Anger, Debate 10 Years after Israel Quit Gaza


A synagogue now stocks fertilizers and a kindergarten has become offices: 10 years after Israel left Gaza, little remains of its former Jewish settlements bar the anger of those evicted and a still-heated debate.

As for Gazans themselves, they have other things on their minds besides the anniversary of what Israel calls its historic "disengagement" from the coastal Palestinian territory.

The decade since August 15, 2005 has seen constant tension with Israel, three devastating wars, an Israeli blockade and tight Egyptian controls on passage across its Gaza land border.

On that date, decreed by late prime minister Ariel Sharon, also known as "the bulldozer" for his determination, Israeli troops began evacuating more than 8,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip -- first voluntarily, but later forcefully removing those who refused.

Pictures showed settlers, some of whom had lived in Gaza for decades, escorted, or sometimes dragged, from their homes by young soldiers.

In some cases, both sides could be seen weeping.

The sight of military bulldozers tearing down settlement buildings is frozen in Israel's collective memory.

Efrat Louzon, mother of 10 and grandmother to five, still feels "rage" at the memory.

She and her family were evicted "without any purpose, without any preparation", she told AFP at her new home in Neta, a village in the southern Negev desert founded in 2012 to rehouse displaced Gaza settlers.

- Unilateral pullout -

Forged during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, amid international pressure, the pullout plan was hotly contested within Israel.

Sharon defended it by invoking the safety of settlers under constant and frequently deadly Palestinian attack and the drain on resources caused by the heavy army presence needed to protect them.

After failing to reach agreement with the Palestinians on the plan, Sharon decided to push ahead unilaterally, arguing there was no partner on the Palestinian side.

Karim Bitar, a research fellow at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris, said the Israeli leader also used the plan to shore up settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Bitar said Sharon sought to show with the "psychodrama" of emptying the Gaza settlements that "there was no credible possibility of evicting hundreds of thousands of settlers" from the West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem.

He referred to comments by the premier's adviser Dov Weissglass that the Sharon plan envisaged an indefinite freeze in the peace process to abort the possibility of a Palestinian state.

- Everything destroyed -

As it withdrew from Gaza, Israel destroyed nearly all the settlement infrastructure, leaving only a few buildings intact.

One, the settlers' local government headquarters, was turned into premises of al-Aqsa University in the southern town of Khan Yunis.

Fruit trees now stand where once "settlers lived behind their barricade," said Abdelrahman al-Najjar, who grows hibiscus and ficus plants.

Entire Palestinian neighborhoods have sprouted in some ex-settlement areas, with thousands of people now living there.

After the pullout, the militant Islamist movement Hamas, Israel's sworn enemy, scored a landslide victory in a 2006 general election and later seized power in Gaza from the rival Fatah faction of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a week of deadly street fighting.

The seizure of soldier Gilad Shalit in a June 2006 cross-border militant raid into Israel traumatized the Jewish state for more than five years until he was freed in a lopsided prisoner swap.

Whatever Sharon's long-term plans, he would not see them reach fruition. Hit by a stroke in 2006, he slipped into a coma and has never regained consciousness.

Ten years later, occupation and settlement building grinds on on Palestinian land and prospects of a peace settlement remain as distant as ever.

For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other right-wing Israeli politicians, the rockets which crash into southern Israel from Gaza are just a foretaste of what would happen if Israel were to pull out of the West Bank.

Netanyahu, who was finance minister in Sharon's government, resigned at the time in protest at the Gaza withdrawal.

Sharon's manoeuvre was "a moment of madness ... bitter failure," charged Neta resident Dror Arieh, 40, a teacher and father of 11 children.

"If the Jewish people returned to their homeland after 2,000 years in exile, there is no reason why we should not return to Gaza." 

A survey published last month said 51 percent of Israeli Jews would back the reconstruction of the Gush Katif settlement block in Gaza.

But no political leader wants that to happen, said International Crisis Group analyst Nathan Thrall.

"Everybody is more or less satisfied to be out," he said. "Even the army says they can't and they don't want to re-occupy."

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