The Illusion of Israeli-Palestinian Spatial Separation
By Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen
BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 890, July 11, 2018
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The situation in the Gaza Strip since the 2005
disengagement debunks three fundamental assumptions that have become
axiomatic in the Israeli security discourse: that total separation between
Israelis and Palestinians will inevitably enhance security and stability;
that the IDF will comfortably win any future confrontation in the evacuated
territories; and that Israeli military activity in the previously held
territories will enjoy massive international legitimacy and support.
Ever since Israel’s hasty withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, it has been
axiomatic among Israeli decision-makers that spatial separation between
Israelis and Palestinians is a vital Israeli interest, even if not
accompanied by a peace agreement. In line with this thinking, Israelis have
been repeatedly promised that the implementation of spatial separation,
including the removal of Jews from these territories and the construction of
a security fence, would reduce daily friction and create a safer and more
stable security situation.
Thirteen years after the unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip, there
is empirical evidence with which to identify the location where a more
workable security situation has developed. Is it in the territory where
complete separation has been effected, or in the West Bank, where Prime
Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s vision of partial separation prevails?
Since Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, the Israeli security forces have
been conducting regular counterterrorism activities throughout the West Bank
as a matter of course. Generally authorized by the Central Command and the
Shin Bet without the need for the approval of the political echelons, this
routine activity has given the security forces freedom of action and
operational flexibility, which, together with other factors, has ensured
relative calm and stability in the West Bank.
Imagine, for example, the launch of kite/balloon firebombs from Jerusalem’s
Tzur Baher suburb into the city’s Jewish neighborhoods. The IDF or the
Israel Police would send a couple of Jeeps to the neighborhood and
neutralize the incident. In stark contrast, the total spatial separation
between Gaza and Israel as of the summer 2005 disengagement has denied the
IDF freedom of action beyond the border fence. Not that the IDF’s overall
capabilities have been reduced, but by transforming the Strip into an
ineradicable terror entity that can exact a heavy price from invading
Israeli forces, Hamas has succeeded in placing a strategic “price tag” on a
wide range of activities short of overall confrontation.
For example, the effectiveness of Israel’s Iron Dome system notwithstanding,
Hamas’s rocket/missile arsenal constrains Israel’s daily operational routine
as IDF commanders must consider its possible employment in various
confrontational scenarios. It is no secret that the balance of costs, risks,
and opportunities that accompanies the decision to act in Gaza has become
infinitely more complex since the disengagement.
Nor should it be forgotten that a border fence can also benefit Hamas. The
fence does indeed help Israel in its effort to prevent hostile infiltration
of its territory; but it also enables Hamas to grow stronger and to organize
safely under its protective wing. Indeed, under the auspices of the spatial
separation, Hamas has managed to build a regular military force comprising
battalions and brigades, armed with a large below-ground rocket/missile
arsenal and supported by an effective command and control system. None of
this would be possible without the full realization of the Israeli leftwing
concept of “they are there and we are here.” This is the source of the
glaring difference between Hamas’s formidable military position in Gaza and
its difficulties in building its strength in the West Bank.
The situation that has developed in the Gaza Strip since the 2005
disengagement thus debunks three fundamental assumptions that have become
axiomatic in Israeli security discourse over the past two decades: that
total separation between Israelis and Palestinians will inevitably enhance
security and stability; that the IDF will comfortably win any future
confrontation in the evacuated territories; and that Israeli military
activity in the previously held territories will enjoy massive international
legitimacy and support.
These are but some of the major considerations that should be seriously
weighed by Israeli policymakers before they commit themselves to even more
disastrous “spatial separations” in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
A different version of this article was published in Israel Hayom on July 7.
Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen is a senior research fellow at the
Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He served in the IDF for forty-two
years. He commanded troops in battles with Egypt and Syria. He was formerly
a corps commander and commander of the IDF Military Colleges.
BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the
Greg Rosshandler Family