The Security Fence
Toward the end of 2003, Israel’s security fence became the focal point of significant international attention. In early December, the uN General Assembly, at an emergency session, voted 90 in favor and 8 opposed, with 74 abstentions, to petition the International Court of Justice to rule on the legality of the fence. In October 2003, the assembly, by a vote of 144 to 4, had demanded that Israel tear down the barrier. On November 28, Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued a report calling the construction of the wall “a deeply counterproductive act” that was causing serious socioeconomic harm to the Palestinians.
Moving toward Security and Peace
The beginning of 2004 saw a continuation of Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israelis by Hamas, al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, and Palestine Islamic Jihad. As the attacks increased, Israel continued its policies of targeted assassinations of Hamas and other terrorist group leaders.
An Israeli missile strike in March 2004 killed Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed yassin, and another strike killed the new Hamas leader, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, the following month.Sharon also moved ahead on his plan for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.
In a speech prior to his visit to Washington, D.C., in April 2004, Sharon noted that he was disposed to keep some Jewish settlements in the West Bank and suggested that these would include Ariel, Givat Zeev, Maaleh Adumim, the Etzion bloc, and Kiryat Arba and the Hebron enclave.
On April 14, President Bush, in a joint news conference with Sharon, recognized Israel’s right to retain some West Bank settlements and called Sharon’s plan “historic” and “courageous.” Bush referred to “new realities on the ground” and suggested that it was unrealistic that the outcome of final status negotiations would be a full and complete return to the 1949 armistice lines and that the so-called right of return was effectively ruled out.
On April 16, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Great Britain and President Bush, in a joint press conference in Washington, noted that Sharon’s plan was not seen as a unilateral attempt to impose a settlement but as an opportunity to move forward to resolve the issue.The Likud Party membership (with a relatively small voter turnout) rejected the plan on May 2, by a vote of 60 percent against to 40 percent in favor.
It was clear that the opposition came primarily from the settler portion of Likud’s membership and was contrary to the overwhelming popular support for the plan expressed in nationwide Israeli public-opinion polls.Nevertheless, on May 4, the Quartet met in New York City to assess the status of the Roadmap and, after its deliberations, agreed with the Bush administration assessment that Sharon’s plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and settlements in parts of the West Bank was a “rare moment of opportunity.”
On June 4, Sharon removed National union ministers Avigdor Lieberman and Benny Elon from his government coalition because of their opposition to his disengagement plan. The withdrawal of the support of the National union’s seven votes, in addition to threatened defections on the part of the NRP and right-wing elements of Sharon’s likud Party, left the prime minister without a secure majority in the Knesset. Sharon pledged to construct a new coalition to push through his proposals, and on June 7, his cabinet agreed to proceed with the Gaza disengagement plan, while deferring a vote on the dismantling of settlements.
In a landmark ruling on June 30, Israel’s Supreme Court, while acknowledging the right of the state to build the West Bank fence on security grounds, nevertheless ordered it to change the route in order to reduce the suffering the fence was causing the Palestinians. The Sharon government immediately moved to implement this order.
On July 9, the International Court of Justice, in an Advisory Opinion said Israel’s West Bank security fence violated international law and should be immediately dismantled. Israel and the united States rejected the opinion as one-sided and politicized. Israel said that it would be guided only by the rulings of its own Supreme Court and would continue to build the fence as long as it was required to protect Israel’s citizens from terror.
Arafat’s death in November 2004 and the opportunity presented by Sharon’s disengagement proposal led the labor Party, under Shimon Peres, to rejoin the coalition government. labor was convinced that Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan was a crucial step for a settlement with the Palestinians and could fail without the party’s support. In January 2005 the Knesset voted approval of a new coalition led by Sharon by a vote of 58 to 56, with six abstentions.
Overshadowing this issue was the change in the Palestinian camp and in the international negotiating process occasioned by the death of Arafat on November 11, 2004. On January 9, 2005, the Palestinians went to the polls to elect a new head of the Palestinian Authority. Abbas, who had already succeeded Arafat as chairman of the PlO, won the election handily. Abbas seemed to bring a new approach to the conflict with Israel—stating that violence was counterproductive—that suggested the prospect of improved relations with Israel.
The establishment of a new coalition government supporting the Sharon disengagement plan, the replacement of Arafat by Abbas, and the inauguration of a new Bush administration in Washington, with Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state, brightened the prospects for a potential end to the second intifada and the resumption of IsraeliPalestinian negotiations to move toward resolution of the conflict between them.
On January 27, 2005, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that there was an opportunity for a historic breakthrough with the Palestinians if they took comprehensive and effective action to stop “terrorism, violence, and incitement.” An early indicator of the new environment was a summit meeting between Sharon and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on February 8, at which they agreed to suspend the Palestinian attacks and Israeli counterterrorism actions that had marked the al-Aqsa Intifada since the fall of 2000.
On February 20, the Israeli cabinet approved (by a vote of 17 to 5) Sharon’s plan to withdraw Israeli settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip. The cabinet also voted (20 to 1) for a modified route for the security fence in the West Bank. The new route would generally move the fence closer to the 1967 Green line (the 1949 Armistice line). Maale Adumim and Gush Etzion would be on the Israeli side of the fence.
But, Sharon’s coalition government and his plans for disengagement faced serious challenges in the form of a call for a national referendum on the plan and by the legal requirement that the state budget be approved by the end of March or the government would be deemed to have fallen and thus require new Knesset elections in early summer.
On March 28, the Knesset rejected the call for a national referendum on the Gaza withdrawal plan, and on March 29, the Knesset approved the budget. These votes effectively allowed the Sharon-led government to continue in office, to proceed with the Gaza disengagements, and to move forward in negotiations with its Palestinian interlocutor to achieve a resolution of the conflict between them.
Amid much public anguish, the evacuation of the 8,500 residents from all 21 Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip began on August 15, 2005, and was completed on August 21, 2005. The withdrawal of the civilian residents of the four isolated settlements in the northern West Bank affected by the disengagement was completed on August 23, 2005.
The last IDF soldier left Gaza on September 12, 2005, and the northern West Bank settlements on September 20, 2005. The settlers were evacuated, the settlements were demolished, the troops were withdrawn, the military positions were abandoned and destroyed. Palestinian control replaced Israeli (since 1967) and Egyptian (1949 to 1967) control of the Gaza Strip.
In a speech to the Herzliya Conference on December 16, 2004, Sharon explained that the disengagement plan was motivated by Israel’s recognition of the tremendous demographic imbalance in the Gaza Strip favoring the Palestinians; the need to distinguish between “goals which need to be fought for,” such as the defense of Jerusalem, the security zones, the major settlement blocs, and “maintaining Israel’s character as a Jewish state,” and “goals where it is clear to all of us that they will not be realized”; denying the Gaza-based Palestinian terrorists the “excuse” for continued terrorism by ending Israel’s occupation of Gaza; and protecting and enhancing Israel’s international standing, especially with the united States.
In a historic speech in Hebrew to the united Nations General Assembly on September 15, 2005, Sharon articulated a critical principle to guide future Israeli policy concerning the territories and the nature of Israel-Palestinian relations: “The right of the Jewish people to the land of Israel does not mean disregarding the rights of others in the land. The Palestinians will always be our neighbors. We respect them, and have no aspirations to rule over them. They are also entitled to freedom and to a national, sovereign existence in a state of their own.”
The Israeli body politic overwhelmingly supported Sharon’s proposals for the disengagement. Nevertheless, there was opposition to it in the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank and orange was the color chosen by those who opposed the evacuation.
Blue, the traditional color of the Israeli flag (blue and white), was used by those who supported the decision to disengage. The “orange rebellion” was unprecedented in nature and larger in size than any that had been seen previously in Israel. However, the blue camp was obviously larger, and support for disengagement was a clear majority perspective among Israelis.
Continuing Threat from Gaza
The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the reversion of the area to full Palestinian control was seen as having the potential for stabilizing that sector, but the area did not quiet down. Palestinian arms smuggling, much of which came through the Rafah crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula continued, including large quantities of rifles and ammunition and large amounts of explosives. This was a constant concern, as was the continued firing of Qassem rockets from Gaza that targeted populated areas of Israel’s western Negev.
The town of Sderot was hit particularly often. Many of the rockets exploded harmlessly, but some Israelis were killed or wounded and property was damaged or destroyed. From the onset, the Israelis were active in trying to stop the attacks. Israeli efforts involved the use of air strikes at the individuals firing the missiles, at the staging areas, and at the factories producing them. Periodic operations by ground forces were also employed.