Opposition in Israel to disengagement

Published: 10 August 2005
Briefing Number 153

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Summary: This Briefing concisely outlines the arguments for and against Israel’s “disengagement” from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank. Opponents of disengagement, campaigning under the colour orange, have undertaken a massive campaign to prevent disengagement, but they have not stopped the Israeli government from proceeding.

Large sections of Israeli society are now experiencing the anguish of sacrificing some long-held beliefs.

Following disengagement it will be time for the Palestinians to confront some painful choices of their own.

A time of intense emotion and political controversy

The build-up to disengagement has been a time of intense emotion and political controversy in Israel.

Large sections of Israeli society passionately feel that disengagement is wrong and dangerous for Israel; but the Israeli government is determined to go ahead. It maintains that disengagement is essential, and expresses the democratic will of the Israeli people.

The stand-off at Kfar Maimon – dignity and anguish

The clash of outlooks was epitomised in protests which took place in the small Israeli village of Kfar Maimon, just outside the Gaza strip, in late July.

Thousands of protesters gathered to march on the Gaza strip settlement of Gush Katif, and express solidarity with the residents there. Over 10,000 men, women, teenagers, children… whole families gathered for those three days, in searing heat.

Facing them were 20,000 Israeli soldiers and police, forming a massive human wall to prevent the protesters from getting through. The soldiers were unarmed. Many linked arms.

For three days, the stand-off continued. The protesters prayed, held rallies and study meetings, and offered food and drink to the soldiers (usually rebuffed by the soldiers, on army orders).

Protesters cried. And facing them, soldiers and police cried too. And after three days, the disengagement protesters went home, exhausted and emotionally shattered. And the police and army regrouped to block the next, expected wave of protests.

There was no violence over those three days at Kfar Maimon.

Arguments in favour of disengagement

Israel’s disengagement plan was formulated by Ariel Sharon at the end of 2003 (its precise origin remains a subject of controversy). The plan evolved in 2004, and is being implemented on the ground in 2005.

Israeli government representatives argue that disengagement is in Israel’s interests for the following reasons:-

  • it is not possible for Israel to control the lives of the Palestinians in Gaza and retain Israel’s character as a democratic Jewish state. Agreeing to Palestinian self-rule while the Israeli settlements remain is not enough, and is not viable: complete “disengagement” is the only answer

  • once Israel achieves disengagement from Gaza and the Northern West Bank this could create new momentum for diplomacy and negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians

  • disengagement will be perceived internationally as a tangible move by Israel in favour of the Palestinians, and will strengthen Israel’s hand (especially in the US) in arguing to retain key West Bank settlement blocs long-term, and achieving a united Jerusalem

Most advocates of disengagement recognise that it is painful for Israel society, in human and psychological terms, and that it will be financially costly. But they say that this is the “price Israel needs to pay” to create hope for a better future.

Key arguments of the opponents of disengagement

Against this are the key arguments against disengagement. Government Ministers such as Natan Scharansky and Benjamin Netanyahu have resigned over this issue, and the Likud party of Prime Minister Sharon has been thrown into turmoil:-

  • surrendering to terrorism: The Palestinian terrorist groups operating from Gaza are “taking credit” inside Palestinian society for Israel’s withdrawal. Israeli critics of the plan argue that Israel is simply “giving in” to terrorism, and exposing Israeli society to fresh danger which it will not be in a position to confront after disengagement

  • no reciprocation by the Palestinians: It is claimed that disengagement will not prompt hopeful diplomacy with the Palestinians. Repeatedly, Israeli concessions have not brought about Palestinian moderation, but Palestinian extremism. It is feared that this is going to happen again, following disengagement. Israel is “giving something for nothing”

  • pressure on Israel internationally will increase, not decrease: critics of disengagement argue that, following disengagement, Europe, the USA and the international community will increase their pressure on Israel to concede to further Palestinian demands. They argue that Israel cannot rely on assurances from the USA about future negotiations, and that by taking unilateral action, Israel is setting a dangerous precedent for itself

  • uprooting settlers is an unprincipled betrayal: Settlers moved to Gaza with the encouragement of previous Israeli governments, and built up viable communities and agriculture. Yet now, after mortar attacks, and intense, violent assault by Palestinians against their communities, they are being “uprooted” against their will – by their own government. This is a “betrayal” of a dedicated and loyal section of Israeli society which divides and disillusions Israeli society as a whole

  • Religious significance of the land: religious leaders and religiously observant Jewish residents of Gaza and the West Bank argue that Israel is surrendering land which is biblically part of Israel. This, they say, is not permitted religiously, and warrants civil disobedience, passive resistance and, according to many, a refusal by soldiers or police to take part in implementing the plan

  • Taking security risks with Egypt: following disengagement, Israel has agreed that Egyptian soldiers will assume certain responsibilities to guard the western edge of the Gaza strip and prevent the smuggling in of weapons and foreign terrorist groups. This ends a 25 year old arrangement which prevented Egyptian forces from being present on Israel’s border. Opponents of disengagement argue that this is yet another risk to Israel

Key messages and conclusion

Large sections of Israeli society are experiencing the anguish of sacrificing some long-held visions.

Israel’s strength as a democracy, and the resilience of its people, is being challenged in an unprecedented and extraordinary way.

Following disengagement it will be time for the Palestinians to confront some painful decisions of their own.