Ending the forever war in Gaza means looking at how it really began

A Palestinian youth takes photos of an explosion from an Israeli airstrike targeting a nearby building, which Israel says belonged to a Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip, on May 13. (Mohammed Al Masri/AP)
A Palestinian youth takes photos of an explosion from an Israeli airstrike targeting a nearby building, which Israel says belonged to a Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip, on May 13. (Mohammed Al Masri/AP)

Time is measured in seconds, from when a news feed announces a “red alert” — incoming missiles from Gaza aimed at Tel Aviv — to the bleat of a message in the family WhatsApp group from one of my children, “I’m OK”.

Time is also measured in hours of held breath: from a Palestinian hunger striker dying in an Israeli prison, to the barrage of Palestinian rockets from Gaza, to the Israeli air attack that kills three Islamic Jihad leaders and 10 civilians. Then there is the next thunderstorm of rockets from Gaza and the next Israeli air raids, and then another brittle cease-fire.

Memory measures time poorly since the last round of fighting between Israel and Gaza. Was it last summer? And before that, the spring of the previous year?

Yet if we’re ever to end this chronic war, we need to take a longer look back, with more clarity, at its roots.

In popular Israeli memory, the starting point is what then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called the “disengagement”: the withdrawal of Israel’s military and settlements from Gaza. Popular Israeli memory says we left Gaza and got missiles. That blurred reading of the past is an asset of the Israeli right: It supposedly proves that Israel must never again cede territory, and it amplifies doubts about peace with the Palestinians even among moderate Israelis.

But the memory is only half true, and dangerously deceptive. The disengagement was indeed the turning point — but not because Israel pulled out of Gaza. Rather, it’s because of how Israel left: unilaterally.

When Israel left Gaza in 2005, it attempted to impose a solution, denying the Palestinians a voice. The recurring, deadly battles between Israel and Hamas-ruled Gaza are the consequence of that mistaken strategy.

The reality is that there are two peoples with one homeland. The only way to end the conflict is exactly what Sharon sought to evade: Israel withdrawing from nearly all of the West Bank, in an agreement with the Palestinians that recognizes them as equal partners. At this moment, with Israel living under the most intransigent government in its history and the rejectionist Hamas entrenched in Gaza, that’s hard to imagine. Yet in the long run, it’s the only way out.

In stunning contrast to Israel’s previous pullout from the Sinai, the Gaza withdrawal was not the product of negotiations with an Arab side. No peace treaty was signed; no agreement was reached on ending the conflict. No international peacekeeping mechanism was created. Sharon decided that Israel would give up territory, seemingly in return for no payoff in the political realm.

Sharon announced the pullback in 2003 as a security measure, saying that removing the Gaza settlements would “reduce ... the number of Israelis located in the heart of the Palestinian population”. The new defensive line would “reduce friction” with the Palestinians. The military name that Sharon gave his plan, disengagement, spoke of an army shortening its lines to disengage from the enemy.

Yet he did expect a diplomatic payoff. For Sharon, the disengagement was “formaldehyde” for peace talks. It would remove U.S. pressure to reach a final-status agreement; it would take a Palestinian state off the table. The payoff for leaving Gaza, Sharon thought, would be disengaging from the Palestinian people as a political actor.

Overwhelmingly, however, Palestinians interpreted the pullout as a retreat in the face of attacks on the Israeli army and settlements in Gaza. A survey by leading Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki, conducted as Israel completed the pullback, found that 84 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza saw it as “victory for armed resistance”.

Yet the same poll showed large majorities for ending armed attacks from Gaza and for engaging in final-status talks with Israel. Sharon ignored that opening, and Palestinian public opinion began to shift.

In January 2006, the hard-line Islamist Hamas movement won Palestinian legislative elections. Israel’s lack of interest in a negotiated peace was not the only reason, but it surely played a role. Meanwhile, Hamas and smaller factions continued to attack Israel from Gaza.

Israel’s withdrawal had included no arrangements to create a more stable Palestinian regime. By 2007, Hamas seized full control of Gaza. And the intermittent war has kept burning. Rather than disengage, Israel has remained continually engaged with Gaza.

Right now, even hoping for a cease-fire that lasts longer than the previous one seems optimistic. But we need to take a longer view of the future as well as the past.

The lesson of this history isn’t that Israel can never give up occupied territory. It’s that Israel needs to withdraw in an agreement where the Palestinians are full partners.

Getting there will require measuring time in more than weeks or months; it will likely require a new generation of leaders on both sides. But for Israeli advocates of a peaceful outcome, an essential first step is challenging the pernicious myth about what went wrong when Israel left Gaza.

Gershom Gorenberg is an Israeli historian and journalist. He is the author of, most recently, “War of Shadows: Codebreakers, Spies, and the Secret Struggle to Drive the Nazis from the Middle East”. He is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect and has written for The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times Magazine, among others.

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