Analysis from Israel

Has anyone noticed that the last remaining justification for Israel’s unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip has just disappeared? Proponents’ claims that the pullout would bring peace, security, and international support have long since been disproven; what it actually brought was 16,500 rockets and mortars fired at Israel from Gaza–including 13,800 before the current war began–and unprecedented international vitriol every time Israel tried to fight back (see the current anti-Semitic pogroms in Europe or the infamous Goldstone Report). Yet disengagement supporters still had one trump card to play: “At least our soldiers aren’t dying in Gaza anymore.” And to many Israelis, that gain was worth the terrible price.

But now, Israeli soldiers are once again dying in Gaza, at a rate that wipes out all the gains of the previous few years. Here are the figures, compiled from B’Tselem statistics:

Between the start of the second intifada, in September 2000, and the pullout in August 2005, 87 Israeli soldiers were killed in Gaza. Over the next eight years, it’s not true that no soldiers died in Gaza, but military fatalities did drop significantly: Altogether, 33 soldiers were killed either in Gaza or in southern Israel by fire from Gaza.

Even that “achievement” is actually an indictment of the disengagement, because in the West Bank, which Israel didn’t quit, military fatalities fell far more sharply: from 136 between September 2000 and August 2005 to just 13 in the subsequent nine years. But since Operation Protective Edge began earlier this month, even this meager gain has disappeared: 53 soldiers have so far been killed in or by attacks from Gaza, and the number will likely continue climbing as the operation progresses. In other words, Gaza has now claimed 86 military fatalities from Israel since the pullout–almost identical to the 87 it claimed during the second intifada–even as military fatalities have fallen sharply in the West Bank.

In contrast, had the Israel Defense Forces remained in Gaza, military fatalities would almost certainly have registered a decline similar to that in the West Bank, because Hamas wouldn’t have been able do either of the two things that are now costing so many soldiers their lives: smuggle in vast quantities of sophisticated weaponry or build an extensive network of attack tunnels.

The bottom line, therefore, is that the last remaining “achievement” of the Gaza pullout has proved as chimerical as all its other vaunted achievements: The pullout hasn’t saved soldiers’ lives; it has almost certainly cost them.

To be clear, I never liked the argument that saving soldiers’ lives was worth the cost of incessant rocket fire on the south; soldiers are supposed to put their lives on the line to protect civilians, not the other way around. But I understand why it was so persuasive to many Israelis: Almost every Israeli has a father, husband, brother, or son in the army, while far fewer have relatives and friends in rocket-battered southern communities; thus many Israelis felt they personally benefited from the tradeoff, even if other Israelis were paying the price.

Now, however, even that illusion is gone: By quitting Gaza, not only has Israel gotten 16,500 rockets and mortars on its country, but it hasn’t saved the life of a single soldier. In fact, it has almost certainly lost more soldiers than it would have had it stayed.

Israel may have no choice but to reoccupy Gaza someday. But whether it does or not, one thing is crystal clear: It would be insane to repeat this experiment in the West Bank.

Originally published in Commentary 

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Why the status quo is the least bad option for Palestinians

Even among people who recognize that Israeli-Palestinian peace is currently impossible, a growing number think that Israel must nevertheless quit the West Bank. Israel has a right to defend itself, their argument goes, but not by controlling another people for decades. Instead, it should withdraw to the “internationally recognized border” and protect itself from there, like other countries do.

Forget for a moment that the “internationally recognized border” is an arrant fiction. Forget as well that Israel remains in the West Bank precisely because defending itself from the 1949 armistice lines (the abovementioned fictional border) hasn’t worked very well in either the West Bank—from which Israel partially withdrew in the 1990s before returning the following decade—or the Gaza Strip.

That still leaves another uncomfortable fact: As long as genuine peace remains impossible, Israeli control of the West Bank, despite the undeniable hardships it causes Palestinians, remains the least bad alternative for the Palestinians themselves. As evidence, just compare the Israeli-controlled West Bank to Gaza, which has been free of both settlers and soldiers since August 2005. By almost any parameter, life in the former is far better.

Take, for instance, casualties. According to B’Tselem’s statistics, Israeli security forces killed 5,706 Palestinians in Gaza from September 2005 through August 2019. That’s almost eight times the 756 killed by Israeli security personnel and settlers combined in the West Bank during this period (no Gazans were killed by settlers since there are no settlers there).

Nor is this surprising. Israel’s control of the West Bank means that suspected terrorists can often be arrested rather than killed, though shootouts (with attendant collateral damage) do occur. But in Gaza, where Israel has no troops, it can’t arrest terrorists. Thus the only way to fight terror is through military action, which naturally produces many more casualties among both combatants and civilians.

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