Israel’s Gaza Withdrawal 10 Years Later: More Successful Than You Think


On August 15, 2005, Israel began closing its small settlements in Gaza and withdrawing the troops that protected them as well as the forces that tried to stop smuggling along the Gaza-Egypt border. The last Israeli soldier left a month later, ending an Israeli presence that had begun with the 1967 war. Ten years later, Gaza is a quasi-state, with Hamas at its helm: seemingly Israel’s worst nightmare. Yet the Gaza withdrawal was in many ways a success, and Israelis and their American allies would do well to reflect on the benefits and the costs as they contemplate future policies.

When Ariel Sharon became prime minister in 2001, withdrawal did not seem in the cards. As a government minister in the past, Sharon had been a prominent supporter of the construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and he won election in part because of his reputation for being tough on Palestinians. So when Sharon announced plans for the unilateral withdrawal, it seemed the Israeli presence in Gaza came at a high cost with little reward: Some 3,000 soldiers protected 8,500 settlers who lived among a population of 1.4 million Palestinians. Since the beginning of the second intifada in 2000, Israel had lost 230 soldiers in Gaza and paid tens of millions a year. The occupation as a whole was a blemish on Israel’s international reputation. But the withdrawal was about more than merely shedding part of an albatross. Sharon heralded the withdrawal as a “bold move to end the stalemate in the peace process.” U.S. President George W. Bush declared the withdrawal a “courageous initiative” and noted, “this is the opportunity for the world to help the Palestinians stand up a peaceful society and a hopeful society.” Many inside and outside of the country hoped that a successful Gaza withdrawal would pave the way for further unilateral withdrawals in the West Bank — part of Sharon’s broader policy of aligning Israel’s Jewish demographics and its borders. These hopes received a boost when Israel also evacuated several small settlements in the West Bank shortly thereafter.

The withdrawal was unilateral and there were no attendant negotiations with a Palestinian partner. Indeed, in a letter to Bush, Sharon declared “there exists no Palestinian partner with whom to advance peacefully toward a settlement.” This enabled Sharon to both withdraw from the costly occupation in Gaza while continuing to claim he didn’t trust the Palestinians and wouldn’t support a deal. This insulated Sharon from claims he was a freier — a “sucker” —the ultimate political insult for Israelis, many of whom believe Yasser Arafat played them for fools during the peace negotiations of the 1990s. One former Sharon advisor even portrayed the withdrawal as “formaldehyde” for the peace process. By ending Israel’s control over more than a million Gazans, the advisor claimed Israel would also be able to fend off pressure to withdraw from the West Bank and delay or perhaps even defuse the “demographic time bomb,” which refers to the point at which Arabs under Israeli control would outnumber the country’s Jews.

The Gaza disengagement was bumpy, both politically and operationally, but ultimately successful. Politically, the Israeli right was particularly critical. Benjamin Netanyahu in 2005 resigned from Sharon’s cabinet, refusing “to be a partner to a move which ignores reality, and proceeds blindly toward turning the Gaza Strip into a base for Islamic terrorism which will threaten the state.” (As a member of the cabinet, Netanyahu had previously went along with the disengagement — he was for the withdrawal before he was against it.) On the ground, some settlers in Gaza left as ordered, but many others refused to go. Israeli soldiers forced these settlers to leave, often dragging them kicking and screaming; other settlers protested. There were calls for soldiers to disobey orders. But despite some blood-curdling rhetoric from extremists within the settler community, there was little violence, and the army proved loyal. The Gaza withdrawal fueled hopes for additional, unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank, but instead stands as the last major shift in territorial ownership in a conflict that began over 60 years ago.

Gaza and its problems did not go away. Rather, Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza left a vacuum that was filled by Hamas and a new set of security threats. The withdrawal also created confusion about what Israel should do in response. As rockets from Gaza rained down, many Israelis questioned the decision to leave, believing they made a major concession only to see violence grow. After Netanyahu became prime minister in 2009, there were calls for reversing the withdrawal. The right-wing politician and head of the Israel Beiteinu party (which represents many Jews from the former Soviet Union), Avigdor Lieberman, when he was Foreign Minister, declared that the only way to stop more attacks was “a full occupation of the Gaza Strip.”

Rise of Hamas as Quasi-State

The second intifada claimed approximately 1,000 Israeli and 3,000 Palestinian lives — huge numbers for small communities — and left a dark legacy. Each side became convinced the other was not, and had never been, serious about peace. Israel, however, seemed the victor as Palestinian groups sued for peace. By 2005, Hamas was decimated, with its leaders dead and thousands of cadre in Israeli prisons.

Yet even as its military strength was depleted, Hamas was growing stronger politically. Yasser Arafat’s death in 2004 removed the dominant political presence of the Palestinian national movement, and left Hamas’s more secular rival Fatah without its historic leader. Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah’s new leader, did not have Arafat’s charisma or stature. Although Fatah’s militant offshoot, the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, often led the charge against Israel in the second intifada, the organization appeared bankrupt as a resistance movement. In the West Bank, many of its leaders were more warlords than warriors, extorting and abusing local Palestinians. Some Fatah leaders like Abbas embraced peace talks, but skepticism about the peace process made this seem idealistic at best and foolish at worst. Because Sharon had refused to negotiate with more moderate Palestinians when Israel left Gaza, Hamas was able to claim that violence, not negotiations, led to the Israeli withdrawal. Hamas also portrayed itself as an honest and competent administrator and steadfast in its resistance, in contrast to Fatah which had a deserved reputation for corruption. Finally, Hamas proved to be a better organized political party than Fatah. When elections were held in Gaza in 2006, Hamas won — surprising Western observers, Israelis, and Hamas itself.

Hamas rose to the challenge, supplanting Fatah cadre, establishing a more effective police force, and otherwise expanding its hold. Hamas completed its takeover of Gaza from the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority in 2007, seizing power and taking brutal revenge on Fatah security officials for their past abuses. Abbas meanwhile consolidated his position in the West Bank and harshly suppressed Hamas in collaboration with Israel. Palestinians were divided against themselves.

From Israel’s point of view, its worst nightmare had come true: A terrorist group with ties to Iran was now a quasi-state right on Israel’s borders. Although many Hamas leaders made statements calling for prudence and playing down the conflict with Israel, the organization refused to abandon violence or openly embrace peace talks. Hamas leaders made noises about peace one day, and hurled anti-Semitic epithets the next. Debates persist over whether Hamas leaders are pragmatists trying to maintain credibility among the rank-and-file or patient men prepared to continue waging war until they destroy the Jewish state. In either case, as Hamas developed its political institutions, it also transformed guerrilla forces into an army and acquired a massive rocket arsenal with help from Iran.

Israel’s Uneasy Gaza Policy

Israel has tried to meet the threat emanating from Gaza through military strikes, economic pressure, and isolation, but it finds it difficult to calibrate this pressure and deal lasting setbacks to Hamas.

For Israel, the biggest threat from Gaza was, and remains, rockets. From 2007 through June 2015, over 10,000 rockets and mortars have hit Israel — and over half of these strikes occurred outside the three wars. Many of the attacks between the wars were from groups like Palestine Islamic Jihad or other Hamas rivals. Rocket and mortar attacks killed over 40 Israelis between 2001 and the end of August 2014.

In response to these and other provocations, Israel has gone to war with Hamas repeatedly since 2006. Israeli forces have hit Gaza hard, killing almost 1,400 Gazans in 2008-2009, 167 in 2012, and over 2,000 in 2014 — and losing roughly 80 soldiers of their own in these wars combined. Nor was there quiet for Gazans in between the conflicts. Since Hamas took power, Israeli forces regularly struck targets in Gaza and killed militants and their leaders, often in response to rocket fire from Gaza or acting on tactical intelligence of imminent attacks. Military strikes on those involved in launching rockets would disrupt attacks and send a message to the military wing that they would suffer directly if they threatened Israel.

Israel uses economic pressure and control of the border to prevent Hamas from gaining access to more advanced rockets and to coerce Hamas into stopping attacks by threatening its ability to provide economically for Gazans. Israel tightly controls the crossing points between Gaza and Israel, inspecting cargo and limiting goods, including dual-use items as well as arms. Israel and Egypt also cooperated to restrict the flow of goods and people from Gaza to Egypt. Under Mubarak, cooperation ebbed and flowed based on the overall bilateral relationship and the Mubarak regime’s political needs of the moment; when the Muslim Brotherhood took over, they still cooperated though both Hamas and Israel expected the new government to be more supportive of its ideological offspring in Gaza. Israel also reportedly attacked arms supplies in Sudan en route to Gaza. Larger uses of force like the 2014 operation also remind Hamas that Israel can devastate Gaza’s economy if pushed. Politically, Israel has also tried to prevent Hamas from joining forces with Abbas, fearing the former might gain the upper hand politically and radicalize the broader Palestinian national movement.

The general policy of isolation went on steroids after the coup against the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt in 2013. Egypt went from Hamas’s potential friend under Mohammad Morsi to its most bitter enemy under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, believing the group’s origins in the Muslim Brotherhood make it an automatic enemy. The Egyptian military has shut down the Egypt-Gaza border, destroying most of the tunnels that helped keep Gaza’s economy afloat and allowed for the resupply of Hamas’s arms after conflicts. Food security in the Strip is low, electricity sporadic, and unemployment high. With the exception of Qatar, supporters in the Gulf have also turned against Hamas, sharing Egypt’s fear of the Brotherhood. Israel, of course, did not orchestrate this diplomatic campaign, but it has moved closer to some of Hamas’s Arab adversaries. Hamas even lost some backing from Iran, an enemy of Israel and the Gulf states, which reduced support for Hamas when they picked opposing sides in the Syria conflict. They are again at odds after Hamas refused to condemn Saudi Arabia’s 2015 intervention in Yemen against Shia militants.

At times, Israeli pressure worked. After these limited wars, Hamas often reduced or temporarily ended its own rocket attacks and tried to stop rival groups from striking Israel. Israeli pressure has also kept Hamas weak and often willing to compromise or limit its own military operations. But the glass is at best half full. In some instances, Hamas was unable to stop rival groups from attacking. More commonly, the problem was political: Hamas wanted to assure its own rank-and-file and the broader militant community that it remained committed to striking Israel, or, at the very least, that it was not going to act as Israel’s policeman like Fatah and stop other groups from fighting the good fight. When economic pressure grew intense and Hamas felt there was no chance of this easing through negotiations, rocket attacks were a way to remind Israel and the world that Hamas had cards of its own to play and that Gaza could not be left on the world’s back burner.

Yet some Israelis recognize that too much pressure can backfire. Hamas is not the most extreme enemy Israel faces in Gaza. The Strip is home to far more radical factions, ranging from small numbers of Islamic State admirers to disaffected members of Hamas’s military wing who reject any accommodation with Israel. If Hamas falls, it may not be Abbas or other peace-inclined voices who will take his place. Nor is Hamas helpless in the face of Israeli pressure. If Hamas is denied the chance to advance its political and economic program, it can force a crisis. Rocket attacks also shore up Hamas’s resistance bona fides, enabling it to gain ground with an important constituency. Politically, as peace negotiations with Abbas stumbled and then collapsed, Hamas’s calls for “resistance” gained more credibility, particularly on the West Bank where Palestinians could admire Hamas attacks without having to suffer Hamas’s rule and associated isolation and Israeli military campaigns.

Israel finds it hard to balance deterrence with its identity as a democracy. To keep Hamas off balance and fearful, Israel hits Gaza hard. And to keep domestic support strong, Israel does so in a way that minimizes Israel’s own casualties. This logic, however, goes against the perception that Israel’s response is proportionate to its own suffering, making Israel’s activities look illegal and cruel in the eyes of many in the world community — an EU Council declared itself “particularly appalled” by one operation. Israelis may claim to be inured to such criticism, but the constant Israeli concerns that Palestinians are undermining their legitimacy suggest that Israel cares about being seen as in the right.

No Going Back

For many Israelis, the lesson of the Gaza withdrawal is that Palestinians, if left to their own devices, are apt to elect terrorists to be their leaders. And if it happened in Gaza, it could happen in the West Bank, whose borders are near many of Israel’s major cities. Learning only this lesson would be a mistake, however, as on balance the withdrawal from Gaza was good for Israel.

Had Israel not withdrawn, the soldiers and settlers in the Strip would have remained vulnerable. Israel would have continued to pay a heavy price to protect them. Although rockets remain a problem, they are far less dangerous than suicide bombers, roadside bombs, or other threats Israel would face if its army and citizens were in Gaza instead of behind the security barrier. And with the development of the Iron Dome anti-rocket system, Israel is able to further reduce, though not eliminate, the danger rockets pose.

Withdrawal also put Hamas in a tough position. When Hamas controlled no territory, it focused on fighting Israel and excoriated those who proposed any compromise. Palestinians now judge it on how well it governs in addition to how well it fights Israel, and its failures and financial problems weigh heavily. Now Hamas is criticized both for being too violent and for being too restrained: It pays a higher political price when it uses violence. Hamas often observes lasting ceasefires with Israel, and some voices within Hamas, though by no means the entire organization, would favor a long-term ceasefire to be allowed greater freedom to govern. Not surprisingly, Hamas is less eager to govern as its track record is poor, and it is more than willing to share the disaster that is Gaza with the Palestinian Authority. It’s too soon to say that Hamas is transforming into an exclusively political movement or becoming less ambitious in its aims to supplant Abbas and Fatah, but it’s a mistake to ignore how the organization has shifted since 2005.

The way out of the Gaza mess lies, in part, in the West Bank. To prevent Hamas from making further political gains, Israel needs to show Palestinians that a commitment to negotiations can reap rewards. As long as there is no peace deal with moderate Palestinians on the West Bank, Hamas’s political message of “resistance” will remain strong. At the same time, Israel needs to allow the more pragmatic voices in Hamas to pull the group toward governance over resistance — an approach that only works if Hamas has incentives for good behavior as well as punishments for violence. Hamas, after all, is not the Islamic State (which has a nascent presence in Gaza) — it is violent and anti-Israel, but also willing to negotiate. Hamas kidnapped Sergeant Gilad Shalit to cut a deal, not to behead him. Finally, pressure should be put on Abbas to provide forces to man border crossings and conduct credible inspections of trade, a compromise that allows for Palestinian sovereignty in Gaza, and lifts the burden on ordinary Gazans, but does not strengthen Hamas.

Gaza lacks an optimal solution, so it is not surprising that short-term approaches dominate policy. Yet short-term logic has led Israel into war after war, with victory always elusive. Israel has often ignored the political implications of its actions. By weakening Abbas politically, Hamas has often emerged with more support. Recognizing that Hamas can gain political victory from military defeat is a necessary step for successfully confronting it. Policies that recognize this strange reality can move Israel and Hamas away from another war and validate Sharon’s decision to pull out of Gaza.

The clock is ticking on the Obama administration and neither Israel nor the United States appears eager to kick the dead peace process horse. But such cynicism about reengaging in peace talks and other efforts to end or mitigate the dispute is dangerous in the long-term. Administration officials should try to lay the groundwork for the next administration to resume serious peace talks. More immediately, they should work with Israel and Palestinian Authority officials to resume the Authority’s presence in Gaza. In the absence of progress, the United States must prepare for another Gaza war with all the suffering and disruption that entails.


Daniel Byman is a professor in the security studies program at Georgetown University and the research director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Global Jihadist Movement: What Everyone Needs to Know. Follow him @dbyman.


Photo credit: Israel Defense Forces