Strategic Assessment
Volume 7, No. 3, December 2004
Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv University

The Aims of the Disengagement Plan

On April 18, 2004, the Israeli government issued a general outline of its proposed unilateral disengagement plan from Palestinian territories. The government announcement correctly played down any advantages to be expected from the plan.

It was claimed that “a better security situation, at least in the long term” will be achieved – a meaningless, vague statement.

The announcement did not mention the promises made by the former head of the prime minister’s office regarding a freeze of the situation in Judea and Samaria following the execution of the plan. On the contrary, the announcement claimed that the plan was created because “the stalemate dictated by the current situation is harmful. In order to break out of this stalemate, Israel is required to initiate moves not dependent on Palestinian cooperation.”

Furthermore, “the relocation from the Gaza Strip and from Northern Samaria… will reduce friction with the Palestinian population, and carries with it the potential for improvement in the Palestinian economy and living conditions.”

It is true that dismantling settlements and removing army units will reduce friction with the Palestinian population, an achievement that has great potential. Indeed, it is reasonable to assume that friction with the Palestinians would be mitigated in numerous areas between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River if Jews were evacuated from those sites. However, virtually all the experts agree that an expectation of improvement in the quality of Palestinian life is totally unfounded, since disengagement will prove disastrous to the Palestinian economy.

Furthermore, the claim that “the process of disengagement will serve to dispel claims regarding Israel’s responsibility for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip” is unfounded from both the legal and diplomatic aspects. Clearly, as long as Israel guards the external perimeter of the Gaza Strip, and no one is permitted to enter or leave without inspection and approval, it will continue to be regarded as responsible for the fate of the residents there.

In addition, the pressure to open entry and exit doors for the Palestinians will be substantial, and it is reasonable to assume that Israel will compromise security needs in order to ease the pressure. It therefore seems that the Israeli government has not succeeded in producing a single serious argument that can refute objections and justify the grave step that it is taking.

At times when a diplomatic plan is proposed, it is difficult to estimate where it will lead from the security aspect, and even after some time has elapsed, the actual result may remain in dispute. There are also people who defend certain moves although reality differs entirely from what they envisioned. The correct approach to be adopted when analyzing diplomatic proposals, as in the case of the disengagement plan, is the analytical one that asks: What are the chances of improving the security situation after the disengagement, and what is the risk that this situation will deteriorate? This is not the place to present alternatives to the plan under discussion, but it is fitting to estimate the possible developments if the status quo were preserved, without execution of the plan.

Supporters of the unilateral withdrawal from the left of the political map assess the positive features along the lines of, “the disengagement plan offers an opportunity for the creation of a positive dynamic in Israeli-Palestinian relations.” In other words, the disengagement plan may well be “the first stage of resolving the conflict with the Palestinians; the partner will be created if the Palestinians seize the opportunity and demonstrate a serious attitude to the first stage of the roadmap that must lead to the reduction of violence.”

Although the roadmap demands more vigorous and clear steps than simple “reduction of violence,” even those who are prepared to accept this minor gesture are called on to explain how it will be possible to persuade the Palestinians to reduce the violence after withdrawal from Gaza. Even after Arafat’s departure from the stage, is there any realistic chance that his successors will agree to fight against Hamas? Will they take any active steps to prevent its operations, and how will they dismantle the terrorist infrastructure or prevent its reinforcement?

Arafat demonstrated that he did not wish to take the required steps in order to weaken Palestinian terrorism capabilities, although the Israeli leadership demanded and expected this from him in 1994, when he and his cohorts arrived on the scene. Why should the Palestinian leadership act differently when Israel is withdrawing under the pressure of the very same terror, now that the Palestinians have made no pledge of any kind to Israel, in contrast to their commitment after the Oslo Accords?

Obviously many of the Palestinian residents of Gaza desire quiet that will permit them to live normal lives. Yet will a withdrawal from Gaza that is perceived as running away in fact strengthen their position in Palestinian society?

For a while it appeared there was a chance the Egyptians would enter the picture. However, this apparently was a false impression that resulted from lack of familiarity with Egyptian policy. It seems rather that Egypt would at most slightly increase its efforts, meager until now, to prevent the smuggling of arms into Gaza, and that it would aid in training the Palestinian security forces. Nor does the absence of the Egyptians from the picture permit an analogy with Lebanon. Syria is currently preserving the fragile equilibrium in southern Lebanon and preventing escalation on the part of Hizbollah – which some of us predicted would follow the IDF withdrawal – because it fears the price of a war in the north. Without Egypt, the Gaza theater does not appear to include a force that on the one hand would fear an Israeli threat, and on the other would be capable of forcing the Palestinians to halt the terror.

Consequently it is far from clear on what the supporters of the disengagement plan base their optimistic assumptions regarding the future.

The Operational and Tactical Significance

Given this likely vacuum, an estimate must be made of what is liable to happen in the Gaza Strip itself, and what is the significance of transferring responsibility for the defense of the residents of Sderot, Ashkelon, and the western Negev to the Palestinians. At present, and as opposed to the stipulations of the Oslo Accords, no one on the Palestinian side has made any commitment to combat terror.

Contrary to the argument sometimes aired in the Israeli press that Hamas prefers that Israel remain in Gaza, the aim of the organization is in fact to liberate the Gaza Strip and Judea and Samaria from any Israeli presence, and subsequently continue the long, hard struggle on the other side of the Green Line. Consequently it may be estimated that:

The departure of IDF forces from Gaza may be disastrous at the tactical level. It may bring today’s Qassam rockets to the heart of Ashkelon, whose fate will become that of Sderot. If the range of the rockets increases, other towns will become additional targets.

It is impossible to predict the ramifications of evacuating northern Samaria and whether a threat of rocket attacks against the center of the State of Israel will result. This will depend on the extent of the freedom of action given to the IDF in the region.

The disengagement will cause a significant reduction in Israel’s ability to respond locally – both in Gaza and northern Samaria – to developments such as rocket attacks.

This reduction will inevitably result from the expected deterioration of the level of intelligence and even more from the restricted freedom of action of the operational forces. The IDF will lose its capability of combating the chain of production and firing of the Qaasam rockets.

It will be more difficult to defend the line of the Gaza fence when on the other side there is no Israeli force capable of creating a real buffer zone.

If over the course of time Israeli control of the Philadelphi route becomes more tenuous, or if a sea port is constructed in Gaza or the Gaza airport becomes operational again, as promised in the Oslo agreements, then rockets that can reach Kiryat Gat and the southern outskirts of Ashdod can be smuggled in. Furthermore, surface-to-air missiles will also likely be smuggled in, curtailing the Israeli Air Force’s freedom of action above Gaza or even in Israeli skies near the fence.

Thus, Israel is about to establish a state in Gaza, a state in which Hamas will have freedom of action and be joined by the umbilical cord to Hizbollah. When Israel no longer has the capability of closely supervising the sea and air borders of the Gaza Strip, the Lebanese model of the northern border recurs in the southwest, whereby rockets that boast a range of dozens of kilometers are perched on the dividing line and threaten Israeli towns. Israel will lose its capability of retaliating against terror originating in Gaza, just as it currently does not fight against terror coming from Lebanon: 80 percent of the terrorist attacks originating in Judea and Samaria are perpetrated by organizations receiving Hizbollah aid and financing, and Israel is doing nothing because of its fear of retaliatory rockets by Hizbollah.

It is impossible to know if the situation will deteriorate immediately and we will see the results in Ashkelon in a few days, or if the threat will be realized at a later date, after international pressure has been applied to Israel to present the next program for withdrawal. It is reasonable to assume that Palestinian offensive capability will be built up under the umbrella of its control in the field, and the threat will be displayed in accordance with Palestinian needs. Israel will lack the capability of preventing or influencing the realization of this threat.

The escalation of terror since 1994, when Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, until the present gives a clear indication of what is likely to happen in the future, when the Strip will be an area off limits to critical Israel activity. Indeed, those who think that it will be possible to act on intelligence in the Gaza Strip with the same ease that the IDF enjoys today ignore the political constraints. After the withdrawal the IDF will be unable to operate in Gaza. Only if murderous terrorist activities originate from there over a long period of time will Israel slowly, and after paying a bloody price, acquire the legitimacy to act again in the Gaza Strip.

The terror that will be encountered by Israel in the future, if the Palestinians decide to employ it, will be far more sophisticated and less vulnerable.

The War against Terror and Disengagement

The critical situation described above is all but certain, yet does not represent the gravest damage to be sustained. Even more serious is the likely possibility that the unilateral withdrawal will harm the deterrent concept that Israel (and the democratic world) is laboring to build in the face of the waves of global terror. By its action Israel will declare publicly that terror is a winning formula, and will thus spur the continuation of terror both at home and abroad.

The Palestinian war of terror erupted four years ago, at a time when Israel and the US president were prepared to hand over to the Palestinians the entire Gaza Strip including the Philadelphi route, the Temple Mount and most of the Old City of Jerusalem, and more than 90 percent of Judea and Samaria.

Yossi Beilin’s personal proposal was also on the agenda, in which Israel would absorb a significant number of refugees as part of an overall settlement. At no stage were the Palestinians prepared to avow that the agreement would form the end of the conflict and that they would not raise further demands.

Partly in an analogy with the IDF withdrawal from Lebanon several months earlier, the Palestinians assumed they could overcome Israel by means of terror. Arafat was prepared to go to war even though in the negotiations with Ehud Barak he had scored tremendous achievements. The Palestinian state was about to be established with the blessing of the US and with the agreement of Israel; its capital would be East Jerusalem with its center in Haram al-Sharif – the Temple Mount. However, Arafat refused to accept the proposal, apparently since he was not ready to be the leader who ended the conflict, and he therefore did not agree to make a commitment that the Palestinians would have no additional demands in the future. In his view, as with many of his supporters who had seen the “salami technique” in action,the agreement was to be merely another stage in the struggle to destroy the State of Israel. It is therefore also clear why he could not consent to the generous quota of refugees that Beilin suggested would be allowed to return to Israel. Arafat contended that no restrictions should be placed on the number of refugees eligible to return, just as in effect no restrictions should be placed on the efforts to destroy Israel at a later stage.

(Ironically, Abu Mazen declared recently that in the Camp David talks of 2000 Arafat was prepared to make greater concessions than he himself was.)

The tool employed to subdue Israel and force it to accept greater Palestinian demands was terror, which after the years of drawn-out fighting in Lebanon seemed an unbeatable tactic. Palestinians saw the IDF as having fled from the Lebanese battlefield in disgrace, and Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah urged the Palestinians to emulate his successes. Technical examination of the data reveals that the concept of Hizbollah success was unfounded. In the last seventeen months of its presence in Lebanon the IDF suffered twenty-one fatalities, all of them military personnel. From the perspective of a war against terrorist and guerilla organizations, the number is not “intolerable.” For its own part, Hizbollah did not chalk up great achievements during that period. However, Israeli public opinion did not withstand the mounting domestic pressure to withdraw, and some regional leaders saw therein the beginning of a broader rift in Israeli society that would, under the same logic, play into the hands of the Palestinians.

Although the withdrawal from Lebanon seems to be an Israeli success judged by the relative quiet in the north, the long term strategic message that emerged from the withdrawal caused great damage to Israel, especially in the Palestinian context.

When the intifada broke out while negotiations were continuing, the IDF and Israeli leaders failed to understand that Israel was facing a long confrontation. The prevailing theory was that Arafat resorted to violence in order to enable himself to display flexibility a short period thereafter.

According to this approach, the war was a symbolic move to allow Arafat to point at independence achieved by force.

In contrast to the political misinterpretation, the preparations at the tactical level proved adequate, and at the beginning of the intifada the IDF succeeded in foiling the Palestinian hopes of achieving victory by the masses over the “army of occupation.” Yet when the fighting, which had seemed at first to be a more violent version of the previous intifada, evolved into a long, hard war, the situation became far more complex. Apparently Arafat was not seeking a better diplomatic agreement or a pretext for concessions, but was rather attempting to defeat Israel. Every civilian target was legitimate for terrorism purposes, and the terrorist infrastructure blossomed in the regions in which the IDF had lost control following the Oslo Accords.

As the terror evolved and escalated, the slogan “let the IDF win” emerged, even though there were those who argued that since there was no real terrorist infrastructure it was impossible to fight it using regular military forces. In fact, over the first eighteen months of the intifada, until April 2002, the IDF’s hands were tied. The army learned the hard way that it could not fight against terror without controlling the area.

Commanders began to realize that from the outside it was impossible to prevent terror without sparking serious friction with a civilian population that spawned, nurtured, and launched the terror.

Following the 2002 Passover massacre at the Park Hotel in Netanya, Operation Defensive Shield was launched, driven by the principle that the IDF was returning to the heart of the populated areas in Judea and Samaria in order to regain military control of them. This complicated move did not bear immediate fruits. On the contrary, for a considerable time many people criticized the army for failing to produce results, since in practice the terror continued and the IDF seemed far from achieving a victory of any kind. Ultimately, however, the difficult lesson became clear, namely, that a war against terror is not for the impatient, and positive results emerge only after prolonged fighting – in the case of the intifada, over the course of about two years. This period saw construction of the separation fence,which proved of considerable benefit in the areas where it was erected.

At the same time, it is clear that this alone is not a comprehensive solution, and even regions without a fence experienced a decrease in terror. IDF presence and the extensive use of targeted assassinations of terrorist leaders and activists led to a reduction in the number of attempted attacks.

There was also a significant drop in the number of suicide bombings perpetrated inside the Green Line, with the General Security Services (GSS) and IDF proving quite successful in thwarting such attacks. The powerful combination of fewer attempts to execute terrorist attacks and the increased success in foiling such attempts created a new situation in which the scope of the terror declined significantly.

Israel was on the verge of an historic achievement. For the first time after many years a democratic country succeeded in demonstrating clearly that it was possible to combat terror, without systematic decimation of the population of the kind perpetrated in Assad’s 1982 massacre of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, and that it was possible to repel and defeat determined and cruel Islamic organizations that target civilians. In a world in which so many countries are engaged, albeit generally unsuccessfully, in a war against terror, Israel represented a leading, professional, and moral example. The IDF proved that when it was given the essential conditions, mainly to gain control of the area and eliminate the terrorist leadership, with the aid of excellent GSS intelligence it knew how to damage the terrorist capabilities greatly. It was again possible to show that there was no basis to the myth that emerged after World War II that an army cannot defeat terrorist and guerilla movements.

Israel was very close to victory. A military force can never eliminate the cause of a conflict between nations or societies, nor destroy the will of the opposing side. However, it was demonstrated that military action may drastically reduce the capability of a terrorist organization to execute its plans. At the heart of terrorist infrastructures are the leaders, the commanders in the field, the operatives, and the laboratories, and they can be attacked. Israel successfully adopted the method of targeted assassinations to destroy the core infrastructure of the terror, i.e., terrorists having the greatest operational experience. Two years elapsed from the beginning of the Defensive Shield campaign until its results became apparent, because control is acquired over time when the area is occupied, and not by magic solutions. The army can only gain real control by a long, sometimes arduous process, while displaying determination and persistence.

The option of regaining control also applied to the Gaza Strip, but was rejected on the assumption that such an operation would be very difficult and would involve numerous casualties, both among IDF soldiers and among the local population. As long as firing continued at Sderot and its surroundings only, many people thought that the operations of Judea and Samaria should not be implemented in Gaza, even though on the eve of Defensive Shield there was considerable opposition to it in Judea and Samaria for the same reasons.

Yet what will be the response when the firing from Gaza reaches additional cities in Israel? The difference is now apparent between areas in which the IDF regained control after fighting (Judea and Samaria), and those in which it remained outside and did not regain control (the Gaza Strip).

Sderot, located near an area beyond IDF control since the implementation of the Oslo agreements but in which there is a fence, has become a border town suffering Qassam rocket attacks and paying for the lack of control with its blood.

In contrast, in Judea and Samaria, with or without the fence, there is no high trajectory fire, and the other forms of terror are also slowly being eliminated by the IDF. Their potency is far less than in the past, and will decrease further after completion of the fence.

The IDF has reached a success rate of 80 percent in thwarting terrorist attacks originating in Judea and Samaria, and the terrorist leaders replacing those who have been arrested or killed are inexperienced youngsters who spend more time protecting their own lives than in perpetrating terrorist attacks. Of its own volition, Israel is about to surrender all these achievements and receive nothing in return.

The Significance for the Future

After the unilateral withdrawal, which will be heralded by the Palestinians as flight (even if Israel proclaims that the decision was not caused by terror but by other reasons), it will be difficult to persuade anyone in the world in general and in the Middle East in particular that terrorism did not defeat the State of Israel. The victory of terror will become a myth that will influence the future, even if Palestinian diplomatic or tactical considerations dictate a lull in the terror after the IDF withdrawal.

There will perhaps be a large internal struggle among the Palestinians for domination and booty, but it will be clear who fled and who left the booty behind.

Today, even before the withdrawal is implemented, three quarters of the Palestinians in the territories believe that the decision regarding unilateral withdrawal reflects the victory of the terror imposed by the Palestinians. Hizbollah’s Nasrallah will justifiably declare that after four years of warfare the Palestinians succeeded in realizing half of their dream, and there is no reason to think that in the coming years they won’t achieve the other half, on condition that they continue to wage a protracted terrorist war against Israel. The Palestinian strategy will be clear: the creation of a threat against Israel’s home front, while waging a terrorist and guerilla war under the protection of their umbrella that prevents Israel from retaliation.

Rather than standing at the threshold of a significant strategic achievement, where it is clear to the Arab side that Israel makes no diplomatic concessions to terror but continues to combat it successfully to the bitter end, the unilateral withdrawal will place us on the verge of a protracted confrontation, under far worse conditions, facing an enemy gaining momentum and strength because of its success. This is the nature of the missed historic opportunity. It was interesting to listen to American officials who explained that the US was opposed in principle to the unilateral withdrawal because it contradicts its strategic concept not to surrender to terror. In the end Jerusalem succeeded in persuading Washington to support the move in return for adding northern Samaria to the withdrawal and restricting construction in the settlements.

After giving up its achievements in the battle against terror and displaying its fear of international pressure, Israel has lost its status. The US was the first to realize this and it has increased the package of concessions to the Palestinians that Israel will have to pay as part of the plan. Even the Republican administration has made it clear that Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and northern Samaria is only the first stage in the process. The explanations of the former head of the prime minister’s office that attempt to justify the withdrawal from a Rightist stance, as if by virtue of the withdrawal future pressure on Israel will be averted, are totally unfounded.

The day after completion of the unilateral withdrawal the international pressure for continuation of withdrawal will begin, but this time the pressure will be even greater, because there will be a precedent of the evacuation of settlements and areas without receiving anything in return from the Palestinians. That which Israel volunteered to do in Gaza will form the basis for a demand to do the same in Judea and Samaria. US Secretary of State Colin Powell and the Europeans have said this explicitly.

On the other side we find the Left, which in the face of the unilateral concession justifiably fears the possible results. Those who for years conducted negotiations and still believe that there is a partner for talks with Israel are opposed to the government’s decision. It is clear to them that the chances that someone on the Palestinian side will agree to negotiate with Israel are now rapidly declining. If the Palestinians receive their demands by the force of terror without giving anything in return, not even a declaration, why should they agree to negotiations in which they will be expected to make concessions? Even if today there is no serious partner on the Palestinian side, the unilateral move is likely to delay the creation of one for many years.

However, the Israeli Left can claim one more victory for itself in its efforts to return Israel to the 1967 borders and dismantle the settlements in Judea and Samaria. For the first time in the history of Zionism the Israeli government has shattered a taboo and is uprooting settlements without external pressure and without receiving anything in return. The dam has been burst by the Right, and the Left will certainly widen the hole.

Without doubt this precedent will serve Israel’s enemies and “friends” in the future, whenever they will wish to extract concessions of this kind without demanding flexibility on the part of the other side. If the prime minister thought that his concessions would prevent pressure in the future, he is mistaken. On the contrary, an Israeli withdrawal without receiving anything in exchange will form the desired modus operandi for the Palestinians and their supporters in the Western world, and from now on their task will be far easier.

Conclusion

The proposed unilateral withdrawal contains a strategic, diplomatic, and military risk that has been described concisely by senior defense officials as “backing for terror.” This expression has not merely a literal meaning, i.e., rockets being fired against Ashkelon, but also a broader, deeper one, of historic surrender to the wave of Islamic terror and words of encouragement to the terrorists in the vein of “continue on your successful path.” Spain fled from Iraq because of terror in Madrid, and the Israelis will be regarded as fleeing from Gaza for the same reason.

That which we found easy to analyze and condemn regarding Spain, we prefer not to understand in the Palestinian context. Flight from terror, even if it is called “unilateral withdrawal,” remains flight, and its results will be disastrous. Israel must remain where it is and make difficult, courageous decisions regarding regaining control of additional areas in the Gaza Strip in order to remove the capability of firing at Sderot. This is part of the IDF mandate.

If and when there will be someone to talk to on the other side, removal of settlements and the IDF presence can form bargaining chips in negotiations.

The Israeli government, however, has played its cards without receiving anything in return, and therefore can only expect to experience more terror.

This was explained better than anyone else by Prime Minister Sharon years ago when as an ordinary Knesset member he appeared at the Likud Central Committee and said, “Labor wants to hand over the Gaza Strip, and even among us there are people who voice similar opinions… The Jews have apparently forgotten why we liberated it twice, in 1956 and 1967, from the Egyptian occupier (which followed a previous attempt to do so at the end of the War of Independence that nearly succeeded). Why did we pay the price three times? Because the Gaza Strip threatened us when it was not in our hands. What is proposed is to abandon the security of Ashkelon, Kiryat Gat, Sderot, Netivot, and dozens of kibbutzim and cooperative communities.”

At the time Sharon made an excellent analysis of the tactical danger resulting from the disengagement. The current strategic danger is even greater.

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