuring the security of some 8,000 settlers in the midst of more than 1,400,000 Palestinians walled up in a tiny territory. He believed it was preferable to make Gaza “an Egyptian problem” instead of an Israeli one, to dissociate the West Bank from the Gaza Strip, and to develop and retain permanently the major settlement blocks in the West Bank. From a tactical point of view, he thought Israel was better off acting unilaterally toward the realization of its long-term strategic goals than it was seeking to realize these through negotiations with the Palestinian leadership. The disengagement from Gaza would also demonstrate to the American and world opinion that Israel was willing to withdraw from some of the 1967 occupied territories, a move that could have the additional advantage of obtaining the US administration’s blessing for the consolidation of Israel’s control over parts of the West Bank.

The official principles of the disengagement plan were first detailed in an agreed-upon letter addressed by Sharon to US President George W. Bush on 14 April 2004. The Israeli prime minister claimed that, at present, there was no Palestinian partner in the peace process, that stagnation in the current situation was harmful, and that Israel had no other option than to initiate a move that would not be contingent on Palestinian cooperation. He declared that, in the framework of its unilateral disengagement plan, Israel will evacuate the Gaza Strip, including all settlements currently existing there; will "guard the external envelope" around Gaza on land, sea, and air; and will maintain in the first stage a military presence along the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt (the "Philadelphi" or "Salahuddin" Route). Israel will also evacuate the four small settlements in the northern West Bank (Ganim, Qadim, Homesh, and Sanur) and all the permanent military installations in this area, and will redeploy outside the evacuated area. Sharon affirmed that Israel will continue to build the security fence (the separation wall) and that in any future final status agreement, "in Judea and Samaria, some areas will remain part of the State of Israel, among them civilian settlements, military zones, and places where Israel has additional interests."

In a reply letter delivered to Sharon on the same day, Bush welcomed Israel’s disengagement plan as “a bold and historic initiative that can make an important contribution to peace,” affirmed US commitment to Israel as a “Jewish State,” and asserted that, "in light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers in the West Bank, it was “unrealistic to expect" a full return to the Armistice Line of 1949. Bush also wrote that a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue "will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel."

Having secured a strong American approval for his plan, Sharon embarked on getting internal support. The Likud Party, which he headed as prime minister, was a staunch supporter of settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, believing that both areas were part of the biblical Jewish patrimony and therefore legitimate residence areas for Jews. However, Sharon felt that the majority of the Israeli public were behind his move, and he succeeded in getting cabinet approval for his plan on 6 June 2004, though with much resistance and some ambiguity. When the transfer of Jewish settlers from Gaza got closer to the implementation date (scheduled to start on 8 August 2005), settlers initiated a huge public relations campaign whose slogan was “Jews Don’t Expel Jews,” and Benjamin Netanyahu, minister of finance, from Sharon’s own Likud Party, resigned from the cabinet in protest on 7 August.

Israeli forces carried out the forcible evacuation of the Gaza settlers between 17 and 22 August 2005, meeting much resistance from them, but without armed clashes as warned by pro-settler groups. The military withdrawal was completed by 21 September, with the Israeli troops maintaining tight external control of the Strip from land, sea, and air and the ministry of interior declaring the Gaza Strip “foreign territory” the same day. Contrary to Sharon’s initial plan, Israeli troops withdrew also from the Gaza-Egypt border (the Philadelphi or Salahuddin Route); the Israeli government signed (1 September) an Israeli-Egyptian protocol that provided for the deployment of Egyptian guards along the border. Inside Gaza, the PA assumed immediate control over the evacuated land, amid popular celebrations. But in the West Bank, the land on which the four evacuated settlements had been established was not handed to the PA and remained part of Area C, under full Israeli civil and security control in accordance with the terms of the Oslo accords.

On 15 November 2005, the Israeli government and the PA, with the active involvement of Quartet representative James Wolfensohn and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, reached two agreements. The first (“Agreement on Movement and Access”) provided for increasing and facilitating the movement of people and goods to and from the Gaza Strip. The second ("Agreed Principles for Rafah Crossing") detailed the PA’s responsibilities in the terminal, the role of the “third party” (i.e. monitors from the European Union), and the remote real-time monitoring (through video and data feed) of the terminal by Israel.

The disengagement from Gaza had political and strategic consequences, some of which were far-reaching. In Israel, Sharon’s control over the Likud Party was weakened, and on 21 November 2005 he called for new elections, announced the formation of a new party, Kadima, and invited his followers in the Likud to join him. On the Palestinian internal scene, the Hamas movement appeared to be the political beneficiary of the Israeli settlers’ and soldiers’ withdrawal, and it translated this into legislative electoral victory on 25 January 2006. In terms of the Palestinian-Israeli confrontation, Israel got a freer hand in colonizing the West Bank, separating it from the Gaza Strip and imposing a siege on the latter with a complete disregard for the short-lived Agreement on Movement and Access.  

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Selected Bibliography

Aronson, Geoffrey. “Issues Arising from the Implementation of Israel’s Disengagement from the Gaza Strip.Journal of Palestine Studies 34, no.4 (Summer 2005): 49–63.

Li, Darryl. “The Gaza Strip as Laboratory: Notes in the Wake of Disengagement.Journal of Palestine Studies 35, no.2 (Winter 2006): 38–55.

Mansour, Camille. “Reflections on the War on Gaza. Journal of Palestine Studies 38, no.4 (Summer 2009): 91–95.

Roy, Sara. “Praying with Their Eyes Closed: Reflections on the Disengagement from Gaza.Journal of Palestine Studies 34, no.4 (Summer 2005): 64–74.