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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Disengagement from Gaza: Understanding the Ideological Background

Filed under: Israel, Settlements
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review
Volume 27, Numbers 1–2


While nearly half of the Israeli public opposed the idea of withdrawal from Gaza and parts of Northern Samaria, the implementation of the disengagement plan met with a minimum of resistance. The reasons for the above may be found by examining the ideological background of two schools of modern Zionist thought: the imperative of clinging to the land, that is, the Land of Israel, versus the acceptance of geographically unspecific territorialist ideas. Despite the fact that clinging to the Land of Israel has deep roots in the country’s national ethos, many Zionist thinkers espoused the principles of territorialism, which ultimately prevailed among the decision-makers who planned and carried out the disengagement.


The removal and destruction of Israeli communities from Gaza with relatively minimal public rejection and hardly any violence is a subject for examination and introspection. One of the reasons for the public’s response may be found within the historical/ideological context of the two major schools of Zionist thought: the traditional-historical and the territorialist positions. The former maintains that the Land of Israel is sacred and the settlers are at the center of the national myth, whereas the latter posits that that a Jewish state may be established anywhere in the world. This territorialist view gradually has taken over important parts of Israel’s political thinking. The four basic tenets of territorialism are: (1) denial of any specific land-linked ideology; (2) denial of any de facto success in the Land of Israel; (3) anticipation of a victory of an Arab majority; and (4) emphasis on moral issues. An analysis of the 2005 disengagement plan shows that it is those four principles that provided its logic and brought the inevitable conclusion of Israel’s decision makers, namely to abandon the area – the act that is referred to as disengagement.

In the course of several days, in mid-August 2005, more than 9,000 Israeli citizens were expelled from their homes. Twenty-two evacuated settlements were razed by demolition crews that destroyed 2,500 homes, hundreds of highly productive farms, dozens of religious institutions, daycare centers, and kindergartens; several elementary schools, high schools, a central community center, and a highly developed industrial center. The IDF also dismantled Gush Katif’s cemetery; all of the bodies were removed and reburied.1 It took but a few days to bring an end to the historical connection of the Jews with this territory.

During much of the Biblical, Second Temple and Roman/Talmudic periods, the Middle Ages and the era of modern Zionism, there had been a Jewish presence in the Gaza region.2 In fact, Gaza always appears on maps of the Land of Israel and was regarded as a potential location for Zionist settlements, like any other part of the Land of Israel, such as the coastline. There was a Jewish community in the town of Gaza until 1929, when its Arab residents took part in lethal attacks against the Jews, as they did elsewhere in Mandate Palestine. The Jews had to flee Gaza and abandon their homes.

Nonetheless, during the 1930s, individual Zionist Jews, and subsequently, the Jewish National Fund purchased more land along the Gaza Strip, some 250 dunams (about 60 acres), located on the site of an ancient Jewish settlement dating from Talmudic times. In 1946, a new Jewish community, Kfar Darom, was established. Kfar Darom was an integral part of the Eleven Point Plan that simultaneously established eleven settlements in the southern part of the country in order to assure a Jewish presence in the area prior to enactment of any partition plan by the UN. Despite the heroism of its defenders, the battle for Kfar Darom marks one of the setbacks of Israel’s War of Independence. After a three-month siege and the onslaught by the Egyptian army, the community was abandoned.

In 1970, Kfar Darom was reestablished as part of the Gush Katif plan that was developed in the context of Israel’s strategy to prevent Arab expansion in Gaza. Starting in the late 1960s and led by the Labor party’s Yigal Alon, settlements were erected in the middle of the Gaza Strip in order to form demographic Jewish blocs that would prevent the Palestinian population from spreading into Jewish territory, and to increase Israel’s control in the area.

In the course of nearly four decades, like most Zionist settlements, Gush Katif became a success story. With a continuous stream of settlers throughout the 1980s and 1990s, numbering some 8,000 at the beginning of the Twenty-First century, the area turned into a center of advanced technological agriculture. Most of the organic harvest in Israel was produced there due to the expertise in the cultivation of insect-free leafy vegetables that comply with strict health, aesthetic and religious requirements. The Katif dairy was the second largest in the country, and the Atzmona plant nursery was the biggest of its kind. The total value of exports from the greenhouses of Gush Katif reached 200 million US dollars per year and amounted to 15 percent of Israel’s total agricultural exports.

With the First Intifada in 1987, the residents of Gush Katif were the targets of Arab violence and were victims of rock-throwing and other types of terrorist attacks. The Second Intifada in 2000 turned Gush Katif into a target for many more Arab assaults. In addition to rock-throwing, over 6,000 mortar bombs and Qassam rockets were launched into the Jewish villages; there were attempts to infiltrate the villages by land and by sea, and Palestinian snipers shot women and children on their way home from work and school. On one occasion, a yellow school bus was bombed; the driver and one of the teachers were killed and some of the children lost limbs. It is noteworthy that despite the heavy casualties and personal cost, the residents of Gush Katif as a group, mainly from the Zionist national-religious sector, never doubted the importance of standing fast and maintaining their life where they had built their homes. They remained on the land and in their villages.

By mid-September 2005, after the full implementation of the disengagement plan, the whole of Gush Katif was transformed into rubble. Kfar Darom, the symbol of Zionist national revival, was demolished completely by the bulldozers, along with the rest of the Gush Katif communities. Thousands of Jews were expelled from the Gaza Strip. Their homes were demolished. All that had been built in Gush Katif was razed to the ground. The last IDF forces withdrew from Gaza for good. The Zionist aspirations of the settlers of Gush Katif were destroyed.

The idea to evacuate Gaza was not imposed upon Israel. On the contrary, the decision was initiated by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Whatever his motivation might have been,3 the surprising fact was its acceptance by most of the public. Although the fact that almost half of the population opposed the plan.4 While it was extremely controversial, there were few examples of disobedience. The largest demonstrations against it never exceeded a total of 150,000 participants – barely one quarter of one percent of the population.5 The question that haunts us, therefore, is why was this whole project implemented with so little resistance? What enabled this unprecedented massive destruction, the very antithesis of Zionism, to be completed with so much public consent?

The answers vary and originate from different disciplines.6 This study, however, focuses on one possible explanation and concentrates solely on the ideological dimension. The role of ideology in practical political initiatives is a subject of debate among scholars. According to materialistic theories, ideas are merely on the periphery in politics.7 Our approach, however, is constructivist, namely one that contends that norms, beliefs and collective identities prevail in shaping politics.8 Hence, this study seeks to explain the unbearable lightheadedness of the destruction of the Jewish communities in Gaza in 2005 within the context of modern Zionist thought from its outset.

The Traditional-Historical Zionist View of “Clinging to the Land” 

The opening words of Israel’s Declaration of Independence embody the major theme of the national ethos, taught and celebrated throughout the Israel’s educational system:

The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. […] After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom.9

Various historic landmarks represent this patriotic conviction that made territory almost sacred. Probably, the first is the Battle of Tel Hai. This was one of the decisive moments of contemporary history, where the legacy of clinging to the land at all costs and sacrificing one’s life for that cause emerged.

In 1919 the British considered abandoning their claims to the Upper Galilee and the area was about to be transferred to French jurisdiction. At the time, the area was mainly no-man’s land, with local Arab militias fighting against the French and robbing Jewish property. The major Jewish leaders believed that clinging to what they had was the only proper way to ensure possession of the land. The meager Jewish forces at the northern outpost of Tel Hai were ordered to continue fighting and to disregard any possible casualties.10 These were the circumstances under which leading Zionist Joseph Trumpeldor was called to action.11 For Trumpeldor, the decision to defend the northern outposts at all costs had been fundamentally rooted in his Zionist belief.12 He argued that “the Land of Israel is the place where we settle, work and cultivate and out of this – the plough sets the border.”13

On March 1, 1920 (11 Adar), a shooting battle broke out between hundreds of Shiites from the neighboring Lebanese village and several defenders of Tel Hai commanded by Joseph Trumpeldor. Seven of the Jewish defenders were killed and Trumpeldor himself was shot in the hand and then in the stomach when he tried to save one of the wounded Jewish warriors. A doctor arrived just before evening and Trumpeldor died while being evacuated. On his deathbed, Trumpeldor articulated his patriotic exclamation which he previously had written in letters to his comrades, “Never mind; it is good to die for our country.” Henceforth, his legacy has served as an inspiration for the spirit of Jewish settlement and defense. His final words became part of the Zionist heritage and symbolized the ultimate expression of patriotism and love of the land.14 The figure of Joseph Trumpeldor, the battle of Tel Hai and his famous last words were transformed into a national myth.15

Furthermore, the Zionist-Socialists that constituted the dominant group in the Yishuv (pre-state Jewish communities in the Land of Israel) believed that settlements would strengthen the Jewish presence in the country.16 “Clinging to the land” was an important principle that brought about the establishments of many communities. With the emergence of a British plan to undertake a partition of the country between Jews and Arabs, the Arabs called a general strike. Arab gangs conducted murderous attacks against Jewish communities all over Mandatory Palestine. In order to appease the Arabs, British authorities limited Jewish settlement activity and prohibited the establishment of new Jewish communities. This British policy led to the stockade-and-tower project of the late 1930s that eventually established fifty-seven new settlements and determined the borders of the future Jewish state.

Determined to bypass British settlement restrictions and resist Arab terror, a new type of frontier settlement was created. An Ottoman law that was still in effect stated that once the roof of a house was completed, that building became a legal construction. Thus, usually in the course of a single night, the Jews would assemble a watch tower with a barbed wire fence around it to make sure that the place was secure. Then they would put up prefabricated, wooden roofed constructions to ensure that they would not be dismantled. The goal of the entire stockade-and-tower campaign was to establish control over the country. The successful establishment of so many settlements proved to be a triumph of planning and organization. It created a national ethos based upon the bravery and initiative of the Jewish pioneers.17 The success shaped the future facts-on-the-ground policy according to which the Jews in Palestine would implement such fait accompli tactics in their efforts to control more territory.

Indeed, this was the spirit which David Ben-Gurion invoked during the War of Independence. In his address to the Mapai Congress on June 19, 1948, he referred to the heroic stand of the settlements during the fierce battles of the previous months:

Without the resistance of the settlements – it would be difficult to estimate how the fledgling State of Israel could have got on her feet. We would not have stood up to this campaign of unequals, of one against forty, if it had not been for our settlements […]. If it hadn’t been for the human character of our settlers, for the vision which revitalized them and shaped their life, all of which prompted both men and women, sons of pioneers and their children, to acts of defense, our armed forces might not have held in the Negev, in the Jordan Valley or in the Upper Galilee.18

Decades later, the myth of Trumpeldor , the stockade-and-tower ethos, and the bravery of pioneers still found its expression in schoolbooks and articles, games, youth-movement activities and anniversaries, even to the present day.19 However, in total contrast to the national ethos of heroic attachment to the Land of Israel and the world-view of Ben-Gurion, a close examination of Zionist thought reveals other attitudes and teachings, particularly territorialism.

Territorialism: An Integral Part of Zionism

In the history of the Zionist movement, territorialism is the call to establish an autonomous entity or state for the Jews in a land that is not the Land of Israel. The territorialists were perhaps the first to conclude that the conflict could be resolved only if the Jews settled elsewhere and gave up any of their aspirations for a state in Palestine.20 This idea emerged within Jewish society at different times – both before and after the establishment of the Zionist Congress. It even had a place within classic modern Zionism. Leon Pinsker, recognized as one of the forefathers of modern Zionism, was the first who give the territorial idea significance and depth. In his groundbreaking work, Auto-Emancipation, written in 1882, he argued that the spiritual content of the Jewish people was more important than territory. Therefore, a Jewish homeland could be established anywhere, not only in the Land of Israel. According to Pinsker, Jews would take their most sacred possession to the designated territory: the spiritual idea of a godly entity and the Bible. Pinsker expected the effort to acquire territory to be extremely complicated and thus regard it unnecessary to link the Jews to their historical location in the Middle East. Since the Land of Israel apparently was not obtainable, he was prepared to accept the possibility that other territories would give the Jews a safe haven that would be undisputed and provide sustenance. Leon Pinsker’s status as a Zionist pioneer and as founder and leader of the first modern Zionist group, the “Lovers of Zion” (Hovevei Zion), never has been questioned, despite the fact that he discouraged regarding Palestine as the future destined Jewish homeland. In fact, he bequeathed 98 percent of his large estate to Jewish charities that were not engaged in developing Jewish settlements in Palestine.

Leon Pinsker’s stipulation that the Land of Israel was not the only solution to the Jewish question paved the way for the development of a territorialist ideology. The territorialists regarded him as their founding father and frequently quoted from his works in arguments with Zionist opponents that favored the Land of Israel.

Fourteen years after the death of Pinsker, Theodor Herzl published The Jewish State, which soon became the Zionist manifesto. The Zionist movement hailed Herzl as a visionary prophet and its founding father. When the State of Israel was established, Herzl’s bones were disinterred and brought for burial atop the mountain in Jerusalem that bears his name. In retrospect, however, Herzl’s vision seems to have laid the foundation for territorialism and the idea that the Land of Israel was an option but not the only location for the fulfillment of Jewish national aspirations.

The importance of The Jewish State along with Herzl’s personal influence and charisma brought about a major argument among Zionists concerning the question of territory. Herzl raised the Jewish question and thus, created a revolution in the organization of the Zionist movement. However, at first, he vacillated between the Land of Israel and Argentina as a destination for the Jewish homeland. In 1902, he supported the El-Arish plan and in 1903, he strongly backed the controversial Uganda proposal that split the Zionists. Hence, territorialists, like other Zionists, considered Herzl as their spiritual ancestor and viewed themselves as continuing his legacy.

The idea of settling Jews outside the Land of Israel as a comprehensive solution to the Jewish problem was rooted in the political Zionist movement from the time of Leon Pinsker until the death of Theodor Herzl in 1904. Many Zionists did not see any contradiction between their membership in the Zionist movement and their aspiration to establish a state for the Jews outside the Land of Israel. Many were ready to give up a homeland in Palestine for a more immediate solution for the Jewish people. Herzl died at the height of this crisis, before the decision was made regarding the question of territory and the ultimate location of the Jewish state. His demise left not only a vacuum in the leadership of the Zionist movement but also an ideological schism that resulted in the establishment of the Jewish Territorial Organization, the ITO. At first, the ITO was an integral part of the Zionist Congress, but its members soon resigned in order to form their own organization under the leadership of Israel Zangwill. 

The territorialists explained that their resignation from the Zionist Organization was motivated not by opposition to Zionist ideals but by fear that the Zionist movement did not have enough time to establish a state for the Jews in the Land of Israel. The ITO began its activities during the violent pogroms in Russia, during which 3,000 Jews were killed and the number of Jewish emigrants increased exponentially. These events convinced the territorialists that it was necessary to move quickly. The aim of the ITO was to obtain territory on an autonomous basis for those Jews who could not or would not remain where Jew-hatred was rampant and/or violent. It is noteworthy that from the outset the term “autonomy” referred to an independent status for Jews in an obtainable territory where Jews would make up the majority of the population. In order to achieve these goals, the ITO aspired to unite all Jews who supported its goals to contact governments and institutions and eventually to establish financial organizations in order to fulfill these goals.

The position of the territorialists toward the Arab population was a major component of their ideology. According to Israel Zangwill, one of the main obstacles for the Zionist movement was the presence of a substantial Arab population in the Land of Israel that may be hostile and make it difficult for the Jews to become a majority in the land. He maintained that eventually the Jews either would have to drive the Arabs out of Palestine or somehow find a way to live alongside them. In addition, Zangwill argued that Arabs owned almost all of the land and the areas owned by the Ottoman Sultan, which could be purchased through negotiations, were largely undesirable desert land.

Zangwill refrained from recognizing Arab rights to settle the country. Despite the fact that he resigned from the Zionist organization, he regarded the Land of Israel as the historical homeland of the Jewish people. Nevertheless, the large number of Arabs in Palestine had to be taken into account. Although he considered population transfer as a logical solution, Zangwill thought that no one would adopt it. Since Jews and Arabs were fated to live side by side, he maintained that the relationship between the Arab majority and the Jewish minority would influence the character of Jewish society in the Land of Israel and would seriously change Zionism. Relationships that developed between Jewish employers and Arab employees probably would create unforeseen problems. Even after the Balfour Declaration (1917), Zangwill and his followers insisted that unless the Arabs were forced to leave the country − an unlikely possibility − there would be continuous tension and, as a result, the Zionist movement would lose its moral foundations. 

The ITO disbanded in 1925. Most of its members returned to the ranks of the Zionist movement. The outbreak of World War I, the Balfour Declaration, mass immigration to the Land of Israel during the 1920s and the strong ties between the Zionist movement and the British government, weakened the ITO and made it irrelevant. However, with the rise of Nazism during 1930s, there were increasing doubts as to ability of Palestine to absorb thousands of future immigrants. In addition, the deterioration of world order, the tensions between Jews and Arabs in Palestine and Britain’s retreat from the Balfour Declaration led to the revival of territorialist ideas. Hence, during the 1930s, a new territorialist movement emerged. It was called the Freeland League and its platform was based upon that of the ITO.

Its founder, Isaac Steinberg, a Jewish Communist, exiled to Germany because of his revolutionary activity, fled to London where he established the Freeland League. This organization attempted to advance Jewish autonomy by obtaining territory in sparsely populated areas in Australia, Ecuador or Surinam. Like their ideological forebears in the ITO, the activists of the Freeland League did not reject Zionism in principle but argued that Palestine could not absorb Jewish immigrants on a large scale. Economic opportunities were limited and there were 600,000 Arabs in Palestine. Like their predecessors, the new territorialists were pessimistic about the Arab-Jewish conflict because of the large Arab population. As late as October 1948, the Conference of the Freeland League passed a resolution that the State of Israel could not serve as the only solution for the Jewish people.

From a territorialist point of view, the State of Israel could not deal with the massive number of Jewish refugees. The members of the Freeland League claimed that the location of the new state, situated among Arab countries that barely tolerated the Jews and would object to the displacement of 750,000 Arabs from Palestine would make it untenable. Furthermore, as soon as the Middle East became militarized, Israel was bound to be the victim of concentrated attack and would not survive. During the 1950s, the Freeland League intensified its criticism of the State of Israel particularly because of its allegedly aggressive policies and border wars, especially in the wake of the Qibiya operation in 1953.21 From the territorialist point of view, Israel’s existence did not guarantee survival of the Jewish people in Israel and even endangered the Diaspora.

After the death of Isaac Steinberg in 1957, the Freeland League ceased to exist. However, the principles of territorialism that originally emerged from modern Zionism remained alive. An examination of territorialist ideology reveals four basic principles, as follows:

  1. Denial of a specific place-linked ideology: The essence of territorialism is that no particular territory has priority as the location of a Jewish homeland or destination for immigration. The following three positions derive from it.
  2. Denial of any de facto success in the Land of Israel: Any Zionist achievement on the ground, particularly in Palestine, is reversible and does not alter the first principle, namely rejecting the priority of a specific location. This is the reason why Herzl vacillated between Palestine and other options despite the fact that there were twenty new Jewish settlements in the Land of Israel and 15,000 Jews in Jaffa during the fifteen years between Leon Pinsker’s Auto-Emancipation and Herzl’s Jewish State. According to the territorialists, such progress could not transform the country into the sole destination for Jews. Instead, Herzl and many of his followers insisted that international diplomacy always must come before settlement of land. In this context, we may understand why territorialists never interpreted the political accomplishments represented by the Balfour Declaration in 1917 or the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 as proof of the failure of their ideas.
  3. The inevitable triumph of the Arab majority: There will always be an Arab majority in the Middle East and this Arab mass eventually will defeat a Jewish minority trying to cling helplessly to the land. The number of Arabs in Palestine has always been larger than the number of Jews and while the Jewish population may increase exponentially through immigration, the gap will remain. The option of driving the Arabs out of the country lacks political, moral and practical validity. Furthermore, even if issues of national identity miraculously would not lead to an Arab uprising, the socio-economic gaps between the populations would result in violent riots. 
  4. Issues of morality: There are severe moral drawbacks that would ensue from living among the Arabs. They would prevail in the course of time because it is not possible for a minority to overcome the majority of residents of a country and at the same time, retain the moral principles of Western culture.

The Disengagement in Terms of Territorialism

It is precisely the logic of these four territorialist principles that served as the ideological background of Israel’s unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005, as will be demonstrated below:

1. Denial of the importance of a specific territory. In one of his early statements on the disengagement plan in leading newspaper, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon expressed his attitude toward the link between the people, most of whom were farmers and the land that were cultivating:

[…] I have given an instruction to carry out the evacuation, pardon me – the relocation, of seventeen localities from the Gaza Strip to Israel […].

It appears that suddenly Gaza ceased to be an essential part of the country which it had been for decades to both Left and Right governments in Israel. More important, “evacuation” became “relocation.” Whereas the term “evacuation” implies the traumatic wresting of people from their beloved land, the alternative term “relocation” is more neutral. It describes what people do when they go abroad to study, find work or fulfill professional ambitions.

Long before Sharon’s presentation of the disengagement plan, however, large parts of Israeli society regarded the Gaza Strip as a burden. In terms of feasibility, Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip proved to be a costly enterprise. Maintaining the status quo presented serious diplomatic risks and the prospect of increasing international isolation. This concern was heightened by the success of the Palestinians in garnering international opposition to the separation barrier in the West Bank.. In October 2003, the UN General Assembly condemned the barrier and referred the issue of its route to the International Court of Justice which subsequently ruled that the barrier was illegal. Moreover, widespread international efforts to delegitimize Israel as a racist, apartheid state threatened to erode support for Israel even in the United States and among Diaspora Jewry. Therefore, the international political situation became an important factor in determining the timing of the disengagement initiative. Israel had to do something in order to maintain its good relations with the United States, stave off the specter of an internationally imposed peace agreement and avoid further international criticism.22

Furthermore, the prospective economic costs of fighting terrorism provided a major incentive for disengagement. In 2003, the defense establishment informed Sharon that the ongoing cost of the military occupation of Palestinian cities had become a drain on the budget and manpower of the IDF. The strain on these resources would increase because of the construction of the barrier in the West Bank. Although there was no prospect of a financial crisis in the short term – in fact, Israel’s economy was improving – the Prime Minister’s office was concerned about the long-term implications of these mounting costs. Thus, from this perspective, unilateral disengagement made sense. It would reduce these expenses. Gaza was the most obvious candidate for a withdrawal of Israeli troops and residents, since Israel was allocating a disproportionate amount of resources in order to defend the settlements there. For example, an infantry company, an armored platoon, and an engineering force were engaged in defending a settlement of 26 families in the Gaza Strip.23

As far back as September 1992 at a gathering at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin expressed this change of attitude of regarding territory as a liability and the land as a burden rather than an asset. He stated that he wished that Gaza would sink into the sea.24 

2. Denial of any de facto success in the Land of Israel: The implementation of the disengagement plan necessitated the evacuation of thousands of Israelis from their homes and the demolition of their houses; the destruction of agricultural and industrial enterprises, synagogues, schools and cemeteries. However, the amount of Jewish investments and achievements in the Gaza Strip made no difference to the advocates of disengagement. No previous Zionist success could change their minds or revoke the decision, as Prime Minister Sharon attested:25

We are dealing with the evacuation of thousands of people. It is not easy. We are talking of thousands of kilometers of greenhouses, factories, warehouses.

Furthermore, statements by individuals, such as Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who were involved in the disengagement initiative and its implementation, indicated that the plan was designed basically in order to undermine the longstanding, quasi-mystical belief common in both left and right wing circles and leaders that Jewish settlement in the territories was irreversible in a territorial and political sense. The disengagement plan also was destined also to prove that future Israeli governments, whether right or left wing, would be able to advance an Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement by withdrawing from territory. Hence, one of the important lessons of the disengagement plan was that if Israel’s leaders wished to evacuate settlers, it could do so. The idea that Israel’s control of territory was irreversible no longer was viable. The precedent of the disengagement and the massive evacuation of the residents of the settlements in the Gaza Strip created a cloud of uncertainty over Jewish settlements elsewhere in Israel. Settlements in the West Bank no longer had any guarantee against evacuation, no matter how successful and thriving they were.26

3. The inevitable triumph of Arab majority: Demography does not have clear policy implications. However, demographic trends in Israel are important because it seriously call into question its viability as a Jewish and democratic state. Advocates of disengagement were concerned about this. Their logic was that if Israel ruled over a majority of non-Jews, it could be neither Jewish nor democratic. By not withdrawing from densely populated Palestinian areas, Israel was in danger of eventually becoming a bi-national state where the Palestinian Arab majority would demand the right to vote. Such a demand would receive widespread support from the international community. Hence, the necessity of maintaining a large Jewish majority in order to safeguard Israel’s long-term future as a Jewish and democratic state led many influential Israeli politicians to support the disengagement plan. Even those who were skeptical that the Palestinians would actually outnumber the Jews expressed such opinions.27

4. Internal problems of morality: During the final months of 2003, members of elite army units questioned the conduct and aims of the IDF. Some even refused to serve in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Twenty-seven reserve and active duty pilots, led by Brigadier General Yiftah Spector, a hero of the 1981 Israeli air strike that destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, published a letter declaring their rejection of Israel’s policies in Gaza and the West Bank. The pilots who signed the letter were particularly concerned by the targeted killings in Gaza that caused many civilian casualties.28 Shortly afterward, another letter appeared. It was signed by reservists of Israel’s leading elite commando unit, Sayeret Matkal, and sent to Prime Minister Sharon. It reads as follows:29

[…] We shall no longer lend a hand in the occupation of the territories. We shall no longer take part in the deprivation of basic human rights from millions of Palestinians. We shall no longer serve as a shield in the crusade of the settlements. We shall no longer corrupt our moral character in missions of oppression. We shall no longer deny our responsibility as soldiers of the IDF. 

Prime Minister Sharon was extremely worried by these public letters because of their contempt for the morality of the IDF and the government that had previously found expression mainly among Leftist writers, artists and intellectuals and not among Israel’s elite military echelons.

In conclusion, the logic that led to the implementation of the disengagement plan was that of territorialism. In retrospect, rumors of the demise of territorialism seem to have been highly exaggerated.


This brief overview attempts to provide the ideological background of the reasons why it took only several days and minimal violent resistance to expel more than 9,000 Israelis from their homes and to destroy their communities. While reasons for what transpired may be found in several disciplines, our study focuses upon the ideological perspective.

The major component of Israel’s national ethos posits that the Land of Israel is the only territorial option for the Jewish people. Accordingly, Israel’s education system praises brave Zionists who, for generations, clung to the land and fought to ensure that every piece of land became Jewish property. Despite this principle, a historical review of other Zionist doctrines shows how territorialism came to dominate national political thought. The idea that a Jewish state could be established anywhere and that the connection with the Land of Israel was important, but not a necessary condition for a Jewish homeland, may be found in the writings of several prominent Zionist thinkers, including those who are unequivocally regarded as the movement’s forefathers, especially Leon Pinsker and Theodor Herzl.

As we have demonstrated, territorialism has four basic principles: (1) denial of any specific land-linked ideology; (2) denial of any de facto Jewish success in the Land of Israel; (3) anticipation of triumph by an Arab majority and (4) recognition of moral problems that in the long run make it impossible for Jews to remain a minority that rules over an Arab majority. An analysis of the 2005 disengagement plan shows that it is precisely those four principles that served as the underpinnings of its logic and dictated the inevitable conclusion by Israel’s decision makers, namely to abandon Jewish land that was acquired legally and on a moral basis. Despite the fact that the territorialist movement was dismantled officially in 1925 and for all practical purposes ended by the late 1950s, the ideological framework of territorialism refused to fade away.

From the perspective of a decade, the results of the disengagement seem to be more negative than positive. Immediately after Israel’s pullout, Hamas enlarged the area under its control. In June 2007, Hamas carried out a putsch in the Gaza Strip, neutralized the military and political power of the Palestinian Authority and set up a radical Muslim entity in the Gaza Strip, often referred to as Hamastan.30 It is strongly supported by Iran. Since 2005, Gaza terrorists have fired thousands of rockets into Israel, killed dozens of Israelis and injured hundreds. Moreover, Gaza terrorists have used tactics such as kidnapping, direct fire, improvised explosive device (IED) attacks, suicide attacks and digging tunnels for infiltration into Israeli territory. In order to protect Israel’s citizens from such assaults and to implement defensive measures, the IDF has taken offensive military actions in 2008, 2012 and 2014, during which many soldiers and thousands of Palestinians have been killed. One million people in southern Israel live under grave threat, often with violent disruptions to their lives. They suffer incalculable psychological trauma.31 Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who live in Gaza suffer economic hardship as a result of the security measures imposed by Israel and Egypt in order to defend themselves against Gaza terrorists. Many also suffer serious psychological trauma as a result of terrorist activity in their midst and from Israeli military actions undertaken against Gaza terrorism.32

In light of the consequences of the disengagement project, perhaps it is time for an ideological return to the patriotic version of Zionism and to the ideas of the leaders of Israel leaders who shaped the ethos of the state in its formative years. Their legacy called upon Israelis to know and love the land and to adhere to the approach of facts on the ground in order to preserve the ancestral Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel. 

* * *


1 Eliahu Mazza, Shimon Ravid, and Yedidia Stern, Report (Jerusalem: State Commission of Inquiry into the Handling of the Evacuees from Gush Katif and Northern Samaria by the Official Authorities, June 6, 2010).

2 The following historical facts have been taken from Hagai Huberman, Shorashim ba-Holot: Gush Katif Mi-Hakamato ve-ad Sofo (Roots in the Sand: Gush Katif from its Establishment to its End) (Bnei Netzarim, Israel: Midreshet Netzarim, 2005) (Hebrew); Zaki Shalom, “Medinat Yisrael ve-Retsuat ‘Azza: Bein Sipuach, Kibbush ve-Hitnatkut” (The State of Israel and the Gaza Strip: Between Annexation and Disengagement”), in: Haim Misgav and Udi Lebel, eds., Be-Tzel ha-Hitnatkut: Dialog Estrategi be-Mashber (In the Shadow of the Disengagement: Strategic Dialogue in Crisis) (Jerusalem: Israel: Carmel , 2008), 31-52 (Hebrew).

3 The disengagement plan was designed to improve Israel’s security. Its stated logic was that in the absence of political negotiations to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict only a unilateral initiative would change the rules of the game. However, there is reason to suspect that other incentives led Sharon. Reporters claimed that the whole plan was hatched to avoid Sharon’s indictment by State Prosecutor Edna Arbel in various scandals where he was involved. See: Raviv Drucker and Ofer Shelah, Boomerang: Kishalon ha-Manhigut be-Intifada ha-Shniya (Boomerang: The Failure of Leadership in the Second Intifada) (Jerusalem: Keter, 2008) (Hebrew). Other commentators refrain from accusing Sharon with criminal motivation, but refer to his possible domestic political intrigues as the incentive for the plan. See: Aluf Ben, “The Ambiguous Way Forward: The Puzzle of Sharon’s Intentions,” The National Interest, (2005), 144-148. Additional evidence for latent incentives for the plan can be found in an interview with Dov Weisglass, Prime Minister Sharon’s Chief of Staff, who claimed: “The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process. […] When you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Disengagement supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.” See: Ari Shavit, “The Big Freeze: Interview with Dov Weisglass,” Ha’aretz, October 18, 2004.

4 On the eve of its implementation, a majority of 38 percent of the Jewish population in Israel opposed the disengagement plan and six percent had no clear position on this issue. Toward summer 2005 there was a general trend of decline in public support. The data are solidly based on the following publications, though the interpretation that a 60 percent margin of support is a meager one is mine. See: Tamar Hermann and Ephraim Yaar-Yuchtman, “When Policy-Maker and the Public Meet: Sharon, Israeli-Jewish Public Opinion and the Unilateral Disengagement Plan,” Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics and Culture, vol. 11, 3-4 (2005), 93-99; Ephraim Yaar and Tamar Hermann, “Peace Index: April 2005: Support for Disengagement Declining Slightly,” Ha’aretz, May 18, 2005; Mina Zemach of the Dahaf Institute, in: “Roundtable Discussion: Trends in Israeli and Palestinian Public Opinion,” Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics and Culture, vol. 11, 3-4 (2005), 125-142.

5 Anat Roth, Sod ha-Koach: Moetzet Yesha ve-Maavakeha be-Gader ha-Hafrada u-be-Tokhnit haHitnatkut (The Secret of Its Strength: The Yesha Council and Its Campaign Against the Security Fence and the Disengagement Plan) (Jerusalem: The Israel Democracy Institute, 2005) (Hebrew); Elyashiv Reichner, Ketom ha-Maavak: Gush Katif ba-Ma’aracha (At the End of the Struggle: The Campaign for Gush Katif) (Tel Aviv: Yediot Ahronot, 2010) (Hebrew). 

6 For example, there are accounts that give answers from a sociological point of view. See, for instance, Yagil Levy, “The Embedded Military: Why did the IDF Perform Effectively in Executing the Disengagement Plan?” Security Studies, vol. 16, 3 (2007), 382-408). Other accounts give the smoothness with which the disengagement was executed psychological explanations based on the mental preparations that were organized and that took place in the IDF and security forces about eighteen months before the evacuation. See: Ruth Izikowitz, Tachlit Reuyah (A Justifiable End) (Tel Aviv: self-published, 2012) (Hebrew).

7 Ronald Jepperson, Alexander Wendt, and Peter Katzenstein, “Norms, Identity and Culture in National Security” in: Peter Katzenstein ed., The Culture of National Security (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 33-75.

8 Juliet Kaarbo, “Foreign Policy Analysis in the 21st Century: Back to Comparison, Forward to Identity and Ideas,” International Studies Review, vol. 5 (June 2003), 156-163; Emanuel Adler, “Seizing the Middle Ground: Constructivism in World Politics,” European Journal of International Relations, vol. 3 (June 1997), 441-473.

9 This is quoted from the official translation published by the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, viewed on 1 October 2015. See:

10 For this strategic debate within the Zionist movement, see an account that supports the Revisionist approach, in: Nakdimon Rogel, Tel Hai: Hazit beli‘Oref (Tel Hai: A Front without a Homefront) (Tel Aviv: Yariv-Hadar, 1979) (Hebrew). For an account that supports the strategic attitude of the Socialist Zionists, see: Anita Shapira, Berl: The Biography of a Socialist Zionist; Berl Katznelson, 1887-1944 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 70-116. 

11 Joseph Trumpeldor was the most decorated Jewish soldier in Russia and after losing his arm in battle, he also became the first Jew in the Russian army to become an officer. He eventually became a Zionist and immigrated to Palestine in order to work in the early Kibbutzim. At the beginning of World War I, he developed the idea of the Jewish Legion that would fight alongside the British. This regiment is regarded as the first all-Jewish military unit organized in almost two thousand years. It served as the ideological first step for the formation of the IDF. Leading the Jewish regiment, Trumpeldor was wounded in his shoulder. After the war, he organized groups of Jewish pioneers from Russia and led some of them to Jewish farming villages in Palestine. See: Tom Segev, One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2000).

12 Elhanan Oren, Hityashvut beshnot Maavak: Estrategia Yishuvit be-Terem Medinah, 1936-1947 (Settlement during the Struggle: Pre-State Settlement Strategy, 1936-1947) (Jerusalem: Yad Yizhak Ben Zvi, 1978) (Hebrew), quoted in: Aharon Kellerman, Society and Settlement: Jewish Land of Israel in the Twentieth Century (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1993), 213.

13 Joseph Trumpeldor expressed a common political belief espoused by Labor Zionist leaders long after his death that Jewish actions such as the Battle of Tel Hai and settling the land, determined the fact that the Galilee was included in territory under British control. Several historians doubt the validity of the Zionist thesis. See Gideon Biger, The Boundaries of Modern Palestine, 1840-1947 (New York: Routledge-Curzon, 2004), 125. For our purposes, It is not important if this Zionist belief was based upon reality or simply was a myth. In any case, there existed a decade-long Jewish policy of clinging to settlements as a means of ensuring future control over the land. See: Aharon Kellerman, “Settlement Myth and Settlement Activity: Interrelationships in the Zionist Land of Israel,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, vol. 21, 2 (1996), 363-378.

14 Tom Segev, One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2000).

15 Yael Zerubavel, Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995); Yael Zerubavel, “The Politics of Interpretation: Tel Hai in Israel’s Collective Memory,” AJS Review, vol. 16, 1-2 (1991), 133-160.

16 Aharon Kellerman, “Settlement Myth and Settlement Activity: Interrelationships in the Zionist Land of Israel,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, vol. 21, 2 (1996), 363-378.

17 Elhanan Oren, “Ha-Mitkafah ha-Bithonit-Hityashvutit be-Shanim 1936-39” (The Settlements in the Years 1936-1939), in: Mordechai Naor ed., Yemei Homah u-Migdal (The Stockade and Tower Days, 1936-1939) (Jerusalem: Yad Yizhak Ben Zvi , 1987), 13-34 (Hebrew).

18 David Ben-Gurion, “Spoken at the Tel Aviv Workers’ Council, June 19, 1948,” Fighting Israel (Tel Aviv: Mapai, 1950), 147 (Hebrew), quoted in: Ze’ev Drori, “Utopia in Uniform,” in: S. Ilan Troen and Noah Lucas, eds., Israel: The First Decade of Independence (New York: State University of New York Press, 1994), 600.

19 Aharon Kellerman, “Settlement Myth and Settlement Activity: Interrelationships n the Zionist Land of Israel,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, vol. 21, 2 (1996), 363-378.

20 The information about the territorialists in the Zionist movement comes from: David Vital, “Zangwill and Modern Jewish Nationalism,” Modern Judaism, vol. 4, 3 (1984), 243-253; Harry Schneiderman, “Israel Zangwill: A Biographical Sketch,” American Jewish Yearbook (1927-1928), 121-155; Gur Alroey, “‘Zionism without Zion’? Territorialist Ideology and the Zionist Movement, 1882-1956,” Jewish Social Studies: History, Culture, Society, vol. 18, 1 (2011), 1-32.

21 The 1953 Qibiya operation is an outstanding example of a moral failure. Numerous murderous cross-border raids by Palestinian infiltrators took place during the 1950s. Although some Arab infiltrators may have had economic reasons, such as harvesting crops on family owned land that had ended up in Israeli territory, most were violent and politically inspired incursions. With the growing frequency of such incidents and the increasing numbers of casualties, Israel’s leaders decided upon a policy of retaliation. The strategy was based on the idea of an “eye for an eye,” and its guiding principles were a mixture of punishment, revenge, and deterrence. In response to an attack on the Jewish town of Yehud, east of Tel Aviv, where a mother and her two children were savagely slaughtered, Israel’s political and military leaders decided to strike he Arab town of Qibiya. Major Ariel Sharon, who was in charge of a special commando squad, Operation Unit 101, was assigned to undertake this mission, with an additional paratroop battalion and a mortar unit under his command. The IDF high command’s instructions were to destroy and to kill as many people as possible in order to drive the Arab inhabitants of the village from their homes. On the night of October 14, 1953, the IDF raided Qibiya. Israeli units went from house to house, blowing up entrance doors, throwing grenades through the windows, and gunning down inhabitants who attempted to escape. About forty-five houses were demolished and over 60 Arabs, most of them women and children were killed. Israel’s forces suffered no casualties. The deadly Qibiya raid provoked an outcry not only in the Arab world but also in the West. Prime Minister Ben-Gurion lied to his cabinet ministers, telling them that he had no part in the decision-making process regarding the military operation, but he adamantly supported the policy of retaliation, announcing that it was the only strategy that could guarantee Jewish life in Israel. The widespread international public condemnation made Israel change its policy and since then, it prefers to attack military and police targets. The Qibiya raid had actually ended a four-year period of lethal IDF assaults almost exclusively directed against civilian populations. See: Neil Caplan, The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Contested Histories (West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2010); Benny Morris, Israel’s Border Wars, 1949-1956: Arab Infiltration, Israeli Retaliation, and the Countdown to the Suez War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); Benny Morris, “The Israeli Press and the Qibya Operation,” Journal of Palestine Studies, vol. 25, 4 (1993), 40-52.

22 Jonathan Rynhold and Dov Waxman, “Ideological Change and Israel’s Disengagement from Gaza,” Political Science Quarterly, vol. 123, 1 (2008), 11-38; Tamar Hermann and Ephraim Yaar-Yuchtman, “When the Policy-Maker and the Public Meet: Sharon, Israeli-Jewish Public Opinion and the Unilateral Disengagement Plan,” Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics and Culture, vol. 11, 3&4 (2004), 93-99.

23 Jonathan Rynhold and Dov Waxman, “Ideological Change and Israel’s Disengagement from Gaza,” Political Science Quarterly, vol. 123, 1 (2008), 11-38.

24 Mira Sucharov, The International Self: Psychoanalysis and the Search for Israeli-Palestinian Peace (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2005), 145.

25 [xxv] Yoel Marcus, “PM’s Pullout Plan: 20 Settlements To Go within a Year or Two,” Ha’aretz, February 3, 2004. 

26 Zaki Shalom, “The Disengagement Plan: Vision and Reality,” Strategic Assessment, vol. 13, 3 (2010), 85-100.

27 Jonathan Rynhold and Dov Waxman, “Ideological Change and Israel’s Disengagement from Gaza,” Political Science Quarterly, vol. 123, 1 (2008), 11-38.

28 “The Israeli Peace Movement Takes Flight,” The Nation, October 13, 2003.

29 Amos Harel and Mazal Mualem, “Criticism of Refusal Letter of 13 Matkal Warriors,” Ha’aretz, December 21, 2003.

30 Hamas’ Miltary Buildup in the Gaza Strip (Herzliya: Intelligence and Terrorism Information Cemter at the Israel Intelligence Heritage & Commemoration Center, 2007).

31 Richard Kemp, “Israel under Fire: The Continuing Threat of Iranian-Supported Terrorist Rocket Attacks from Gaza, the Failure of the International Community, and the Consequences of Continued Failure,” Friends of Israel Initiative, Paper 20 (April 30, 2014), 2-27; Ido Rosenzweig and Yuval Shany, “A Decade of Palestinian Terrorism: Report by the Israeli Security Agency,” Terrorism and Democracy, Issue 14 (2010).

32 As for the situation of Palestinians in Gaza, at a donor conference held in Stockholm in 2006, United Nations’ Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland warned that the Gaza Strip had become a ticking time bomb and that life in Gaza after the disengagement was miserable and dangerous, intolerable, appalling and tragic. For a review and further details about the suffering of the Palestinians as a result of the disengagement, see: Mohammed Samhouri, “Gaza Economic Predicament One Year After Disengagement: What Went Wrong?” Middle East Brief, vol. 12 (2006), 1-7.