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After Overseeing Gaza Withdrawal, Israeli General Heads to Washington

November 2, 2005
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A relaxed Maj. Gen. Dan Harel sits behind his wide, spotless desk during his last day of work at Israel’s Defense Ministry, miles away from the sand dunes and barbed wire of Gaza, where he oversaw Israel’s recent withdrawal. Harel muses about the marble corridors that await him in Washington, a city he barely knows but where he will be Israel’s next military attache. His goal is to intensify Israel’s already strong military ties with the United States.

“Despite our differences, we are both nations dealing with similar challenges when it comes to security,” he told JTA in a late October interview.

One of Harel’s most serious challenges will be handling the sensitive issue of Israeli arms sales to China. He downplayed the prospect of further tensions, saying he felt the issue was mostly resolved.

As military attache, Harel will be Israel’s representative to the Pentagon and the U.S. Army.

The plum job is a thank you of sorts from the government for a job well done. Harel is a career military man who just pulled off the most daring and difficult mission of his life with the Gaza withdrawal, and he pulled it off more quickly and peacefully than anyone imagined during the stormy weeks and months that preceded it.

Harel, who served as the head of the Israeli army’s southern command, says the close relationship between the army and Gaza’s Jewish settlers helped defuse the situation and ensure that the doomsday scenarios never came to be.

“It became everyone’s goal to avoid a breakdown in the country,” Harel said. Referring to the settlers, he said, “At the moment of truth they said, ‘We are part of this nation.’ “

So, too, did the soldiers, many of whom did not personally support the pullout.

The evacuation of settlers, which the army estimated would take three weeks, in the end took only five days. Harel was in Gaza during the withdrawal and the days preceding it, walking among the angry crowds.

He was easy to spot with his white hair and neatly trimmed white beard. Seemingly unflappable, he would speak in a calm, steady voice amid a sea of verbal assaults and accusations.

His was not to question or endorse, Harel said, but to carry out government orders and keep the army whole, allowing it to deal compassionately but firmly with settlers while evacuating them from their homes.

The intense training for the evacuation, and the army’s strategy of going to each individual home in the two days prior to the Aug. 15 evacuation deadline, was key to the swift withdrawal, Harel said. By deadline day, only one-third of the families remained in their homes, he said.

He admits, however, that he was not always sure the operation would go smoothly: “I was very, very worried,” he said.

“The operation was the most complicated and most difficult I carried out in my 31 years of service — the range of emotions and tragedy of it all — not just for the residents but for us, the army who had to carry out orders to evacuate people from their homes and the destruction of settlements,” he said. “These were settlements that five minutes before, you were prepared to lay your life down to protect.”

Despite the difficulties, Harel said he kept in mind what was at stake: the authority and sovereignty of the state.

“It was clear we had to do this, but in a way that would prevent massive damage to the nation of Israel, and I think that is what we did,” he said.

Harel never planned to be a career soldier when he was drafted just after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Yet each year, feeling the call to duty of whatever war or crisis was on the horizon at the time, he would sign on for another year, and then another.

Harel, who grew up in Haifa, is a sixteenth-generation sabra. His family came to Jerusalem following the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492.

He pauses looking back on all the wars, battles and fighting his generation of Israelis has seen.

He said he is concerned by the Gaza Strip’s current direction, citing the armed gangs, continued terrorist activity and overall sense of lawlessness. But he shakes off charges that Israel should do more to improve the economic situation by easing passage into Israel.

“We need to remember one thing: From the moment we left Gaza we are not responsible for the income or the quality of life of the Palestinians. It’s the Palestinian Authority who is,” he said.

Harel said it’s up to the Palestinian Authority to take responsibility for its people. The first step should be to strip the terrorist groups and other armed militias of their weapons and establish the P.A.’s monopoly on the use of force.

Once that happens, he said, he believes Israeli-Palestinian economic connections will improve.

Looking toward the future, Harel said there is “no chance in the world” that he will enter politics when he returns from Washington.

Instead, he said, he seeks a quieter life with his family after so many years on the battlefield.

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