Three years after Israel’s disengagement from Gaza: critical reassessment

Three years have passed since Israel's disengagement from Gaza. This article draws a critical  balance sheet of these events and  explains why the Israeli left and many others internationally were so wrong in regarding Sharon's decision as a step towards peace in the region. The choice to pull-out from Gaza, on the contrary, served the strategic interests of the Israeli ruling class.

Three years ago, on August 15th 2005, the Israeli government implemented its plan to remove army posts and Jewish settlements from occupied Gaza. The move was supported by most Israelis, especially amongst the Israeli Left and center-Right elements. It was actively opposed by most of the Right wing elements - the religious Zionists, some parts of the army bureaucracy, and the impoverished under-class in the Israeli periphery towns, influenced by an orthodox leadership. The plan - since it was first revealed by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, until its final implementation - was widely covered by both Israeli and international media. It fed endless debates and ignited Israeli society in massive campaigns and mass demonstrations in favor or against the plan.

It is now time to assess the historic significance of the plan in light of both its criticism and support. Was it indeed a step to bring occupation to an end, as its Left wing supporters claim? What were its implications for the Palestinian and Jewish masses in the region?

Reason of Disengagement: demography over territory

Many reasons have been suggested to explain Ariel Sharon's "change of heart": from a blunt supporter and implementer of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories to the first Israeli Prime Minister to evacuate Jewish settlers without a peace agreement. Some have suggested it had been the result of U.S. pressure. Others - a desire to please the judiciary and media (which are considered in Israel to be "Left" oriented) while facing major corruption allegations. Some suggested pressure from Israeli business lobbyists. There may be some truth in all these claims. But the real causes of the Disengagement Plan were not contingent or accidental. They were rooted in the base of Zionist colonialism.

Zionism as a colonial movement was always based on two tenets: demography and territory. By territory we mean the Zionists' desire to expand their territory as much as possible. By demography we mean keeping the territory under an overwhelming Jewish majority. Until the 1980s these two foundations seemed to overlap. Israel thought it could keep the territories it occupied in the 1967 war indefinitely, regardless of the large and crowded Palestinian population. It was confident in its ability to fragment and suppress the Palestinians to an extent that they would not provide a threat. Israeli governments were deluding themselves by thinking that rising standards of living via employment by Israeli capitalism will be enough to keep them docile and obedient.

This illusion collapsed in 1987. Standards of living may have been rising, but Israeli capitalism was well caught in the international economic crisis. Jobs became scarce as the population grew while the economy remained stagnant. Moreover, the new and highly educated generation of Palestinians wanted more from life than being non-citizens and unskilled laborers for Israeli capitalism. The Israeli ruling class faced a large and rebellious Palestinian society. Demography started to collide with territory, and since then Israel's political scene has been divided between demographically oriented Zionists and territorially oriented ones. For the first time Israeli leaders started to think about getting rid of some territories - particularly the Gaza strip with its highly condensed and politically mobilized population. As early as 1989, Shimon Peres, one of Israel's leading politicians and later a major promoter of demographic Zionism, announced the intention to withdraw from Gaza, turning it into a "free" Palestinian state, while keeping the territories in the West Bank.

Demographic Zionism had its heyday in 1993, during the Rabin administration, on the background of Israel's failure against Palestinian mass resistance. It was a serious attempt to lure the Palestinian resistance leadership, the PLO, into policing the Palestinian masses for Israel in return for recognition and control over some Palestinian enclaves. While officially this would bring many Palestinians out of Israel's responsibility, unofficially the new "state" and its PLO ruler would still be dependent on Israel. This process was disturbed by Rabin's assassination by a radical religious Rightist. But such a scheme could not have been fulfilled even if Rabin was not assassinated: it was doubtful that the Palestinian masses would be so gullible. As the resumption of the uprising in 2000 revealed - they weren't.

In the year 2000, the Palestinian uprising resumed with a most robust strength, shadowing the militancy of their previous 1987 Intifadah. Tragically, this uprising was largely led by the reactionary leadership of Hamas. Unable to come up with solutions, Hamas started a campaign of violent individual terrorism. While causing hundreds of casualties among Israeli civilians, it played into the hands of the Zionist state that attacked the Palestinian population with increasingly violent counter-terrorist measures - turning the lives of the Palestinians into a living hell.

The PLO was put under pressure from the uprising and the consequences of Israeli attacks, its leadership was weakened in relation to the ascending Hamas, it was forced to radicalize its stand towards Israel, and several PLO factions initiated armed attacks including acts of terrorism on their own accord. Under such circumstances, the Israeli ruling elite exploited the new position turning the screw on the PLO leadership in order to use it against Hamas.

Territorial Zionism seemed to be making a comeback. Ariel Sharon's landslide victory over Labour Prime Minister Ehud Barak sealed the deal. Sharon did not win because he could solve anything. He won out of anger and despair. The Israelis had been led to believe that previous concessions to the PLO meant an "enormous sacrifice", giving up parts of the eternal Jewish homeland for peace. The uprising was considered by many as a betrayal on the Palestinians' part, a proof of their "barbarism" and misleading nature that should be avenged. But all this did not solve the original contradiction: the task of controlling the Palestinian population directly became increasingly difficult and costly. Israeli strategists had to let out some steam. They had to relinquish state domination over some of the most crowded Palestinian territories, even without the PLO's collaboration.

This gave birth to two mutually inclusive plans: to evacuate Jewish settlers from occupied Gaza while at the same time building a wall between Jewish and Palestinian settlements in the occupied West Bank. Both measures are actually part of one and the same plan: loosening Israeli formal control on some territory, while maintaining Jewish majority within the new border. The irony was that the contradiction became so severe, that it was Ariel Sharon himself - the most radical promoter of territorial Zionism - that was forced to implement demographic Zionism for the first time in Israel's history.

Supporters of demographic Zionism, including most "Left" movements, tried to present the plan as a stage toward peace. This was nothing but a cynical deception. The Disengagement plan might have removed Jewish settlers and the military posts, but that would not have changed the fact that Gaza was still the world's largest prison. It would not make the Palestinians in Gaza any more independent: they would have more freedom to move inside Gaza, but they were doomed to be as dependent and under the thumb of the Israeli state (or later, Egypt) for getting out of the strip for whatever reason: employment, food supply, electricity, access to health care, raw material and other commodities. The economy of the strip depended on the settlers. It is not surprising that after the plan was implemented, a major decline in the Gaza economy was noted. Thus, removing the settlements did nothing to stop the occupation. It just ensured a Jewish majority for Israel within its borders, while maintaining its grip over Gaza.

Disengagement and the Israeli Left

If prior to 2004, someone would have told Yariv Oppenheimer, the secretary general and spokesman of the large Israeli Left organization Shalom Achshav ("Peace Now!"), that he was bound to support the government of Ariel Sharon, Oppenheimer would have questioned that person's sanity. After all, Sharon was the arch nemesis of the Israeli Left and human's right movements. Sharon was the main force behind the first war in Lebanon - responsible for countless deaths, injured and ruined lives both in Lebanon and Israel. He was also the mastermind of the Israeli settlement project - designed to use Jewish settlements to control the occupied territories, marginalizing the Palestinian masses and preventing them from achieving any rights whatsoever, while exploiting them as cheap labor force. Since 2003, Sharon headed one of the most lethal and violent governments in Israel's history: using unprecedented means of retaliation against Palestinian ordinary people while incapable to stop terrorism, fuelled by Palestinian desperation. His government was also immersed in corruption, which Sharon himself was highly involved in - while at the same time conducting a radical neo-liberal policy against the Israeli working masses. What Left-winger in his right mind would support such a government?

But sure enough, not only Oppenheimer, but almost the entire Israeli Left have enlisted themselves to stand by Ariel Sharon and his government. This anomaly is easily explained. What is labeled in Israel as "Left" is not a movement based on the struggle of the working class for socialism and democracy, such as the major Left parties that grew in Europe. Such movements never emerged in Israel on a large scale. Instead, what is called the Left, is rather a faction of the elite, which uses socialist rhetoric and corporatist practice to convince Jewish workers into building their own prison - the Zionist capitalist state. These elite groups shared the pragmatic and cold version of Zionism promoted by Israel's first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Their main concern is to consolidate the state through Jewish majority. Any moral or ideological principles will be secondary to that aim.

Generation after generation, these groups have reincarnated into the current Labor party, its satellite Left-liberal party Meretz, and the extra-parliamentary movement Shalom Achshav. They have mostly upper-middle-class Jewish supporters. The leaders of these groups may talk about the plight of the Palestinians, but they hardly have any Palestinian members. What distinguishes them from their territorialist "Right-wing" rivals is their understanding that Zionism will not be stable for long if demographic concerns will not be addressed soon.

Mostly since 1987 the social elements that endorsed territorial Zionism were labeled as "Right-wing", while the ones who endorsed demographic Zionism were labeled as "Left-wing". The "Right" faction of the ruling class and its supporters remained loyal to its romanticist Zionist creed of controlling the "Whole Land of Israel". This is while the "Left" - as pragmatic as ever - noticed that officially controlling the occupied territories was becoming destabilizing, as the Zionist ruling class was dependent on consolidating a Jewish majority to remain in power.

Shalom Achshav is considered in Israel to be a "radical" leftist movement. It actually did start that way, as a mass movement protesting against the first war in Lebanon. But without proper roots in the working class it crystallized as a petty-bourgeois movement, with significant presence of retired high-ranking army officers as active members. It is largely funded by the European bourgeoisie: very significant part of its funding comes directly from the EU and from some European states such as Finland, Norway and Britain. Another significant source of money comes from an American foundation. The social composition and its "sponsors" can explain why the leaders of this "radical" movement never tried to appeal to the Jewish and Palestinian working class to join forces against their common oppressors. It also shows why despite all their "radical" rhetoric and whimpering about settlement buildings and human rights violations, they have never been vocal against Zionism, or never called for anti-war strikes and failed to support draft-dodging. They recently grotesquely appealed to George W. Bush to put pressure on Olmert's government to stop building settlements in the occupied territories. Deprived of any social power - they were reduced into asking the leader of global imperialism for help. While giving some lip service to anti-war sentiments, their main obsession is about settlements in the occupied territories, considering them the root of all evil.

The Labor Party and Meretz share the same story: heavily elitist in their leading circles and supported mostly by the business community and other mid-upper class elements. They used to regard themselves as "workers' parties" in the past, but putting forward the view that Israeli capitalism became de-industrialized, and the Israeli proletariat became de-unionized and scattered into the service industry, this deception was no longer necessary. They keep calling themselves "Left Zionists", but there cannot be such a thing, simply because it is a contradictory term. The leaders of these parties can be more accurately described as pragmatic Zionists. They are a part of the ruling class which realized that their status will not remain stable if Israel could not maintain a steady Jewish majority.

Many idealistic Leftists, who truly want to end the occupation, but cannot see any other solution but keeping Palestinians and Jews separated, joined these "pragmatic" reactionaries. The idealists were misled to believe that the occupation is epitomized by the Jewish settlements. The radical racism and violence of some of the settlers and the fact that the excuse used to justify the constant military pressure on the Palestinian people by the Israeli army is to protect the settlements, all this helped to create that impression. These groups became obsessed on removing the settlements, and they saw the Disengagement Plan as a step in that direction. But the occupation does not consist of Jewish settlements by themselves. The settlements only help in rationalizing it. The occupation is about controlling land by repressing its inhabitants. It consists of movement restrictions and constant violations of the rights of the occupied people: as long as the movements of the Palestinians are controlled by Israel, as long as Israel controls the supply of goods and transit of Palestinian workers and as long as the occupied territories remain economically dependent on Israel, removing the settlers will not stop the occupation. It will just make it more manageable.

Removing the settlements and making it easier to control the territories without compromising Jewish majority - this explains why Oppenheimer and other "Left" Zionists found themselves supporting Sharon. Watching what they perceived as an aid to Jewish majority dominance under the borders of the Israeli state was more important than keeping ideological integrity. Indeed, helping to stabilize Sharon's government showed just how empty was their rhetoric about human rights and social justice. The "Left" Zionists' dwindling support among the Israeli masses is the reason why they became dependent on the Right wing to implement their policies, once they would realize that there is no other choice. That is exactly what happened to Ariel Sharon, and this is why they supported him.

So much for the Zionist "Left", but what about the non-Zionist Communist Party (ICP)? On a website associated with the Party, Issam Makhoul, the Party's secretary general formally stated on October 16th, 2004 that the ICP strictly opposed the plan: "we are against the Evacuation-Annexation Plan of Ariel Sharon"[i]. He criticized the plan correctly, as a scheme to stabilize the occupation, not to end it. However, the Party's MPs did not vote against it, and eventually decided to abstain. Perhaps the main reason for that inconsistency were that they feared to cast the same vote as the Israeli most hard-core reactionary parties of the jingoist and religious Right wing; and above all - the ICP leadership's connections with the PLO bureaucracy, which supported the plan, hoping it will increase its control over Gaza.

"Forward" March!

After the successful implementation of the Disengagement Plan, Ariel Sharon enjoyed enormous popularity from the public, but he and his beneficiaries were isolated within their Rightist party - Likud. He decided to form a new party, called Kadima ("Forward"). This party was organized entirely around Sharon. Kadima was very similar to Vladimir Putins's Unity Party. It is a one-man party with highly authoritarian form of decision making, interrupted every few years by elections. It is assembled around a popular leader, which gives all the lucrative posts to his closest beneficiaries and cronies: the higher your loyalty is, the higher the post you will gain, regardless of your skills, popularity or ideology. Not surprisingly Kadima soon became the trash bin of Israeli politics: hosting the greasiest, most toady, corrupt and opportunistic of all Israeli politicians both from the Likud and the Labor Party. When Ariel Sharon was hit by an Ictus and fell into a coma, he was replaced by his second in command, Olmert - a grey yet slick politician, deprived of any popularity or skill, which achieved his position simply by flattering Sharon and supporting him better than the rest.

This dubious crowd enjoyed unprecedented popularity in the surveys, which consistently showed that this new artificial party would have won the next elections by a landslide. It wasn't that the masses fell in love with Sharon and it wasn't because they forgot about the many defects of his entourage. It was because they believed he was the only one that could implement demographic Zionism to its fullest extent: to unilaterally disengage Israel also from the densely populated areas in the West Bank. Sharon was nicknamed "the bulldozer" and was conceived as unstoppable, after successfully disengaging from Gaza, despite strong resistance from large segments of the public and even his own party. The illusion came that with this new party, Sharon would have been capable to complete the assignment of "cleansing" Israel from as many Arabs as possible without compromising too much territory.

Even after Sharon went into a coma, Kadima won the elections under the leadership of Olmert, though it was far from a landslide victory. In his election campaign, Olmert, under public and advisor pressure, published his political platform. It was basically a crude implementation of the Disengagement Plan on the West Bank: a unilateral removal of the West Bank Jewish settlements that were built on areas heavily populated by Palestinians. As for the West Bank regions that are closer to the Green Line and/or have smaller Palestinian presence, the new plan intended to demographically strengthen Israeli rule there by injecting the evacuated Jews into these territories. Then these territories will be officially annexed. In one interview Olmert suggested that the separation wall should be regarded as the new official border of Israel, and what is beyond it would be "free" Palestine. This was what Olmert called the "Convergence Plan".

This plan won Olmert the elections, but its impossibility was immediately revealed. The new government was unstable and leaned on the Right wing. There were simply too many settlements that should be evacuated in the time length of one cadence. In the Disengagement Plan, the government evacuated approximately 8,000 people. The Convergence Plan sought to evacuate at least 90,000 people. It is doubtful whether the government could amass the resources and manpower needed to evacuate, compensate and relocate so many people in such little time. It is almost certain that the settlers were not leaving easily. The West Bank settlers are ideological and militant. Important segments in the army, including higher ranks, support them. The public support they enjoy is much greater, and the consensus for a unilateral retreat from the West Bank is much lower that it was for Gaza. Finally, the West Bank was not so simply divided into Jewish populated and Arab populated regions. If Israel wanted its territories to be Palestinian-free, the new border line would have had to be as curved and twisted as a scribble drawn by a mental patient, in order not to include the many Arab villages and towns.

Having understood that, Olmert started delaying the solution that won him the elections by all sorts of excuses. The main of which was the war in Lebanon, that his government initiated a short time after the elections. After the war, Olmert stated that under the new circumstances, he is delaying the Convergence Plan indefinitely. Since then, the Prime Minister is buying time by endless and pointless "peace talks" with the Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, interrupted by very long intervals. From time to time the government announces "great breakthroughs" in the talks with the Palestinian leaders, but provides no specific evidence.

Other than that, the Olmert government, the once great hope, does nothing except trying to survive from one scandal to the next. As slippery as an eel, Olmert shows incredible capability of squeezing himself through any crisis: from the staggering loss in Lebanon, via numerous coalition crises and fragments within his own party, to repeated corruption scandals. Being the most unpopular Prime Minister in the history of Israel, he keeps hanging onto power, imposing himself against the people's will, by his own ability to maneuver, co-opt and provide lucrative jobs to maintain political allies on his side.

Aftermath of Disengagement: present and future perspectives

In Gaza, the vacuum that was left by Israel was immediately filled by Hamas. This organization fought the corrupt and Israeli-backed PLO, and managed to take control over the entire Gaza Strip. The Palestinians initially supported Hamas, but they soon found out that other than imposing Islamic rule, this organization provided nothing for them. Instead, Hamas spent most of its time in shooting rockets at Israeli towns and villages near Gaza. The Disengagement's main promise to provide security for Israelis was proven wrong. The opposite became true: it turned the Strip into a region controlled by the hated Hamas, which it uses as a base to launch rockets on Israel and to arm itself through the southern border with Egypt. Demographic Zionism's main promise was proved fallacious.

Under Olmert's rule, and in the shadow of continuous terrorism, Israeli society became dormant and depressed. Notwithstanding a long teacher's strike - the longest in this country's history - the Israeli public sphere, just recently very active pro or against the Disengagement Plan, is now empty. The people returned to their private lives, and didn't want to have anything to do with politics anymore. Who can blame them? They know that Olmert's successor probably will not do much better: none of them provide different strategy than he does. Demographic Zionism was always an alternative in case territorial Zionism will fail. But now, the failure of the Disengagement to end terrorism and bring a sense of security, even peace, proved that demographic Zionism provides no solution either.

On 31st of July 2008, Olmert finally announced his resignation, but none of his potential successors seem very promising. Olmert may resign, but his legacy will live on: do nothing, buy time, oppress the Palestinians, and maybe go to war from time to time. For Zionism there is no other alternative.

After the Disengagement, the evacuated settlers became disoriented and emotionally broken. The state and particularly Ariel Sharon for years led them to believe that they are the linchpin of the Zionist enterprise. Now, it is the same state, headed by their former benefactor that treats them as a disturbance, even as criminals: driving them away from their luxurious homes and destroying their profitable state-subsidized businesses. It's 3 years now after the plan, and they have not recovered from the crisis. The state had abandoned them. Most of them still live in temporary trailer homes, with large percentage of unemployment among the elders and drug abuse among the youth. According to a recent survey, 55% of the evacuated required mental treatment; and 37% described their economic condition as "terrible" or "most terrible".

These people were traumatized by watching the true face of Zionism: Zionism is not about liberating Jews, it is about exploiting Jews. Cowing and deceiving them to protect and serve the Zionist ruling elite. It will treat some Jews with great dignity, making them feel as kings among men, and then degrade them as criminals as soon as the interests of the ruling class change. Realizing that, but with no true alternative, a lot of the evacuated turned against the state, refusing to join the army and even to acknowledge the national flag - the same flag they waved with chauvinistic pride before the plan was implemented. Some started to develop insurrectional fantasies, but cut-off from the Israeli public, army, capital and other sources of power, such insurrection seems far fetched.

But the ones who suffer most are the Palestinians in Gaza. Deprived of any creativity or solutions, the government turned to blindly oppressing the Palestinian masses by economic blockades and repeated army attacks inside Gaza. The lives of the Palestinians became much worse as a lot of them lost their jobs after the Disengagement and a lot more are living impossible lives while their access to food, electricity and medical services has been severely restricted by a capricious and inapt government, whose only function that it is still capable of performing is state-terrorism.

In that light, the Disengagement Plan has been an utter disaster for all living under Israeli rule. The only positive thing that came out of it is that it showed to many Israelis and "moderate" Palestinians that Zionism provides no solution, under any of its forms, schools or versions. The initial response is collective depression. That is understandable. But from that crisis an understanding can emerge that not separation, but collaboration between peoples against their common oppressors is the only way for true peace and stability. The true face of Zionism was revealed to all during Olmert's administration. Olmert is the Zionism of the day: the Zionism that used up all of its solutions and ended up with nothing to legitimize itself, except for blind and useless violence. After seeing that, how much time will pass, until the Israeli masses realize that the solution to their plight is beyond Zionism, not within it?


[i] Issam Makhoul (2004), The ICP's standing on Sharon's Disengagement PlanHa'Gada Ha'Smalit (in Hebrew).
"Compensation-Annexation" is a paraphrase on the plan's legal name, "Compensation-Evacuation".

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