Six years on, lessons of Gaza withdrawal resonate for West Bank

New houses under construction in Shiloh, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. (Ryan Simon via CC)

New houses under construction in Shiloh, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. (Ryan Simon via CC)

SHILOH, West Bank (JTA) — Yisrael Medad remembers when just eight families lived in the red-roofed homes in this Jewish settlement deep in the hills of the West Bank.

Now some 2,500 Israelis live here, and Shiloh has playgrounds, schools and a yeshiva. The red-roofed homes sprawl over several hills, and new homes continue to be built. At the bottom of the hill is the archaeological excavation of the biblical Shiloh, where the tabernacle is believed to have been built.

Shiloh is often cited as one of the settlements likely to be uprooted under any final peace deal with the Palestinians. It is relatively isolated, about 28 miles north of Jerusalem, and halfway between the Palestinian cities of Ramallah and Nablus.

But with little movement in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Shiloh is not likely to disappear anytime soon. And even in the long term, any discussion of dismantling Jewish settlements in the West Bank is haunted by Israel’s experience six years ago this summer, when the removal of some 9,000 settlers from their homes in the Gaza Strip was followed by a Hamas takeover of Gaza and rocket attacks against Israel.

“The expulsion from Gaza should serve as a warning for any withdrawal from Judea and Samaria,” said Hamutal Cohen of the Committee for the Residents of Gush Katif, which was the largest bloc of Jewish settlements in Gaza. “The government totally failed with 9,000 settlers. How can they manage with tens of thousands?”

Only 20 percent of the 1,700 families forced to leave Gaza have moved into permanent homes, according to the committee. Many, especially farmers, have not been able to find work.

“You can’t fix the trauma and crisis these people are still suffering six years later,” Danny Danon, a Knesset member from the Likud Party, told JTA. “Marriages have broken up and a lot of kids dropped out of school. People still live like refugees.”

There is great debate in Israel over whether the withdrawal from Gaza, which then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon carried out in August 2005, was a strategic failure or success.

On the one hand, Israel no longer had to deal with the daily security threats and headache of protecting 9,000 Jews in Gaza. And on the diplomatic front, Israel’s withdrawal ended Israel’s formal occupation of the coastal strip, which it had captured from Egypt in 1967 but never incorporated into Israel proper.

On the other hand, a year after the Israeli withdrawal, Hamas seized control of Gaza, and rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel increased dramatically. At the end of 2008, Israel launched a three-week war to stem the rocket fire, drawing international condemnation for its military actions. Over the last few years, Palestinian advocates also have argued that Israel’s blockade of Gaza, which has loosened recently, constituted a de facto continuation of the occupation.

Danon says the Gaza withdrawal was clearly a mistake and a West Bank pullback would be an even bigger mistake. Citing the rocket threat, he noted that an Israeli withdrawal even from part of the West Bank would leave central Israel — including Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Ben Gurion Airport — well within Palestinian rocket range.

“People in Israel were willing to pay a heavy price in exchange for a real peace, but now they feel betrayed,” Danon said. “They feel like it was all for nothing.”

Then there’s the military challenge inherent in any West Bank withdrawal. During the pullout from Gaza, many in Israel speculated that pro-settler soldiers and officers would disobey orders to evacuate the Gaza settlers. That did not happen and most soldiers did their jobs. The few who in good conscience felt they could not  perform this duty were quietly excused.

But a withdrawal from the West Bank could be different. For one thing, the number of settlers whose communities would not be annexed to Israel could exceed 80,000 (an estimated 320,000 Jews are living in West Bank settlements, not including eastern Jerusalem, which Israel annexed).

Yossi Klein Halevi, a journalist and a fellow at Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute, says support for Jewish settlers in the West Bank has gone mainstream in a way that support for settlements in Gaza never did.

“Two generations have grown up in Israel who see the settlements not only as part of Israel but as the heart of Israel,” Halevi told JTA. “Any withdrawal from the West Bank would involve mass refusal of soldiers to follow orders, and I am deeply worried about the ability of the army to continue to be an effective fighting force.”

Halevi estimates that Jewish settlers and their supporters make up 40 percent of some combat units; an Israeli army spokesman said the IDF does not release figures “on such a sensitive subject.” Orthodox men, who constitute a wellspring of support for the settlements, continue to volunteer for combat units in large numbers.

These Orthodox youth also are fiercely loyal to their rabbis. When Israeli police recently detained Rabbi Dov Lior of the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba to question him on charges of incitement and racism, hundreds of Orthodox youth in Jerusalem blocked streets and clashed with police. If Lior issued a ruling that it is forbidden to force Jews to leave Jewish settlements in the West Bank, many Orthodox Jewish soldiers might find themselves torn.

Gershon Baskin of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information says such fears are overstated and that most religious soldiers would follow the orders of the army, not their rabbis.

“Israel is a state where the rule of law works,” Baskin told JTA. “If there’s a democratic decision which is seen as legitimate, supported by Knesset and perhaps backed by a referendum, the public will not be behind any settlers who will take the law into their own hands and use violence."

“It will be much more traumatic than the Gaza withdrawal. But if people are convinced that peace is going to be real and settlement withdrawal would be gradual and incremental over time,” they would support it, he said.

It’s not clear whether Jews who live in settlements like Shiloh would have the option of staying on under Palestinian sovereignty or whether they would want to remain. Some Palestinian officials, including Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, have welcomed the idea, but PA President Mahmoud Abbas has expressed reservations.

“If a Palestinian state is created and my security could be ensured, I would definitely choose to stay,” said Medad of Shiloh, who has lived in the settlement since 1981.

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