In this article, Adi Mintz, former Chair of the Yesha Council, argues that while the Disengagement of 2005 represented a pinnacle of democracy for some, he experienced it as a deterioration of democracy. He stresses then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's dismissal of referendums, and suggests that what took place during the Disengagement was not a "truly democratic struggle for public opinion." Mintz warns against future division among the nation and severe damage to Israel's ideological fabric, and calls for the Chief of Staff to repent and amend his ways.
Several months prior to the Disengagement from Gaza the Army and Society Forum of the Israel Democracy Institute met at the Air Force Base in Ramat Aviv, along with senior members of the IDF general staff, journalists and public officials. One of the discussions at the conference was devoted to the Disengagement and the army's role in this undertaking. At that discussion I had said that Israel's democracy must permit opponents of the expulsion from the Gaza Strip and Northern Samaria to demonstrate vehemently, to the extent this would truly express the trauma they were likely to experience, and perhaps, even create a national trauma that would shock Israeli society and government decision-makers. Thus, perhaps, they could dissuade the state from carrying out the tragic step it was about to take. In harsh response to my statement, then-Deputy Chief of Staff Gen. Dan Halutz asked me, "Do you want to send the Jewish people to the 'trauma center'?" I responded that indeed, I did.
The purpose of this article is to review the numerous efforts made by the national camp to win over the people's hearts and minds and to prevent the destructive plan that every intelligent person now understands was a mistake. Yet "Israeli democracy" and all of its attendants blocked this option using the most heavy-handed methods, out of a genuine belief that they could persuade the people.
Just as I did then, I still believe it is our duty to clarify to all strata of Israel society the significance of this terrible act of expelling Jews from their land, and the country is obligated to allow this. Even now, I feel that if only we could have reached every single house and explained the deep meaning of that uprooting in relation to the Zionist enterprise, we could have convinced most of the Jewish public in Israel to stop the foolishness. If only Israeli democracy had allowed us to shock society it would have also had an impact on the politicians—those who are busy primarily with their own personal survival, whose political status is derived from their honorary roles and positions, who aren't very willing to change their preconceived notions.
Thanks to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's prior familiarity with Israelis from the nationalist camp and his ability to enlist emotional forces for national goals, he was very fearful that if the public were permitted to demonstrate its strength, it would have been able to cause the revolution.
About a year and a half earlier, in March 2004, a referendum was conducted among Likud officials on the Disengagement issue. Based on previous surveys and promises from other members of the "ranch forum" Sharon felt certain of his victory, but he suffered a stunning defeat when the plan was rejected by a 60% majority. At this point Sharon began aggressively steamrolling his way to prevent any democratic efforts at genuine and open discussion of his plans. Any minister who dared to object was fired, and Likud ministers who opposed the measure didn't dare open their mouth to express their opinion. This situation was largely reflected during the night of the "banana putsch" in March 2005, when ministers who opposed the measure, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, were forced to enter the Knesset plenum and vote in favor of the move for fear of being ejected from the government.
During the summer of 2004, about one year before the expulsion and several months after the referendum in the Likud, an outcry began for a "public referendum." But Sharon, who had never been guided by democracy or the will of the people, was highly suspicious of this move and because he had already been burned by the referendum of Likud officials he flatly refused this proposal. We anxiously attempted to influence the shapers of public opinion and gain their support for this worthwhile democratic measure. We went to meetings armed with a letter, signed by all the Gush Katif leaders, with their commitment to respect whatever decision was made. But in this case as well, we came up against a solid brick wall.
In the many discussions held on this topic, including those conducted at the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), the Institute itself was also asked to support this most democratic measure, but its leadership refused to cooperate. The official reason they gave was that Israel's democracy was a representative democracy and that opening up government and Knesset decisions to a public referendum would jeopardize that representation. Despite the many attempts that were made to clarify that this wasn't just another decision, but rather a decision that had major ramifications on the lives of the people and the State, this argument fell on deaf ears. I won't deny that when my colleagues and I analyzed the reasons for this opposition, we had the sneaking suspicion that there was a fear of what would happen if the referendum passed...
When it became clear that there was no chance of swaying the government from its position, we wanted to formulate a civilian charter of do's and don'ts—what would be permitted and forbidden to demonstrators on the one hand, and the military and the government on the other hand—in the hope that if an equitable document could be formulated permitting non-violent civilian rebellion, we could shock public opinion. To my relief the initiative was received favorably and with the agreement of the military leaders an experienced and skilled team was assembled—Rabbi Yaakov Medan, head of the Har Etziyon Yeshiva, and Prof. Ruth Gavison —a team that had already worked together to forge agreements on matters of religion and state that were violently tearing at Israeli society ("The Gavison-Medan Covenant"). I won't go into the documents here because I haven't asked the authors for permission, but I will quote various statements that were already published in the media:
"Opponents of the Disengagement have the right, which they believe is a duty, to protest as strongly as possible against the decisions made and the way in which they were made, provided it is a non-violent civilian rebellion and meets the restrictions set forth in this covenant."
"As is common regarding protests in democratic societies, on political issues and labor disputes, the very fact that behavior is illegal does not disqualify it altogether. Nevertheless, the fact that the protest is legitimate does not make it immune to the punishments found in the law regarding its violators."
"Actions such as entering and remaining in an area that has been declared a closed military zone, non-violent road blocks and preventing soldiers from actually carrying out the expulsion are legitimate steps within the framework of the protest."
A draft of the document was sent to several people to read, including public officials and prominent legal minds from the Israeli left, to provide a platform for discussion. No one guessed that the document would be leaked to the press before it was discussed and prior to its official publication. However, in the Shabbat edition of Yedioth Ahronoth before the discussion, Nachum Barnea presented his "damning evidence" from the document and asked a rhetorical question: How could a candidate for the Supreme Court (Prof. Gavison) condone 'illegal behavior and civil disobedience'?" And once again the media managed to torpedo a major democratic measure and the advanced publicity sealed the fate of the document before it even saw the light of day.
Thus, the "official" leadership of the Yesha residents and those who assumed command of the struggle against the Disengagement found themselves to be defenseless again and again. They felt that the Israeli establishment had joined forces with the academic, legal and media elite and had managed to distort democracy, the right to protest and demonstrate.
That is exactly how we felt at that time. The Prime Minister, who had been elected on the basis of a platform calling to promote settlement in Judea and Samaria, trampled the outcome of the Likud referendum, forcefully and dishonestly coercing government officials and several Knesset members from his party to follow him and refuse the public referendum even though he was promised that the settlers and their supporters would honor the final result, no matter what the outcome. Add to all of this the media and the power elite—and the idea of a public referendum was rejected. Serious suspicions against the Prime Minister that his reasons for the plan had to do with personal corruption scandals only served to fan the flames, and top-level journalists stated that they knew about the suspected corruption but that the Prime Minister was being closely guarded to keep him from being swallowed up by his Disengagement plan.
The Supreme Court held a pathetic session headed by Supreme Court President Barak, who even refused the settlers' plea to come to Gush Katif to see for himself that nothing had been done to prepare for their resettlement. We can, perhaps, imagine the feelings of the settlers and those opposed to the withdrawal when the champion of "human dignity and freedom" rode roughshod over the human dignity of citizens who were, God help us...settlers. Remember the government's billboard campaign, "There's a solution for every resident?" To this day, four years after the expulsion, many former Gaza residents are still trapped in modern-day refugee camps. Israeli democracy has sunk to its lowest level and is seen in all its wretchedness.
The public steps undertaken by the Yesha Council and the Gush Katif Settlements Council—such as the long human chain stretching from Gush Katif to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and the march "On behalf of our Heroic Brethren" that was cut off at Kfar Maimon—were attended by an unprecedented tens of thousands of people. Sharon feared the impact of this measure and attempted to stop the buses all over the country, and when we were stopped in Kfar Maimon he ordered a closure on the village and tried to terrorize the people. Sharon decided to bring about bloodshed and civil war if the closure was violated, but the official reins imposed by the rabbis and settler leaders themselves, in addition to our own historic and fundamental decision for "no civil war" and "no bloodshed" led to the failure of that democratic struggle. One year after the Disengagement I met two officers who had served as senior military and police commanders during the Disengagement, and I asked what would have happened had we broken through the fence at Kfar Maimon. They responded that the orders they had were to prevent such a breach "at any cost" and, indeed, that meant "at any cost."
The path taken by Israeli democracy towards the faithful and devoted population in Gush Katif continued even during the "successful" execution of the Disengagement—not the Six Day War had the IDF carried out such a coordinated and perfect operation in six days since.
When we came across the black-clad police officers and the soldiers in blue uniforms who had come to expel the Gush Katif residents, we faced a blank expression. We learned that psychologists had trained the expellers to ignore any emotional pressure lest the settler populations influence them and they would be unable to carry out their mission properly. The army invested an entire year in "mental preparations" for tens of thousands of soldiers in an effort to make them act like robots or, as one of the expulsion commanders told me, "I'm like a Japanese samurai." The expulsion forces were dressed in black and blue and Israeli democracy trained them to disregard the weeping of its children. The following picture expresses better than a thousand words the feelings that we, the settlers, felt in the face of Israeli society. We weep bitterly before the deliberate inflexibility, before a society that decided "democratically" not to listen.
In the book of Genesis, when Jacob's sons—the brothers of Joseph— understand the great error they made in throwing Joseph into the well and selling him off to the Ishmaelites, they made the following immortal statement: "And they said each to his fellow, 'We are guilty on account of our brother, for we saw his distress when he pleaded with us and we did not listen; therefore this trouble has befallen us'." I have no doubt that these words of regret will be said in connection with every aspect of the Disengagement. The only question is, "when?" Ironically, in a display of amazing indifference, the IDF called this operation, "Brothers Together," and only after public protest was the operation's code name changed. But the Chief of Staff did not abstain from awarding citations of merit to flight school cadets who had "excelled" in carrying out their mission.
Given this situation, supporters of the settlement movement and most members of the religious Zionist camp felt that in their existential fight on behalf of the life's work and the minimum rights that were taken away from the Gush Katif exiles, they no longer had any real influence. They felt that this impact had been forcibly taken away under the guise of "democratic rules" while being manipulated by the court system, the media and the other elites that sway public opinion. Nevertheless, public leaders felt that even if the other side had abandoned its national responsibility, standing firmly for its principles was liable to lead to violence and bloodshed, even if it wasn't their fault.
It was obvious to the settlement leadership and organizers of the struggle that despite the anarchy and lack of national responsibility employed by Sharon, violence against Jews and spilling their blood was in violation of their principles above anything else, all the more so when these were liable to create an irreparable schism within the Jewish people. The order regarding "no civil war" was, therefore, the central and leading command.
Nonetheless, the religious Zionist leadership and the settlers understood very well the heavy price they would pay in the aggressive media world, and that concession would be interpreted as weakness, both internally and externally.
Externally, this weakness would invite additional attacks, such as actually took place in Amona several months after the expulsion from Gush Katif, where the fate of the entire settlement enterprise, and more significantly, the Jewish image of the state, would hang in the balance.
Internally, towards the settlers themselves, the leadership will be perceived as being incapable of fighting, because it couldn't "deliver the goods" and therefore it would be forced to resign. Moreover, the moderate and official path proved that it does not provide deterrence, because opponents do not respect the nobility displayed by the leaders and in their opinion, Sharon's heavy-handed method is the way in which settlement in Judea and Samara can and should be destroyed. The conclusion, then, is that the leadership must be replaced immediately. We must abandon the official style of struggle and adopt a more aggressive style that exposes its jaws of intimidation and creates a balance of fear or, as this has been recently referred to in our area—the "price tag." Even this faction of the settler camp does not consciously advocate divisiveness, but again, it does not fear it. The power of those within the religious Zionist camp who no longer consider the state of Israel as "the first flowering of redemption" continues to grow, and they have ceased praying for the welfare of the government. And thus, the Biblical mandate is dwindling.
Several months after the Disengagement I sent a letter to the Chief of Staff in which I wrote, among other things, the following:
'For months the public on the right has been busy drawing conclusions, in untold meetings and articles in internal journals.
Esteemed voices in this society are leading, unfortunately, towards isolationism and the feeling of betrayal by the state and Israeli society is worse than ever. Beyond the pain of uprooting, these feelings derive from a stinging insult originating from two sources.
First, because the expulsion of the Jews from their land was not carried out after a democratic decision in which the people had their "say," but rather through an underhanded fraud perpetrated by a corrupt government.
Second, because of the sense that "we missed the point" during the Disengagement process, that the evacuation was too quick and did not leave behind any marks and did not create, in the opinion of many, a "national trauma" as something like this should have created. The feeling was that of a quick and sharp trampling of the settlements, their residents and supporters, a feeling that continues to grow to this day when we see the fate of the settlers living in hotels.
Undoubtedly, for the organization you head, this was an unequivocal "victory," to the point that this victory was praised by the media and a "citation" was proposed for its participants. Indeed, the Disengagement was executed without casualties, but was that only because of the famous "determination and sensitivity?" Of course not. It happened, firstly, because of our strategic decision not to act violently against our brother soldiers and police officers. We fulfilled our part of the unwritten "agreement" between us to the dregs of the cup of sorrow. But did you fulfill your part?
The final accounting for the "failure of the struggle" must be given by our leadership before the entire public that participated in the struggle (part of which demands, indeed, that the leadership be changed). But doesn't Israeli society need to do some soul searching? Can it relinquish this population so easily? Does society want to pay the price of isolating this sector, or even part of it? Is national responsibility a code that only some people must follow?
I write this letter to you for two reasons:
First, because the Israel Defense Force, as the nation's army, serves as the linchpin of Israeli society, and this isolation will jeopardize, first and foremost, the relationship with the army and thus, the relationship with the state and society.
Second, your expressions and acts and those under your command regarding the non-induction of demonstrators on the Kfar Darom rooftops and concerning hesder yeshiva rabbis also has a negative contribution towards increased isolationism and reinforces the people who say, "I am not one of them."
Since it is clear to me that you are at least as fearful of these phenomena as I am, I hope you can find ways to bring these people closer and to be reconciled with them, and certainly not through punishment and by force.
I would be grateful if you would make the first step, at least with regard to enlistment and the hesder yeshivas.'
Needless to say no reply was ever received...
Naturally, I don't know what the result would be if we had been able to conduct a truly democratic struggle for public opinion. What would the outcome of a public referendum have been, had there been one? What would have happened if we could have honestly walked the streets and reached every household using alternative means, knowing that the electronic and print media were totally given over to the left and the Disengagement supporters? Or at least, if we had been able to carry out a struggle no less extreme as those implemented by labor organizations when their livelihoods are at risk, and when they block traffic their protests are accepted with understanding. Perhaps we would have managed to give the public the sense that the state is about to shatter the world of thousands of people, to destroy the life's work of tens of thousands, and to seriously jeopardize that which is most precious to hundreds of thousands of people. If we had been given that, the difference would have been tremendous. Now the feeling is that the path of "love conquers all" has failed miserably, and in the wake of the success of demonstrations by the ultra-Orthodox in Jerusalem there are now people, even among those who up until recently were "official," anxious to learn from the ultra-Orthodox how to run a struggle.
Among the elite and media barons, many declare themselves to be "Zionist Jews" and I believe that they are sincere. However, they were also part of the crime perpetrated against the residents of Gush Katif. They also played a role in blocking the media, they also employed the wheels of justice to perpetrate injustice and vehemently defended the corrupt citron who drove the bulldozer of destruction.
It is to these elite that I now turn. If, God forbid, we should once again face similar situations in the future, please recognize your terrible error. Do not allow the desire for victory and the concept of throwing up your hands at all costs to lead you. The price is terrible: serious division among the nation and severe damage to the ideological fabric of the people who are most loyal to the country and its people—the people who are ready for any pioneering mission in settlement, the army and citizenship.
The first step in repentance is admitting your mistake. The second step is making a decision to amend your ways. We are brothers, and so shall we remain forever.
Adi Mintz is the former Yesha Council chairman.