What was Israeli Prime Minister Sharon’s 2004 plan for ‘disengagement’?
On February 3, 2004 Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced in an interview with Haretz:
- It is my intention to carry out an evacuation?sorry, a relocation?of settlements that cause us problems and of places that we will not hold on to anyway in a final settlement, like the Gaza settlements.
With his shocking and unexpected announcement, Sharon created a new dynamic of the Israeli-Arab conflict that was disturbing to the political left and right, to both Jews and Arabs. Suprisingly, PM Sharon historically was the foremost champion of settlement expansion, the basis of his Likud support.
The basic logic of the withdrawal plan was to accomplish several things at once:
- Pull Israel’s military out of areas that were difficult to defend and would likely have to be ceded in any future negotiation, in particular Gaza and isolated areas of the West Bank;
- Reduce pressure from the US and other nations to end Israel’s military control of certain areas, the so-called “occupation”;
- Add to pressure on the Palestinian Arabs to negotiate by showing that time was not on their side;
- Make it easier for Israel to secure the separation between Israel and areas that are sources of terrorists.
Israel had tried many approaches to ending its conflict with Palestinian Arabs. As detailed on other pages of this website, there have been a series of peace attempts from the 1948 founding of Israel, after each of the major wars (1967, 1973), and in the 1990s during the “Oslo peace process“. The US-sponsored “Roadmap” was stalled due to the unwillingness of Palestinian Arab leaders to even begin an effort to crack down on the terrorism. Despite all efforts, since 2000 Israel had seen increased terrorism and nearly 1000 Israeli civilians were killed plus many thousands injured in daily attacks emanating from Palestinian Arab areas adjacent to Israel.
Since diplomacy and negotiations failed, Israel has begun to unilaterally take action to change the situation. They have targeted terrorist leaders for military attack, and have succeeded in killing certain prominent leaders of Hamas including Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi, among others. They have erected a security barrier between Israel and the areas where most attacks come from, a widely criticized move that is nonetheless effective in its purpose. And, potentially most significant, PM Sharon’s plan for disengagement would eliminate most elements of the Israeli military presence in Palestinian Arab areas while increasing Israel’s ability to defend its civilians. Palestinian Arabs would likely benefit from Israeli military withdrawal which would ease their daily life and ability to move freely.
One of the most important changes represented by the Sharon Plan is the unilateral aspect. Prior plans looked for a comprehensive settlement, agreed between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs, that would finalize all issues. Decades of trying had not yielded such an agreement so Sharon sought to change the unacceptable equilibrium by making unilateral changes. This was bold and innovative, but fraught with danger and uncertainty for all involved.
Details of the Plan
The plan was not revealed in complete detail and, in fact, evolved as controversy swirled around it. Some details were stable and made available by the Israeli government:
- Complete Israeli withdraw from the Gaza Strip, with the probable exception of the ‘Philadelphia corridor’ along the Egyptian border. This would include abandoning 21 Jewish Gaza communities, home to over 7,000 Israelis.
- In the West Bank:
- Immediate Israeli withdraw from four small northern settlements, and
- Retaining five blocks of Israeli West Bank communities, protected by the security fence: Givat Ze’ev, Gush Etzion, Ariel, Maale Adumim and Kiryat Arba/Hebron.
Many Israelis favored the plan; tired of years of terrorism and war, the disengagement seemed like a way out. But even though the plan apparently had many positive features, the idea almost immediately had many opponents.
- Palestinian Arab leaders dismissed the plan as an attempt to increase Israel’s hold over large parts of the West Bank, basically a “land grab” that would set borders without negotiations. Some welcomed any Israeli withdrawal, but saw it as only a first step toward complete Israeli removal of all presence on lands claimed by the Palestinian Arabs. Since many of the Palestinian Arabs demand that all of Israel be liquidated, they were not mollified by what they saw as a limited withdrawal and hotly contested aspects of the plan that solidifed Israeli positions along the dividing lines.
- Israeli opponents of the plan said it was a surrender to Palestinian Arab violence. They argued that it would signal weakness to Israel’s enemies and decrease the chances for a permanent, negotiated peace. With daily violence against Israel ongoing, why give up territory? The plan also relinquishes Israel’s moral claim to the rights of Jews to live anywhere they wish within the Land of Israel. The plan ethnically cleanses Jews from the Gaza Strip and historically Jewish parts of Samaria, the modern “West Bank”.
Partial Endorsement by US President Bush
US President Bush met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on April 14, 2004. In a joint press appearence, Bush endorsed Sharon’s plan to disengage from the Gaza Strip and from areas of the West Bank. In what was seen as a major shift of US policy, President Bush for the first time recognized that Israel was not bound to return to the Green Line borders and said Palestinian Arab “refugees” would not have the right to return to Israel under any final peace settlement. He also supported Israel’s right to maintain communities — the so-called “settlements” — in the areas claimed by Palestinian Arabs.
Bush said the world had changed and old policies no longer apply. “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final-status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949,” Bush stated. Administration officials hoped Bush’s position would stimulate peace talks between Israelis and Palestinian Arabs. These hopes dimmed when news of Bush’s positions angered Arabs in the region and critics said Bush was less than an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs.
In subsequent weeks, events in Iraq and Arab pressures led to
US back-peddling on the commitments. A careful reading of Bush’s words along with subsequent clarifications by US Sec. of State Powell and other administration officials revealed less of a commitment than first reported.
The Likud Votes
Opponents of the disengagement plan ran a well-organized campaign pointing out the value of the Jewish communities in Gaza, particularly the beautiful Gaza agricultural area of Gush Katif built by Israeli capital and labor. Why turn such accomplishments over to terrorists, they argued? On April 26, 2004, Israel’s Independence Day, over 100,000 people took buses and cars to visit Gush Katif staging rallies in opposition to giving the community to the Palestinian Arabs. On May 2, 2004 Likud party members in Israel voted on the Sharon plan. Because Israeli law has no provision for a popular referendum, PM Sharon could not call on the entire country to vote. He had the power to ask members of his own party to voice an opinion and they did. They overwhelmingly rejected the proposal, approximately 60% against, although only 40% of 193,000 Likud members voted. Afterward, many called for Sharon to resign.
During the voting, Palestinian Arab gunmen killed a pregnant Gaza resident and her four daughters, ages two to 11, in an ambush on her car, firing guns into the children from close range. This abomination was immediately the top of the news, in Israel and elsewhere, and may have had an effect on the Likud voters, reinforcing their inclination to reject concessions to terrorism.
When the results were known, a defiant Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he would not resign despite the humiliating rejection. Since general opinion in Israel was more weighted to approval of the withdrawal plan, political insiders predicted Sharon would continue toward implementation of some form of the plan. But public opinion began to turn when senior military officers of the IDF went on record against the plan, stating it would hurt not help Israel’s security. Over the following weeks several attempts were made to have the plan approved by the Israeli cabinet, but the actual cabinet vote was postponed several times when it was clear the vote would be no.
Modified Disengagement Plan Approved
On June 6, 2004 the Israeli cabinet voted in principle to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, exactly 37 years after Israel siezed control of it on the second day of the 1967 Six Day War. The Cabinet resolution approved the staged disengagement plan, but noted “There is nothing in this [decision] to [enable] evacuating settlements.” The resolution did approve implementing the preparatory work necessary to evacuate the settlements. Sharon said Israel’s intention was to “relocate all of the Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and four settlements in Samaria by the end of 2005.” The vote was 14-7 in favor and was marked by rancorous debate including Sharon’s firing of two ministers. The plan called for another Cabinet vote in March of 2005 to ratify any actual expulsion of existing communities in areas from which Israel would withdraw. Permits for new construction were frozen immediately although building in progress was allowed to go forward.