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The Soldier, the Settler, and the Journalist: Remembering Israel's Withdrawal From Gaza

On the tenth anniversary of Israel’s move to seal its border with Gaza and forcibly evacuate thousands of settlers, VICE News spoke with three Israelis who witnessed the historic moment firsthand.

by Harriet Salem
Aug 15 2015, 2:05pm

Imagen por Jim Hollander/EPA

Ten years ago, on August 15, 2005, Israel sealed its border with Gaza, marking the beginning of a painful "separation" process. Over the next eight days, the military evacuated thousands of Israeli settlers from the territory. Many refused to leave voluntarily and had to be carried out by soldiers. In some places, settlers holed up in basements and synagogues, erected barricades, and threatened to set themselves on fire. In total, 21 settlements in Gaza and four in the northern West Bank were cleared.

The withdrawal, led by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's center-right government, is widely seen as one of Israel's largest concessions in decades of conflict with the Palestinians. Yet a decade later, many also see the state's unilateral decision to withdraw without agreement from the settlers or the Palestinian Authority as ultimately being a poison pill for the peace process.

In January, just a few months after the withdrawal, Palestinian militant group Hamas won elections in Gaza, and within a year wrested control of the Strip from the more moderate Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Their victory triggered a deep political rift between the two territories, which has still not been resolved.

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Israeli soldiers watch the demolition of a former Jewish settler home in the Peat Sadeh settlement in Gush Katif in August 2005. (Photo by Jim Hollander/EPA)

That same month, Sharon, the evacuation's architect, slipped into a coma. His subsequent death has left the question of whether Israel would have withdrawn fully from the Palestinian territories a forever unanswered question.

Since then, Israel has fought three wars against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The most recent and bloody round of fighting last summer killed more than 2,100 Palestinians, 72 Israelis, and one Thai migrant worker near the southern border. Even during periods of supposed peace, hundreds of rockets have been launched from the Strip into Israel.

Ten years on, for many Israelis the Gaza withdrawal remains a powerful symbol of both the promise of peace, and the failure to achieve it. To mark the decade anniversary VICE News met with a soldier, a settler, and a journalist who were there when the evacuation took place.

The Soldier
In August 2005 Tom Kostika was a 19-year-old soldier. Overseeing the Gaza evacuation was her first assignment after completing her officer's course. Today, after six years in the army, she is retraining as a lawyer. For many years she didn't speak about her experience as a soldier during the Gaza withdrawal, but now she has decided to open up.

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Tom Kostika, a 19-year-old soldier in the Israel Defense Force, in Gush Katif during the Gaza withdrawal in 2005. 

VICE News: What is your most powerful memory from Gaza withdrawal?
Tom Kostika: The strongest memory I have of the evacuation is [of] the big synagogue. We were responsible for the evacuation of this place, Gush Katif. I met there a young girl. She asked me some very difficult questions.

For me it was a very involved, very difficult experience. She asked me where I lived. I come from a right-wing point of view. I was raised in Beit Aryeh settlement [in the West Bank]. This girl, maybe she was 14 or 15, asked me: 'So what will you do when they try and take you from your home?' That was a very difficult question for me to answer. I couldn't.

'An order is an order, even if it is really really difficult to follow.'

We [the soldiers and the settlers] talked together for hours, we cried together. An Israeli television crew filmed me crying, it was on the news. In the end we said 'Okay it's really time, we have to evacuate now, we have to take you out of here.' But they didn't want to do it of their own will so we had to pick them up and carry them, it took four soldiers for every person. There wasn't real violence where I was, it was so much harder that way.

A few months later the girl, the young girl, called me. I had given her my number. She said to me: 'I wanted to tell you, thank you for how you did it. In all the sadness it was so important to us that it happened like that.' That helped to hear that, to know we did it in the best possible way.

A handful of soldiers refused to participate in the Gaza withdrawal. Did you ever consider this an option?
I didn't think to refuse to do it, even though there's a lot of things about it that weren't just in my personal opinion. There's a wider picture. A left-wing soldier might refuse to carry out the government's orders because they don't agree with it. But that's no good for the country so I didn't want to do that. An order is an order, even if it is really really difficult to follow.

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Israeli soldiers carrying away a Jewish settler in the Muazzi Palestinian area of the southern Gaza Strip in August 2005. (Photo by Jim Hollander/EPA)

Soldiers who carried out withdrawal were given psychological support by the state. Did you experience any lasting affects?
At the time I thought I dealt with it, I guess. But my mother remembers when I came home I was crying and shaking. I served in the army for six years, in the Lebanon war, in the 2008 war in Gaza. I was a young girl, but I grew up quick. You have to in this country. I can't say, 10 years later, this didn't do anything to me. For a long time I didn't talk about this [the withdrawal], I didn't want to, but now I made a conscious decision to. I think it helps heal.

Ten years on, how do you think the withdrawal from Gaza has affected the peace process? Could a similar evacuation ever be carried out in the West Bank?
In the end, I think it shows now, that it doesn't matter where the border will be. We retreated from Gush Katif and last summer rockets fell on Tel Aviv. During the last war in Gaza [in 2014] I felt helpless. What else do they want from us? We retreated, we took people from their synagogues and homes. There's all this talk of compromise but it doesn't matter. People are always saying talk to the other side, but theres no one to talk to because there's not another side that wants to listen.

The Settler
Ronit Edri was a young mother when she moved to Gush Katif settlement in the Gaza Strip. She raised four children there with her husband before they were evacuated in August 2005. Now the family lives in a temporary four-room caravan in Nitzan Bet, a purpose-built community used to re-house many of the settlers evacuated from Gush Katif. A decade on, she has still not unpacked many of her belongings from her former home.

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Ronit Edri raised four children in Gush Katif before the evacuation. Here she shows family photos from what she remembers as a happier time. (Photo by Harriet Salem)

VICE News: What is your most powerful memory from Gaza withdrawal?
Ronit Edri: They [the soldiers] drew an 'X' on the door of each house that had been left, so they knew it was empty. Each time a family left, this mark would be placed on their door so they knew that no one was there when it came to be time to bulldoze. That will always be in my mind. For me it seemed like the Holocaust, like they were marking us.

I worked in a factory, it was a huge factory. It took months to clear all the machines and equipment. I remember, now we are speaking, that on the last day they flew the [Israeli] flag at half-mast. We all cried and cried together. It was so, so empty.

When I went back, two weeks after we left, I couldn't recognize anything. I went back to try and take some of the plants from the garden of our house. But I couldn't even find it. Everything had been bulldozed, swallowed up by the ground. I couldn't even recognize where in the street our house had stood. There was nothing left.

What was life in Gush Katif like?
Life in Gush Katif was perfect. We lived like a family, our kids played with the neighbors. We had a beautiful house and a beautiful garden. We grow mangos in the backyard, there were banana trees, olive orchards. We had a duck, two ducks. We grew used to the explosions, the attacks. There was no fear [living in Gush Katif] we felt strong together. As a community we were strong.

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Israeli soldiers putting evacuated Jewish settlers inside a bus at the Shirat Hayam beach area of the Gush Katif settlement in August 2005. (Photo by Jim Hollander/EPA)

How has the evacuation affected your life over the last decade?
Until now I still have everything packed up from there. The furniture, the photos… all the memories. None of that stuff would fit here.

I wasn't prepared when we left. How to find job, somewhere to live, it was a shock… I'm not young like I used to be. I don't have the self-confidence to think someone will want to employee me. I feel like I can't.

'Everything that we had was destroyed. It was like an earthquake happened.'

My family is much less close since we left. My children have psychological problems, trauma. We don't communicate as much as a family. Everything that we had was destroyed. It was like an earthquake happened and then everything around us was new and strange.

Everything here is temporary. Every year I say it's just for now, but it's been 10 years already.

Ten years on, how do you think the withdrawal from Gaza has affected the peace process? Could a similar evacuation ever be carried out in the West Bank?
This situation is definitely the fault, the mistake, of the Israeli government. We were there [in Gaza] as human shields. We had our finger on the pulse, if they were digging tunnels, planning [terror] attacks, then we would know. Now we're not there and civilians suffer because of that.

They said it was so expensive to keep us there. But how much have the last three wars [in Gaza] cost? Ten times that amount. Sure soldiers were killed [protecting the settlements] but more have been killed in the wars. We still don't have peace. So what then was the better option?

The Journalist
Yossi Mekelberg is an Israeli academic and an associate fellow at Chatham House, a policy think tank. In 2005, Mekelberg received accreditation to cover the withdrawal from Gaza as a journalist. He was born in Israel and has spent much of his life studying and reporting the Israel-Palestine conflict.

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Yossi Mekelberg is a professor of international relations. He has spent years studying and living the Israel-Palestine conflict. (Photo Courtesy of Webster University)

VICE News: What is your most powerful memory from Gaza withdrawal?
Yossi Mekelberg: There is one image that I still cannot shake from my mind 10 years later. Journalists were assigned to specific settlements, mine was Shirat Hayam, [meaning] Song of the Sea, and it was on the beach. It was sunset, on one side you could see the the sun sinking it the Mediterranean Sea. It was beautiful, tranquil, then you looked left and you could see soldiers carrying settlers. You need for every settler four soldiers, one for each arm and leg, and they are shouting and swearing to the rooftops.

I lost my calm only once during this. The soldiers were still on their watchtowers and the settler kids gathered around and taunted them, they called them Nazis. I am the son of a Holocaust survivor, a lot of my family did not survive. For me, that was too much. You call the soldiers who defend you Nazis? You have no shame.

So the beauty of this place and then the madness of this politics, that struck me more than anything else. These moments, they were completely surreal.

Recently you wrote that it was clear even at the time of the evacuation that the withdrawal from Gaza would end badly. What made you think this
I found at the time there were narratives that would not be reconciled. Because it [the withdrawal] was not negotiated, because it was not agreed, it did not create a mechanism of cooperation.

The Israeli narrative is we are the masters of the country, we do not need to negotiate, we do whatever we want and we expect the other side to fulfill what we expected — basically, making the Palestinians the subcontractors of our security. On the other side, the withdrawal played into the hands of Hamas. They say this is a repeat of 2000 in Lebanon. The Israelis can't handle it, they are afraid of us, running away. They are afraid of us. So they were able to sell this narrative: 'We are so strong, so powerful.' And then they won the 2006 election.

'You call the soldiers who defend you Nazis? You have no shame.'

These narratives were visible at the time, 10 years ago, and it was clear they didn't work together and could only produce more conflict.

Since Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, three wars have been fought against the Strip's rulers Hamas, the most recent last summer. Are these wars a direct consequence of the withdrawal?
I think it has great contribution. In 2005 we are already talking about 12 years of so-called peace process, including the second intifada. So already there is little trust. Arafat is already dead. Corruption in Fatah (the governing party in the Palestinian Authority and West Bank) is massive. Hamas gained because of this weakness of Fatah. Part of that was derived from the way Israel treats the Fatah. Part of it is from the way Fatah treat the Palestinians, instead of working for them making sure they have a nice back account to treat their family. Put all of this together you see why then the Hamas won the January 2006 elections… That was a victory for extremism almost straight after the withdrawal.

Ten years on how do you think the withdrawal from Gaza has affected the peace process? Could a similar evacuation ever be carried out in the West Bank?
This take us back to another story, I promise it's the last one. I was in Gaza during the withdrawal with a friend. We saw a young lady in tears outside her house. We asked her why are you sitting there on your own? She said that her family left already they didn't want to fight. She was nineteen.

We asked what are you going to do? She said: "I have not stayed to fight with the soldiers, but I want to hand them the key. And I want to tell them that when all you from Tel Aviv say 'go back' I say 'go back where?' I was born here I don't have another home." And she was right.

You see you now have now at least three generations of settlers, two generations that were born in the settlements, this is their whole life. They don't know anything else. So when they say you have removed me from my home, they are right in a way, a very distorted way. A situation has been created that is very difficult to remove. It's getting more and more difficult by the minute. With every one more [housing] unit, one extra settler it gets harder to go back.

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem

Top photo shows a Jewish settler and his child being carried off by Israeli soldiers and Border Police as they forcibly evacuate settlers from the Shirat Hayam beach area of the Gush Katif settlement block in the Gaza Strip in August 2005.