The disengagement -- the 2005 Israeli pullout
from the Gaza Strip -- has been burned into the collective Israeli
psyche as a national trauma. It remains an open wound. Many of the
Israelis who were uprooted still refer to it as "the expulsion." In the
span of eight days, 8,000 people were uprooted from their homes and 21
flourishing Gush Katif communities were turned into ruins. Glorious
educational, religious and agricultural institutions that existed for 30
years became nothing more than bittersweet memories. The evacuators
cried along with the evacuees as they ushered them away from their
The following day, Palestinians set synagogues
on fire. In the years that followed, the ruins of the communities
became Palestinian terror bases from which rockets were launched into
The main objectives of the disengagement plan,
as it was presented by its architect, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon,
were founded on security considerations. But these objectives were not
achieved. The disengagement plan has failed the reality test: Hamas has
grown stronger and taken over the Gaza Strip. Its operational
capabilities have increased dramatically and it has turned into a small
terrorist army. Today, 70% of Israel's population has been exposed to
the threat of Gaza rockets (as far north as Haifa). Since the
disengagement, 11,600 shells and rockets have been fired from Gaza into
As early as September 2005, a month after the
disengagement, the IDF launched Operation First Rain in response to
heavy Qassam rocket fire from Gaza into Sderot. That operation was
followed by Operation Blue Sky, Operation Lightning Strike, Operation
Summer Rains and Operation Hot Winter. In more recent years, there were
the three major operations -- Operation Cast Lead (2008-2009), Operation
Pillar of Defense (2012) and Operation Protective Edge (2014). The next
operation, as everyone knows, is just a matter of time.
In the 10 years that have passed since the
disengagement, the number of politicians and defense officials who have
apologized and sought to make amends for the move has risen higher and
higher. Some expressed regret for the unilateral character of the plan
while others lamented the expulsion itself or the residents' suffering.
The government-appointed investigative commission appointed to assess
the state's conduct concluded that it had failed in its handling of the
evacuees. Public opinion, which initially supported the withdrawal, has
also shifted: A vast majority of the population now views the
disengagement as a failure.
But despite all that, and after all the soul
searching that was and will be, one question remains unanswered: What
were the real circumstances that fostered the birth of the disengagement
plan? Why was it ever hatched? Were Sharon's motives in executing it
pure? Was it motivated by purely strategic, security related
considerations, as his associates still claim? Or was it driven by
personal and political interests? Was it designed to deliver the state
of Israel from crisis or to deliver Sharon from the criminal
investigations that were being conducted against him at the time?
Perhaps the truth really is somewhere in the
middle. Perhaps Sharon's legal troubles were only the backdrop for the
decision, having only influenced its timing and representing only one
factor among many that prompted Sharon to enact the disengagement.
Even the answer to the question "who was Ariel
Sharon?," which could elucidate the questions surrounding the motive,
is under debate. Was Sharon -- a man who, for years, conducted himself
as though he were the minister of the settlements, initiated the
establishment of settlements, pushed to expand settlements and urged
settlers to grab hold of the hills -- truly, ideologically committed to
the settlement enterprise? Or was Sharon -- who withdrew Israelis from
Yamit in Sinai, cooperated with the Wye River Memorandum and talked
about a two-state solution decades ago -- actually a pragmatist in
disguise? Perhaps there is some middle ground between the two Sharons,
as Sharon himself contended.
The idea to enact a diplomatic plan and
withdraw from the Gaza Strip was not Sharon's. It was hatched long
before, hovering in the political arena and gathering dust on the IDF
shelves for at least 20 years before it was implemented. Even then, it
included the evacuation of the Gush Katif settlements.
During the election for the 13th Knesset in
1992, Likud minister Roni Milo advised then-Prime Minister Yitzhak
Shamir to promise to withdraw from Gaza if he should win the election.
Shamir declined. Two years later, during Yitzhak Rabin's second term as
prime minister, Israel left 80% of the Gaza Strip, leaving only Gush
Katif intact in the southern part of the Strip in addition to a handful
of isolated communities. Israel also held on to the Philadelphi route --
the buffer zone between Gaza and Egypt that was anchored in the Oslo
Accords as a tool to ensure security.
But in 1999, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak
asked his legal adviser on peace talks, attorney Daniel Reisner, for the
first time to look into the legal implications of a full withdrawal
from Gaza under a permanent agreement. Barak planned to withdraw from
Gaza in the same way he withdrew from Lebanon, but he didn't have enough
time to implement his vision -- his government collapsed less than two
years after it was established.
Two years later, Brig. Gen. Eival Gilady, then
the head of the strategic planning unit in the IDF Planning
Directorate, and Col. Danny Theresa secretly drew up a map that included
a full withdrawal from Gaza as well as a number of settlements in
Samaria. The document was named the Eidan map -- a mashup of the names
Eival and Danny. The map was presented to the defense minister at the
time -- Binyamin Ben-Eliezer -- and to Sharon, who was by then prime
minister. It was presented as a unilateral plan, meant to generate a new
reality. It was described as a stabilizing move.
Sharon and Ben-Eliezer did not immediately
embrace the plan, but they did not rule it out ,either. Within the IDF, a
strong opposition to the Eidan plan began to emerge. What Gilady
described as "stabilizing" and worthwhile, Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser,
then the head of the research division in IDF Military Intelligence,
defined as dangerous and irresponsible. He argued that the terrorists
would view the unilateral withdrawal as an enormous victory for them,
which indeed they did.
When he was elected prime minister for a
second time in 2003, Sharon was not the one who initiated the
disengagement. His bureau chief, attorney Dov Weissglass, broached the
subject with Sharon, setting the plan in motion with the international
community, the Israeli political sphere and Sharon's closest advisers,
including his two sons Gilad and Omri. Weissglass was the first to
convince Sharon to go ahead with the disengagement.
To review: Sharon did not think up the
disengagement plan -- it existed long before he adopted it. He was,
however, the one who decided to turn it from a theoretical idea into a
practical plan, and to implement it.
So what made him do it, after years of being
viewed as the settlers' biggest advocate and partner? Until 10 weeks
before the disengagement, Moshe Ya'alon was the IDF chief of staff. He
took an active part in preparing and planning for the evacuation. But
after his retirement from the IDF, in his book, he came out sharply
against Sharon and his "true" motives. When asked about the accusations
made in his book, Ya'alon, now the defense minister, stands behind his
words, even more so now than he did then.
"The negative turn in Israel's strategic
position in dealing with the Palestinians was due to a wrong,
inexplicable decision made by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon,"
Ya'alon tells Israel Hayom. "I have no doubt in my mind that Sharon's
decision was made for the wrong reasons. When he found himself in the
midst of a personal crisis, because of the criminal investigations
against him, and when his political popularity began slipping, Sharon
decided to turn the tables and enact a dramatic measure that blatantly
contradicted his worldview and did not line up with his perception of
Ya'alon believes that "In an effort to salvage
his political future, Sharon put Israel on a strategic path with no
purpose and no future. He may have convinced himself that he was doing
something worthwhile for Israel, and that he would win some points in
the international arena, but I can tell you unequivocally, having known
Sharon, that the idea of the disengagement was foreign to him. It
completely contradicted his way of thinking. The way that the idea came
up was odd and the way it was handled was also odd."
In his book, Ya'alon writes that Sharon never
officially discussed the disengagement with him. He was only asked for
his opinion on the evacuation of three of the settlements. Ya'alon
claims that Weissglass tried to convince him to support the
disengagement plan by saying that "Sharon's popularity is declining, so
he needs to take action." (Weissglass denies having said this).
"Sharon, together with his associates,
observed the situation like a poker player," Ya'alon says. "He analyzed
the advantages and the disadvantages of the other players and figured
out how to make them work for him, to extricate him from his predicament
both in the legal and the public arenas. The direct result of this
analysis was the disengagement."
Zvi Hendel's slogan
Ya'alon was not the only one to feel that way.
Even President Reuven Rivlin, then a Likud MK, voiced a similar opinion
at the time. In 2006, Rivlin told Yedioth Ahronoth that Sharon had
always been a pragmatist, adding that "the days of the decision on the
plan were times of great personal distress for him. He made his personal
considerations, and you can fill in the rest. I would suggest looking
into what preceded his decision on the disengagement."
"I suppose that historians won't have a very hard time figuring out this mystery," he said.
Former MK Zvi Hendel, then a resident of the
Gush Katif settlement of Ganei Tal, coined a catchy slogan to describe
the situation: "A deep investigation yields a deep evacuation." Hendel
still believes this.
"It was not a guess or an analysis," he tells
Israel Hayom. "I heard it directly from one of the members of the 'ranch
forum' -- Sharon's closest advisers at the time."
All the members of the so-called ranch forum, named after Sharon's Sycamore Ranch, have denied Hendel's allegation.
Q: Why would anyone in the forum tell you that?
Hendel: "I was close to one of them. He told
me these things as a prophet, before it was done. He told me the crux of
it, the plan to uproot all of us, and the real reason for it."
Q: Why won't you say who it was then?
Hendel: "If I expose him, he'll deny it."
Q: What did you do with the information after he told you?
Hendel: "I tried desperately to set up a
meeting with Sharon. We were very close. True friends. But he didn't
answer me. I left message after message until his secretary called me
and told me the truth: 'Arik doesn't want to see you.' That is when I
realized that the information I had received was true."
Q: Did anyone else hear what you heard from a member of the forum?
Hendel: "Yes. A rabbi from the south. But he won't talk, either."
Similar allegations have been made on several
occasions. Journalist Haggai Hoberman included in his book "Against All
Odds" a transcript of an alleged conversation among the ranch forum
advisers, in which Weissglass is quoted as saying "if the indictment
[against Sharon] includes a bribery charge, we will be in deep trouble.
We have to take a drastic step to avert the whole situation."
Weissglass and Sharon's strategic adviser Eyal
Arad both contend that the transcript is the product of Hoberman's wild
imagination and that they never heard any of the forum advisers say
anything of the sort.
Journalists Raviv Drucker and Ofer Shelah (now
a Yesh Atid MK) wrote in their book "Boomerang" that "behind the
scenes, there were many, even among Sharon's most intimate confidants,
who were convinced that the disengagement plan would never have been
hatched if Sharon didn't need to avert the spotlight away from the
investigations against him and his sons."
Today, Drucker says that he doesn't have any
evidence that the disengagement was prompted by the investigations, but
"what I was able to say then, and what I can say today after reviewing
the evidence, is that the way the process was conducted was influenced
by the investigations against Sharon."
Shelah explains that "no one heard Sharon say
the words 'if I go with the disengagement, the media will protect me and
the legal establishment will be on my side,' but without a doubt, his
legal troubles were part of the atmosphere that led to the
A reminder: On the eve of the declaration of
the disengagement plan, Sharon and his two sons were facing three
criminal investigations. The straw companies affair, in which Sharon's
son Omri was suspected of setting up fictitious straw companies to
funnel money into his father's campaign while bypassing the campaign
financing laws; the Cyril Kern affair, involving money alleged to have
been illegally given to Sharon by the South African businessman, linked
to the straw companies affair; and the Greek island affair, involving
businessman David Appel, who was suspected of bribing senior government
officials including Sharon to facilitate the purchase of the small rocky
island of Patroklos to build a resort there.
Does the chronological correlation between the
Sharon affairs and the disengagement plan prove that there is a reason
and a manipulator? Hendel and Ya'alon would say yes. But others are more
careful. "The chronological link mainly gave a large portion of the
public the feeling that it was not a coincidence," says researcher Anat
Roth, who served as an adviser to a number of party leaders and has
written the most comprehensive document on the Gush Katif residents'
battle against the disengagement to date.
This feeling was reinforced by the Israeli
media, which went out of its way to protect Sharon in the lead up to the
disengagement in an effort to ensure the implementation of the
disengagement plan. Journalist Amnon Abramovich explicitly called on his
colleagues to protect Sharon like an "etrog" (a citron, considered to
be a very delicate fruit) "not only from the political threats but also
the legal ones."
Journalist Yoel Marcus wrote an article in
Haaretz headlined "Corruption can wait." Among other things, he wrote
that "Every so often, precious historic opportunities arise. When such
an opportunity comes our way, we must stay in focus and not allow
ourselves to be distracted by other issues, however important they may
"Disengagement is this kind of formative
episode to which Israel must give its full attention. The war on
corruption is important, but it can wait. First let's see if we can get
ourselves out of Gaza," he wrote.
The investigations never worried Sharon
Those who believe that the disengagement was
motivated by legal trouble have not been able to present a smoking gun,
only disconcerting circumstantial evidence. Sharon himself clarified in
those days that "ideology is one thing and reality is another." It is my
duty, he said, "to ensure Israel's existence with maximum security for
the sake of the future."
Sharon justified his decision with
demographics and security considerations, and with a need to improve
Israel's standing in the international arena. He said that during the
course of his life he had made hundreds of thousands of decisions "many
of them quite fateful, some of them life and death, but the decision to
enact the disengagement was the hardest for me to make."
"I am accused of taking steps that contradict
what I say. That is flat out false. During the elections and as prime
minister I have said explicitly that I support the establishment of a
Palestinian state alongside Israel. I am ready to make painful
concessions in order to end the conflict between we who fight over the
land," he said.
Sharon consistently ignored the allegations
against him that linked the decision to withdraw from Gaza to the
investigations against him. Only once did he deviate from this stance,
when he said in February 2004: "There is no correlation between the
withdrawal from Gaza and the investigation. It is not because [of the
investigation], it is despite of it."
His friends thought then, and still do, that
the accusations against Sharon were false and unfounded, and for the
first time, they are returning fire.
Eyal Arad says that the disengagement plan was
presented to the ranch forum as Sharon's decision. "He didn't even ask
our opinion," says Arad. "It was clear to me that the decision would
immediately undermine his political footing among his supporters. I
warned him. I told him honestly that he might not survive in the Likud
Party and that he might lose his seat as prime minister."
Q: Did any of you make the connection between the investigations and the disengagement?
Arad: "The investigations never worried
Sharon. He always said: don't touch that. Leave it to the lawyers. The
entire theory that the investigations led to the disengagement is a
Q: Haggai Hoberman purports to quote
individuals in the ranch forum as saying that there is a correlation.
Hoberman, Hendel, Ya'alon and Drucker all allegedly quote Weissglass.
Arad: "Hoberman never spoke with any of the
six forum members. Weissglass, whom they quote, was never even a member
of the forum. He appeared before the forum after Arik [Sharon] had
already made the decision and instructed us to begin preparing public
Q: So everything is made up?
Arad: "Maybe. Why not? After all, they needed
to explain to themselves and to their constituents how it could be that
the father of the settlements, the man that had worked together with
them for years, came to change his views. They didn't believe that the
real circumstances that Sharon encountered as prime minister were the
reason for the change of heart. They needed to explain that it was bad
so Hendel went for a conspiracy theory. Not only did the investigations
have nothing to do with the plan, on the contrary -- Sharon consciously
created a situation that could have led to him becoming politically
isolated and ostracized."
On February 2, 2006 the tension between Hendel
and Arad peaked. Hended quoted Arad as telling one of the settler
leaders that "the people hate you the same way they hate Arabs. My job
is to make sure they hate you more than they hate terrorists." Arad
denied ever having said this. He sued Hendel for defamation. Hendel
recanted and apologized. He told the court that he had become convinced
that Arad did not make the remark attributed to him by the settler
leader. He promised to apologize publicly and Arad dropped the suit.
Sharon's people say that Hendel's slogan "a
deep investigation yields a deep evacuation" should also be taken with a
grain of salt. I asked them why they didn't sue Hendel and they replied
that "legally, only Sharon could sue."
Weissglass, the man who explained, defended
and put together the disengagement plan for Sharon, says that "any
reasonable person understands that even the decision on the
disengagement can't change the fate of investigations. No serious person
truly believes that if the attorney general has evidence of crimes, it
will be ignored because the person who allegedly committed the crimes
initiated a diplomatic plan. [Former Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert had a
diplomatic plan that was a thousand times more daring than Sharon's
disengagement. Did that prevent an indictment against him?"
Q: Defense Minister Ya'alon, who is considered a serious person, thinks to this day that the motives were personal.
Weissglass: "That is nonsense. So are the
quotes attributed to me suggesting that I linked the two things. It is
completely false. Ya'alon was the first person outside Sharon's close
circle to hear about the disengagement plan as it was taking shape. He
cooperated from within the military with the preparations for the
disengagement. He is still angry that his term as chief of staff wasn't
Q: So how did it happen that Sharon changed
his opinion so drastically in such a short time? All of a sudden he
realized that there were 1.5 Palestinians in Gaza? That the Jewish
settlements there are an island in a tempestuous sea?
Weissglass: "In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s
Sharon believed that a dramatic demographic shift [in Palestinian
territories] could bear diplomatic fruit, but when he arrived at the
Prime Minister's Office he realized that this was a failure. He thought
that if we continue to insist on having everything we could lose
everything. In a sober, realistic view of reality, he changed his mind.
The moment he realized that wanting everything could lead to losing
everything, and that the only way to protect the majority -- meaning the
large settlement blocs -- was to be diplomatically realistic, he
understood that we would have to give up a large portion of the
Weissglass notes that a letter written by
then-U.S. President George W. Bush, guaranteeing the status of the large
settlement blocs under any future agreement, was part of the
disengagement plan. "It was the reward that the administration in
Washington had given us," he says. "It was unprecedented: it anchored
American recognition of Israeli settlement blocs through legislation in
Congress -- some 10% of Judea and Samaria -- and included an American
declaration that Palestinian refugees would not return anywhere within
Q: What remains of that American pledge? Look
at how Washington comes down on us for every apartment built in the
settlements blocs or in Jerusalem.
Weissglass: "I invite you to check how much we
built in the blocs and in Jerusalem during those days, with full
American approval. That really has changed, but it is Israel's fault.
Bush's letter implied that everything outside the blocs goes to a
Palestinian state. The moment Israel rejected that tenet, the other part
of it, the commitment regarding the settlement blocs' status, and
particularly the freedom to build there, was lost. These are two sides
of the same coin."
Q: The unilateral nature of the disengagement also wasn't exactly in line with the Ariel Sharon attitude.
Weissglass: "The unilateral nature was
dictated by the fact that by the end of 2003, [Yasser] Arafat was in
charge of the Palestinian Authority, and in the wake of a terrible wave
of terrorist attacks and two major attacks in Jerusalem,
[then-Palestinian Prime Minister] Mahmoud Abbas asked to take a number
of drastic measures against Hamas and was denied by Arafat. We weren't
about to negotiate with Arafat, the crook and terrorist. But on the
other hand we understood that something had to be done, that we needed
change and hope and that treading water meant losing. The decision was
unilateral because there was no other side. Arafat was the other side
and at the end of 2004, when Arafat died, we began coordinating with the
Palestinians before executing the plan."
Q: In retrospect, considering today's reality,
did the disengagement yield positive results? Was the disengagement not
responsible for the grave deterioration in Gaza?
Weissglass: "There is absolutely no
connection. Hamas took over the Strip in June 2007, almost two years
after the withdrawal from Gaza, in a violent military offensive. What is
the connection between the disengagement and the Hamas revolution? How
could a handful of communities in the crowded Gaza Strip prevented
Hamas' armed takeover? The IDF hasn't been inside the cities, villages
or refugee camps for years. They only surrounded the Jewish settlements
to protect them. The IDF withdrew from the Strip in 1994 already."
Q: Didn't the fact that Israel pulled out of
the Philadelphi Route allow Hamas to arm itself with a larger number of
rockets with far better range? When, before the disengagement, was there
ever rocket fire from Gaza into Tel Aviv?
Weissglass: "None of this has to do with the
disengagement. Even when the IDF was present in the Philadelphi Route,
they smuggled weapons through tunnels and by sea. The IDF didn't want to
stay in Philadelphi after the disengagement. The only thing that would
have happened if the disengagement had not been enacted is that today
there would be thousands of settlers and soldiers in the middle of a