Tel Aviv — Ariel Sharon was laid to rest this week on an idyllic hilltop named for the red anemone wildflowers that bloom every February across from his ranch in the south, just miles away from the border with Gaza.
But the state of alert during the burial ceremony was anything but relaxed, as the threat of potential rocket fire prompted deployment of missile interceptors in the area and unmanned aircraft in the skies. And even though the memorial went off without a hitch, Gaza militants managed to fire off two rockets that landed near the border fence. There were no injuries.
But the very instability highlighted how, despite the disengagement that Sharon ordered as prime minister in 2005, the situation along the Gaza-Israel border can be unpredictable and dangerous.
“Everybody said that if we moved out of the territories, the Palestinians would use the territory for peace,” said Alan Marcus, the director of strategic planning for the municipality of nearby Ashkelon. “And all the predictions went the way the settlers said it would go: As a result of that we’ve had seven years of rockets from our neighbors.”
Marcus said that during the weeklong Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, some 100 rockets were fired at Ashkelon. Still, the advent of Iron Dome and the ensuing year of calm have prompted a surge in housing prices, and Marcus boasts that Ashkelon is the fastest growing city in the country.
“It was always better that we are out of Gaza. … It’s a question of when are [the Palestinians] going to wake up and figure out it’s time help their own people,” he said.
Marcus’ mixed assessment highlights the ambivalence of Israelis over the Gaza withdrawal. Eight years and two mini-wars after Sharon withdrew from the Gaza, the move has been widely criticized based on the negative fallout.
Even though only a fringe of Israelis would support re-occupying Gaza as a solution, the Sharon unilateral withdrawal legacy — which followed Ehud Barak’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 — appears to have been thoroughly discredited, say analysts.
“What he did informs policy today in a negative way: namely that unilateralism is very dangerous,” said Mike Herzog, a former brigadier general and adviser to Israeli governments on the peace process. “I don’t think the current government thinks that if negotiations fail, people in the government are thinking, ‘Let’s disengage unilaterally.’”
Despite the security precautions taken for the funeral, the ceasefire over the last year has proven to be robust — and that might explain why the missile launches after the funeral were duds. An Israeli army officer responsible for operations along the Gaza-Israel border said that 2013 was the least deadly on both sides of the border in 15 years.
Lt. Col. Eran Oliel said that after Operation Pillar of Defense, Hamas has been effectively policing its side of the border to prevent rocket strikes for fear of Israeli retaliation. Even though Hamas continues to rebuild its military arsenal, it doesn’t appear to be interested in confronting Israel in the near future.
If the 9,000 Jewish settlers in Gaza initially suffered a resounding blow following Sharon’s move, the legacy of the disengagement now serves as ammunition against a pullback in the West Bank.
“We paid a high price, but at least we learned a lesson: I think that the lesson from Gaza will deter a future government from making the same mistake in Judea and Samaria,” said Dani Dayan, head of international relations for the Yesha Council of Jewish settlers in the West Bank. “[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and his successor have an opportunity to learn from the failure of Gaza, so I hope that they won’t make the same mistake.”
Dayan argued that the government’s handling of the Gaza settler evacuees will also provide a cautionary tale for Israel because it was “slow and ineffective.” While some of the Gaza settlers have established new communities — ranging from a neighborhood in Ashkelon to a desert agricultural village near the Egyptian border — others have not found their footing, all these years later.
Indeed, the pre-fab neighborhood of Nitzan, built in a matter of weeks by Sharon as temporary housing for the Gaza evacuees, many of whom still remain, has been right in the line of fire from Gaza. “The absurd thing is, from the buildings that we evacuated in Gush Katif, they are firing rockets at us,” said Dror Vanunu in an interview with the Israeli news website Walla.
In the settlement of Ariel, Tami Zibershein, an evacuee from the Gaza settlement of Netzarim, is still living in a mobile home as she awaits the completion of a permanent one there. She says financial compensation from the government has come in drips and drabs and has been very bureaucratic.
“[The money] doesn’t correct the moral insult that our nation could do such a thing,” she said. “Hopefully we’ll come back to ourselves, and to the reason why we came back to the Shomron [Judea and Samaria] after 2,000 years.”
In negotiations with the U.S. over a potential security regime in the West Bank following the establishment of a Palestinian state, Israel is citing the Gaza precedent as a reason why, at least for the foreseeable future, it cannot cede control over the Jordan Valley border region to anyone else.
Added Herzog, “It means that even if we decide to evacuate settlements, security has to be maintained in a strict manner.”
However, not everyone believes that unilateralism is dead with regards to the West Bank. Former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren wrote an op-ed for CNN’s website this week suggesting that if the peace negotiations fail, Israel could always choose to withdraw its troops from Palestinian cities and villages while keeping control over settlements and borders.
“Of course the preferable solution is two states for two peoples,” he wrote. “But if that proves unattainable, then Israel can still end the occupation of Palestinians, preserve its security, and perhaps lay the new foundations for peace.”
Yossi Alpher, a former adviser to Israeli governments on the peace process, believes that Netanyahu might decide on a limited unilateral withdrawal from 20 to 30 percent of the West Bank. Alpher, who believes Sharon decided on the pullback mainly to evade international pressure to reach a deal with the Palestinian Authority, whom he did not trust, suggested that Netanyahu might do the same — assuming he has the same political bravery as Sharon.
“It’s not as if this issue is foreign to him; Sharon’s death reminds us of this,” Alpher said. “Bibi would say, ‘I have a new, improved version of the unilateral withdrawal — I’ll leave the IDF. And now leave me alone for five years.’”