HISTORY, Part 7: 2005 Disengagement from Gaza

Settlements are communities of Israeli Jews that live on Palestinian land. Nearly every country in the world – including the US – considers settlements illegal according to international law: the 4th Geneva Convention states that “The occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”

UNSC Resolution 446 in 1979 (adopted by 12 votes to 0, with abstentions from Norway, the UK, and the US) declared

"that the policy and practices of Israel in establishing settlements in the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967 have no legal validity and constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East."

If Israeli settlements are illegal and an impediment to peace, why do they exist? It’s a reasonable question that has several different answers, depending on who is talking.

  • The Israeli government insists that the purpose of settlements on Palestinian land is for “security.” Israeli neighborhoods in Palestinian land give Israeli soldiers a place to establish a presence; Israeli citizens supposedly keep an eye on the Palestinians, and settlements divide up the Palestinian population into small pockets and create a barrier between Palestinians and Israel’s large cities.
  • Some settlers believe that God gave Jews the whole of Palestine, and they want to live in the settlements because they believe that land is really theirs.
  • Some are there simply because the settlements are much cheaper to live in than Israeli cities. The government subsidizes their existence.

But most Palestinians and their allies are confident that there is another, unspoken reason for the existence of settlements with their 600,000 residents living on Palestinian land: to create facts on the ground. When it is finally time to negotiate an end to the conflict, Jews will be established on Palestinian land, and Israel will instead either offer a land swap with the Palestinians – forcing them to give up prime land, or insist that a Palestinian state would be impossible.

Gaza settlements

Israel began building settlements in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem after the 1967 war. By 1987, there were 2,500 settlers in Gaza. According to the account of historian Jean-Pierre Filiu, each settler had at his disposal 400 times as much land as a Palestinian refugee and 20 times as much water as a peasant farmer in the Gaza Strip.

At their height in the early 2000s, Gaza was home to 8,000 settlers in 21 different settlements. The largest ones were built on the southern coastline of Gaza at the border with Egypt, and block several large Palestinian cities form having access to the Mediterranean Sea. Another cluster of settlements was located at the northern border. Others are strategically located in the heart of Gaza, and according to the Jewish Virtual Library,

[create] a framework for Israeli control of the area and its main transportation route, and [facilitate] Israel’s ability to divide the Gaza Strip into separate areas and isolate each area’s inhabitants. In addition, the settlements control prime agricultural land [and] some of the area’s main aquifers.

By 2005, those 8,000 Israeli settlers had expropriated 18% of little Gaza and 1/3 of the Mediterranean coastline, even though they comprised only 0.6% of the total population. That left 82% of the land for 99.4% of the people.

Palestinians resented the settlers’ presence and were angered by the farmland that was confiscated and entire neighborhoods that had been demolished in order to make room for the settlements. Settlers instead of Palestinians grew, exported, and profited from vegetables and fruit on Palestinian land in Gaza. Israeli soldiers were present all the time (as many as 3,000 Israeli troops guarded the 8,000 settlers at a cost of “tens of millions of dollars per year”), making life very difficult for the Palestinians.

Naturally, the Palestinians didn’t take this lying down. They resisted. Keep in mind that this resistance is in the context of an illegal occupation and an illegal transfer of the occupier’s population into the occupied land.

Eventually, the Israeli government realized that Gaza settlements weren’t worth the trouble. The decision was made to dismantle the settlements and use the soldiers to protect settlers in the West Bank instead, where there were hundreds of thousands of settlers – also illegal.

The Jewish settlements in Gaza were evacuated in 2005 under the Disengagement began. Israeli soldiers delivered eviction notices to each home, which stated that "The [Israeli military] and the Israeli police share in the sorrow and pain you are feeling and expressing. Nevertheless, we will see this mission to its end, while providing any possible help and assistance."

It was hard for some people to say goodbye to their homes. Anyone who wanted assistance with packing and moving could just ask, and the IDF helped them. Some had to be forcibly removed. 50,000 troops and police were sent to Gaza to make sure everything happened according to plan.

It was a very expensive venture. Israel budgeted $900 million, but later asked the US for $2 billion more. However, one Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs document seems to indicate that the total cost was $2 billion. Most of the settler families received a compensation package of $150 - $400,000, plus moving expenses, 2 years’ free rent, and other payments. Many of them had also gotten subsidies to live on the land to begin with, and had low expenses because they refused to pay their Palestinian workers the lawful minimum wage.

When the evacuation began, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon gave an inspiring speech:

Residents of the Gaza Strip, today marks the end of a glorious chapter in the story of Israel and a major chapter in the story of your lives, as pioneers, as realizers of a dream, and as those who bore the security and settlement burden for all of us…Your pain and your tears are an inseparable part of the history of this country…We tried to reach agreements with the Palestinians that would move both peoples towards a path of peace. These were crushed against a wall of hatred and fanaticism…The world is waiting for the Palestinian response - a hand stretched out to peace or the fire of terror. To an outstretched hand we shall respond with an olive branch, but we shall fight fire with the harshest fire ever.

Israelis and Israel supporters point to the Disengagement as proof that Israel has made great sacrifices in the name of peace. Actually, the removal of Israelis from Gaza was simply compliance with international law that shouldn’t have been broken to begin with. The US paid most of the cost, and the settlers themselves got a great deal.

In addition, the disengagement did not actually end the occupation of Gaza. The Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs quotes the plan, which indicates that the occupation is ongoing:

1) The State of Israel will guard and monitor the external land perimeter of the Gaza Strip, will continue to maintain exclusive authority in Gaza air space, and will continue to exercise security activity in the sea off the coast of the Gaza Strip.

2) The Gaza Strip shall be demilitarized and shall be devoid of weaponry, the presence of which does not accord with the Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

3) The State of Israel reserves its fundamental right of self-defense, both preventive and reactive, including where necessary the use of force, in respect of threats emanating from the Gaza Strip.

The essential ingredient for applicability of the law of occupation is therefore the actual control exercised by the occupying forces. The United Nations considers Gaza to be still under occupation.

It is instructive to compare Israel’s approach to evacuating Jewish settlers to that of removing Palestinians from their homes.