18.08.2016 analysis by Avishay Ben Sasson-Gordis

The Strategic Balance of Israel’s Withdrawal from Gaza (2005-2016)

The Israeli right claims that the 2005 disengagement from Gaza failed dangerously. A new study shows that it actually improved Israel's security and international standing.

Download full report here.

Executive summary

Israel completed its disengagement from the Gaza Strip in September 2005. Since then, the Gaza front has changed dramatically: more rockets have been fired into Israel, at greater ranges; Israel waged three major operations; Hamas took over Gaza and enforced law and order where the Palestinian Authority failed; and smuggling from Egypt grew rife until some three years ago. Nonetheless, an October 2013 poll conducted by Molad indicated broad public support for the disengagement, and decision-makers apparently share the feeling that Israel is better off without Gaza. The facts speak for themselves: despite several IDF operations in Gaza since 2005, at no point did Israel choose to reconquer it.

All this does not deter many on the Israeli right from arguing against any future withdrawal from the West Bank on the grounds that “we cannot afford another Gaza”. Apparently, they truly believe that the disengagement was a dangerous miscalculation. Some politicians even claim that Israel must reoccupy Gaza, and some have gone so far as to call for resettlement of the area. Real terror threats emerging from Gaza are cited as proof that dismantling the settlements there was a mistake. In doing so, the distinction between two markedly different aspects of the disengagement is intentionally blurred: dismantling settlements and evacuating all Israeli civilians from Gaza, on one hand, and withdrawing all military presence there, on the other.

The paper analyzes these arguments to determine whether, in the overall balance, Israel has benefited from the disengagement in terms of security and international standing. Eleven years on and looking ahead, is Israel in a strategically better position having left Gaza? The general answer is: yes. Our analysis shows that despite the challenges that have developed since the withdrawal, Israel has benefited from its redeployment along the Gazan border. Note that this does not mean the withdrawal itself was optimally executed.

This study examines Israeli security and foreign affairs in the context of the disengagement. Its scope does not include social concerns regarding the evacuation and relocation of settlers, and it does not offer a comprehensive explanation for the gap between public support for the move and the entrenchment of the notion that it was detrimental to Israeli security. The study touches briefly on political and military aspects of Israel’s choice to act unilaterally. Importantly, our analysis focuses solely on Israeli interests and does not foray into the ramifications for the Palestinians.

Key findings

  • Israeli settlers in Gaza accounted for a fraction of its population, with 8,000 Israelis living in the midst of roughly 1.5 million Palestinians.
  • Defense of settlements in Gaza prior to the disengagement was highly risky and required extensive resources: Especially once the second Intifada began, Gaza settlements and their access routes came under heavy threat that required massive military protection.
  • The settlements did not prevent Hamas from gaining power in Gaza or developing rocket fire capacities. Continued IDF presence within Gaza could not replace large-scale operations there: Israel had to operate deep within Gazan towns from time to time in the years prior to the withdrawal.
  • The settlements constrained IDF action in Gaza. The presence of Israeli civilians would have immensely complicated operations such as Cast Lead (2008-9) and Protective Edge (2014), requiring protection of a scattering of civilians throughout the Gaza Strip instead of the single line line of defense that the IDF now faces in Gaza.
  • The improvement of IDF defense abilities has greatly decreased Israeli casualties of terrorism coming from Gaza, although terrorist motivation to attack Israelis remains the same.
  • Israel’s international image, bruised by years of intifada, improved significantly following the disengagement. Egypt and Jordan resent ambassadors, the international community largely supported Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9, and former US president Bush issued a letter to Israel guaranteeing official US support for its basic interests in talks with the Palestinians.
  • Despite popular belief, the disengagement did not bring Hamas to power in Gaza. Hamas gradually gained strength over two decades (while Israel largely stood aside); the disengagement was merely one factor that allowed Hamas to manifest its force. The disadvantages of the new Hamas rule were somewhat mitigated by its success in restoring law and order to Gaza and in restricting terrorist attacks by its own military branch and by other organizations, other than in large-scale confrontations. This highlights the importance for Israel of the powers on its borders being able and willing to exercise their authority.
  • Gazan rocket and mortar fire into Israel started in 2001 and militant groups began extending their range of fire before the disengagement. These attacks have since increased because the military and civilian withdrawal limited opportunities for direct attacks on Israelis. Terrorists can now intimidate the Israeli home front in emergencies, but the actual threat from ballistic fire has greatly diminished since the “Iron Dome” air defense system was introduced.
  • Israel’s political and military leadership was not surprised by the discovery of Hamas tunnels leading into Israel, contrary to public sentiment following the 2014 operation. Gazan militants were using tunnels to attack Israeli civilians and military forces before the disengagement. In fact, as far back as 2004, the IDF defined this as one of the two most challenging problems it faced in Gaza (the other being rocket fire).
  • On one hand, the tunnel infrastructure has expanded since the IDF left Gaza; on the other hand, terrorist groups saw little need to invest in this expensive infrastructure as long as Israelis were physically vulnerable within Gaza.
  • Since the disengagement, terrorists have also expanded their underground smuggling capacities and the quality of both smuggled and self-produced weapons. These problems, which the IDF could not resolve while still in Gaza, required Egyptian action to remedy. Egypt has proven its ability to greatly reduce smuggling when motivated to do so.
  • In conclusion, the withdrawal from Gaza vastly reduced security threats to Israelis and improved IDF defense capacities, despite the increase in potential threats from Gaza during emergencies. The disengagement gave Israel new leeway to reshape its strategic ties with Gaza to improve security. As proven by the unintentional escalation that led to Operation Protective Edge in 2014, the Israeli government has not taken full advantage of this opportunity.

Download full report here.


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