Israel Update for August 2005

David Dolan
David Dolan

The Israeli government's controversial decision to unilaterally evacuate all Jewish residents from the crowded Gaza Strip and portions of northern Samaria was swiftly and fully implemented during August. In the end, the pullout was significantly less dramatic than many had feared or forecast, with no deaths directly attributed to the massive Israeli army and police operation. Still, the pullouts left many people in the small country reeling, especially religious Jews who hoped and prayed for divine intervention to thwart the uprootings, which never came.

Projected to take at least two weeks if not an entire month, the evacuation of 21 Gaza Strip Jewish communities and four others in northern Samaria was completed in just one week. Some Israeli commentators noted that the contested areas had been captured in 1967 from Egypt and Jordan in just six days, and abandoned almost as quickly nearly four decades later. It was the first time ever that a Jewish government had expelled fellow Jews from their homes inside Israel's ancient biblical heartland.

In the largest single security operation in Israel's modern history, tens of thousands of carefully selected soldiers and police men and women began entering Jewish communities in the 17-settlement Gush Katif block in the southern Gaza Strip just after midnight on Monday, August 15. They were beginning a 48-hour campaign to warn all remaining Gaza Strip Jewish residents that it was now illegal for them to remain in their homes. Officials said around half of Gaza's 8,000 plus Israelis had already packed up and left their beloved communities by that date, many of them in two large northern Gaza settlements that were largely populated by secular Jews. Those remaining were considered the most ardent opponents of the Sharon government's withdrawal plan.

The holdout residents were buttressed by an estimated 2,000 Israeli activists who had infiltrated into the Gaza Strip during the preceding months to help them resist the scheduled security operation. Most were young Orthodox Jews who reside in dozens of communities in Judea and Samaria that the Palestinians and their allies want to see similarly destroyed in the near future. Although some Gaza Strip residents denounced the protestors for interfering in a crisis situation not directly their own, others publicly welcomed their ardent support.


As expected, the struggle to thwart the government-ordered uprootings was centered in two Gush Katif communities, Kafar Darom (Hebrew for "Southern Village") and Neve Dekalim. The main focus was the Gaza Strip's largest synagogue located in Kafar Darom, the oldest Jewish settlement in the area which was first established several years before Egypt invaded the small coastal strip in 1948. It was destroyed during that war, but quickly rebuilt after Israeli forces captured the area during the lightning Six Day War.

Hundreds of Jewish youth who moved into the synagogue early in the week vowed to stay put no matter what level of force was deployed against them. Speaking to journalists from around the world, many added a new emotional battle cry to the frequently heard, if by now obviously untrue contention that "Jews do not uproot Jews!"

The new slogan-"Massada will not fall again!"-evoked the anguished memory of hundreds of ancient Jews committing mass suicide instead of surrendering to Roman soldiers scaling the Massada hilltop complex above the Dead Sea. The battle cry, familiar from many other settings including modern Israeli army inductions, and instantly understood by all Jews, enhanced fears that some Orthodox protestors might actually take their own lives as the Knesset-sanctioned evacuation got underway.

A tense standoff ensued for two hot days, with many analysts predicting bloodshed before it was all over. The well equipped resisters were considered capable of holding out for some time, being directed by Moshe Leshem, a reserve army colonel with broad experience in military matters. Some had brought chains, oil and grease with them, which they placed near the entrances to the two-story synagogue in an attempt to slow down security evacuators. Rolls of barbed wire were stretched out around the edge of the synagogue's flat roof to prevent soldiers from climbing onto it.

With international media cameras rolling, the youthful male and female resisters spent most of their short confinement hours crying out in prayer for divine intervention to thwart the carefully planned uprootings. Their heartfelt pleas, mingled with rivers of tears, touched most Israelis, including vocal supporters of the unilateral disengagement plan. However, subsequent actions by some of the protestors weakened public support for their cause.

Israel's three television networks broadcast live from the scene as security personnel began to enter the synagogue just before dusk on Thursday evening, August 18. Within five hours, the vastly outnumbered anti-withdrawal activists were fully evacuated from the soon to be destroyed Jewish house of prayer. In the process, some threw boiling oil, acid and other objects at the helmeted and shielded, but unarmed, security forces. They in turn deployed water cannons, fire extinguishers, cranes and wire cutters in their successful evacuation efforts. Over fifty security personnel and dozens of protestors were injured in the tense standoff, most of them lightly.


While the televised operation was reaching its climax, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took to the airwaves in an attempt to calm his divided nation. This came after senior officials warned that passions fanned by the broadcast struggle could erupt into street clashes between dedicated supporters and opponents of the uprootings all over the country (in fact, small-scale violence was reported in several places). The ex-army general and onetime settlement champion proclaimed that he alone bore "ultimate responsibility for the very difficult decision" to evacuate all Jews from their Gaza Strip homes. Expressing reverence for Judaism and its historic symbols, he urged protestors to peacefully evacuate the Kafar Darom synagogue and all other locations.

As he has done before, Sharon also reassured his freshly traumatized citizens that no further uprootings would take place under his watch. Instead, he vowed to concentrate on reinforcing the remaining 200-plus contested Jewish communities that dot the hills north and south of Jerusalem and in the Jordan Valley, home to nearly 250,000 people.