By Yehonathan Tommer
On the back of a carefully integrated logistical operation involving some 43,000 army and police personnel, Israel’s pullout of 21 Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip was completed on Monday August 23, well ahead of the planned three weeks. None of the darkest scenarios materialised. Apart from limited violence at Kfar Darom, overall resistance was passive. There was no shooting or bloodshed. The evacuation proceeded smoothly and rapidly in the absence of Palestinian terrorist attacks. There were no waves of insubordination and evacuating forces retained high morale in the face of aggressive psychological warfare and emotional manipulation waged by the evacuees. Apart from mass rallies in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, no public disorder disrupted daily life around the country.
Riveting Human Drama
During the first two days of the evacuation process, August 15 and 16, settlers could voluntarily vacate their homes with army assistance without forfeiting their financial compensations. Hard-line outsiders prevented some people who wished to take up this offer from doing so. But a riveting human drama unfolded, broadcast in real time across Israel and around the world. Evacuating forces came to settlement after settlement to distribute eviction notices to each house and were met at locked-out entrances by hundreds of weeping, cajoling, and reproachful teenagers and mothers bearing infants. Following fruitless negotiations with settler representatives entering forces invariably cut down the iron gates. Once inside, they were met in face-to-face stand offs with settlers yelling “Jews don’t evict Jews,” exhortations to insubordination and threats of “divine retribution” for the “crime” they were committing.
They were invariably confronted by dense, arm-locked lines of expressionless young men and women, soldiers and police, trained “to hear, but not to listen.” Occasionally, welled-up emotions aroused by the abuse and harsh realities were overpowering. Soldiers from the evacuation force sometimes went aside and unrestrainedly broke down in bitter choking tears.
By week’s end 16 settlements had been fully evacuated, five of them forcibly in Gush Katif (Tel Katifa, Morag, Ganei Tal, Bedolah and Kerem Atzmona). As early as Sunday August 21, army bulldozers began demolishing houses at the fully vacated small settlements.
The vast majority of residents were not carried, but walked out of their homes escorted by soldiers and police. There were exceptions. In a provocative reconstruction alluding to the Holocaust and war time Nazi evictions of European Jews, one young family, which had packed its possessions in advance, walked out with yellow Star of David cloth badges pinned to their clothes, trailed by their wailing children holding their hands high above their heads for the cameras to capture. In another incident an hysterical parent, himself an illegal Gaza resident from a West Bank settlement, strode from soldier to soldier holding up his young daughter, shouting at them to evict her.
There was nothing that resembled the much discussed (if largely dismissed) fears of civil war with extremist settlers and some 5,000 mostly non-resident militant teens who had infiltrated earlier into the closed military zone, mostly from West Bank settlements, Personal weapons had been collected from the settlers ahead of evacuation day. Instructed to avoid arguing with settlers, the deliberately unarmed and disciplined evacuating forces kept ugly confrontations under measured control, even though the line between legitimate democratic protest, civil disobedience and acts of criminal misdemeanor was sometimes flouted by militant, anarchist, religious zealots (slashing army vehicle tyres, spraying paint and hurling oil and paint thinner from barricaded synagogue rooftops onto evacuating forces, and burning property). Prime Minister Sharon denounced them as “gangs of criminal hooligans.” Attorney General Meni Mazuz said the arrested youth would be charged with “serious assault” and “punished with all due severity under law.”
In several potential ‘Stalingrad’ communities (Neveh Dekalim, Kfar Darom, Shirat HaYam, Netzer Hazani, Netzarim and Elei Sinai) hundreds of zealous, orange t-shirt clad teens and young adults barricaded themselves inside synagogues and public buildings and on rooftops. The men cloaked themselves in prayer shawls and wore phylacteries while provocatively singing liturgical and patriotic songs and screaming abuse at security forces preparing to storm the building.
In other surreal scenes, evicted and evictors, often the same age, clasped each other weeping, singing and dancing with Torah scrolls removed from the synagogues as they made their way to the evacuation buses. The illegals charged with criminal offences were taken to detention centres.
The Palestinian Authority (PA), for its part, established a buffer zone manned by 11,000 trained paramilitary police along the Gaza border to prevent terrorist militias celebrating Israel’s departure from firing rockets into the settlements and civilian masses from pouring into the area to disrupt the withdrawal. Israel’s alert security forces scuttled an attempted Palestinian Islamic Jihad suicide bomber attack near Neveh Dekalim, while PA President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) invoked a Palestinian ceasefire agreed to by all terrorist organisations and cautioned against armed retaliation for the murder of four Palestinian labourers by an Israeli terrorist in the Shiloh settlement near Nablus in the West Bank.
Report Cards and Concession Speeches
Three days into the evacuation IDF Spokesperson Miri Regev told Israel Radio that, “with some exceptions most settlers were leaving their homes honourably and without confrontations. The pain is harsh, but in the end we are doing our job with heavy hearts, but with determination, lots of responsibility, humanity and patience. The evacuation was continuous and there was no stalling,” he said.
Former Chief of Staff Lt. General Amnon Lipkin-Shahak said on Israel’s Channel Ten that the IDF was performing “at its best, excellently demonstrating sense and sensibility, intelligence, sympathy and support for the evacuees… They (the evacuating forces) are there doing what we instructed them to do in the name of the State of Israel… The IDF is a people’s army and from time to time is called upon to fulfill national tasks.”
In a Yediot Ahronot weekend poll an impressive 89% of the public praised the evacuating forces for their handling of the complex civilian pullout. Support for the government’s disengagement policy rose from a June low of 52% to 59% with 37% opposed and 4% undecided.
By Wednesday evening August 17 leading right-wing politicians recognised defeat. Likud Knesset rebel Uzi Landau said on Israel’s Channel 1 that he was happy “there was no violence and no bloodshed” and called the passive resistance a success due to “the respectful dialogue” between soldiers and settlers. “The true victims are the settlers,” he said, stressing that the evacuating forces “were not Nazi soldiers and police,” and that “all eyes must now turn to the West Bank.”
The final word of surrender was left to Benzi Lieberman, chairman of the now truncated Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza District. “We hope and pray with faith that we can save what can be salvaged. We look forward to forging a new life with this wonderful band of people and may we (as a nation) realise that this is now the last eviction to which Jews will be subjected.”
Where are the Settlers Now
Under the Knesset pullout-compensation law of June 2004, establishing the Disengagement Aid Authority, the evacuees have been allocated to a variety of temporary residences where they can be accommodated for up to two years with government subsidised rents and unemployment benefits. Some 500 families (many with six children and more) totaling some 5,000 people have been put up in 3,000 rooms rented by the Authority in 30 hotels around the country. Others have gone to pre-arranged accommodation in guest houses and kibbutz and moshav farm communities. Others opted for a “caravilla” (an acronym for ‘caravan villa’) in camps established at breakneck speed in recent weeks at Nitzan (350 units, of which 100 are unoccupied) in the northwestern Negev and another 200 units being readied at Yad Binyamin north of Kiryat Gat. In addition the Authority rented 850 apartments for the Gazan evacuees in Beersheba, Ashkelon, Netanaya, Lod and other smaller towns.
Each evacuated family receives a down payment of NIS50,000 (A$14,700) and, depending on the size of their abandoned residential property, loss of business and agricultural income, is entitled to receive between NIS1,767,000 and NIS2,027,000 (A$520,000 and A$596,000) compensation (a sum of equal value to the compensations paid 24 years ago to evacuees from Yamit and northern Sinai farms in the wake of the peace treaty with Egypt). Many families are being directed through the office of Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres to resettle in new and established rural small town and farming communities in the Negev and Galilee, though middle aged breadwinners and farmers may have difficulties in finding an alternative livelihood.
With the Gaza evacuation completed, four northern West Bank settlements were next in line. Two of them, Kadim and Ganim, were voluntarily evacuated in late July. Fierce resistance, though, was envisaged at Sa-Nur and Homesh where a total of 2,000 “hill-top youth” from unauthorised West Bank outposts infiltrated the closed military zone, said army sources. However, in the end the evacuation of the two settlements on August 23 was not significantly more difficult than what occurred in Gaza. Sa-Nur was evacuated without violence. Homesh saw comparable violence to that at Kfar Darom, the most violent of the Gaza evacuations, with bottles, light bulbs, paint, tomato sauce, eggs, tomatoes, cooking oil and other objects hurled at soldiers. There were also reports of two attempted stabbings of Israeli soldiers.
Israel is to transfer full control of the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Authority close to the Jewish New Year in early October after the settlers’ homes have been demolished and remaining Israeli military and agricultural equipment and installations have been removed at the request of the Palestinian Authority.