Land versus State: Israel and its Army after the Disengagement

Land versus State: Israel and its Army after the Disengagement

Yoram Peri looks at the Israeli army and state after disengagement

In the summer of 2005 the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) carried out one of its largest military campaigns in many years. Fifty thousand soldiers were sent to confront an adversary numbering ten thousand. But unlike the past, the adversary was not an external enemy. It was a section of the Israeli population. Only once before had an Israeli government ordered soldiers to bring Israeli citizens to heel. That was in 1951, three years after the establishment of the state, when the IDF broke a seamen’s strike in the port of Haifa. The traumatic effect of this step on the young society was so profound that no subsequent government ventured to use the military in internal disputes among Jews. Never—until the summer of 2005.

There was one case in which a prime minister’s reluctance to use force damaged his government’s authority. This was in 1975, when religious-nationalist settlers from the Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) movement took over an old building in Sebastia, near Nablus, and established the first illegal settlement in the north of the West Bank. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin instructed his military chief of staff to evict the militants, but Lieutenant General Mordecai Gur objected. In fact, Gur wanted Israel to expand the Jewish presence in the territories conquered in 1967. However, he told the prime minister that an order to remove the settlers would result in a mass refusal by many troops to obey, and this would degenerate into violence. Rabin, a new and weak prime minister, did not insist. Years later, he admitted to me that this was one of the biggest mistakes of his first term as prime minister. It allowed the radical right to believe it was possible to force the hand of the government and to establish many more illegal settlements in the West Bank.

Ariel Sharon remembers this episode only too well. Nobody was more skillful than he in exploiting the weaknesses of left-center governments in order to promote more settlements in the occupied territories. But by 2005, Sharon, now prime minister, concluded that because Israel had been unable to stamp out the Second Intifada, it would be better to withdraw from the Gaza Strip even without a peace treaty. He also understood that a failure by the army to execute the government decision would subvert Israel’s ability to maintain a stable administration and might undermine the regime itself. Therefore, he ordered the IDF to evacuate the Gaza Strip at all costs, even if it meant using force against the settlers.

The expulsion was a trauma, not only for the evicted and for the evicting soldiers—who received very extensive training from military psychologists—but also for many other Israelis, particularly religious nationalists. IDF soldiers and officers were attacked physically and verbally by “orange people” (the color chosen as a symbol by opponents of disengagement). The verbal attacks were often more virulent and painful than physical blows. ...