This day in 2005 saw the final withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip, bringing to an end 38 years of Israeli presence in the territory, which had been maintained since the end of the Six-Day War in June 1967.
The Gaza Strip is a 25-mile long, six-mile wide Palestinian enclave on the banks of the Mediterranean Sea, and is home to 1.5 million Palestinians. Until the 2005 withdrawal it was shared with over 7,000 Israeli citizens in 21 separate settlements, along with a sizeable encampment of Israeli military forces.
The “disengagement plan” was announced by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in spring 2004, with the stated intention of improving relations with the Palestinian Authorities, and ending an unsustainable and costly military presence. The Israeli legislature, the Knesset, endorsed the plan in October 2004, although there were many in Israel who opposed the action, considering it a grave security risk, and wanted to see reciprocal concessions from the Palestinians. Binyamin Netanyahu, former Prime Minister and fellow member of Sharon’s Likud Party, would become the most high profile Israeli politician to resign over the matter.
The withdrawal was enacted in stages, the civilians leaving with the assistance of the IDF, and the military personnel following soon after. While many of the settlers left willingly, there were significant numbers who refused to give up their homes without a fight. Many of these people were forcibly removed by Israeli soldiers, who often found themselves in the difficult position of using force against unarmed fellow citizens.
With all Jewish settlers removed, and their settlements destroyed by Israeli demolition teams, the last soldiers finally left the territory during the night of September 11th. Brigadier General Aviv Kochavi, the last soldier to leave the Gaza Strip, stated “The mission has been completed.”
The withdrawal was broadly welcomed by the Palestinians, but many still viewed the Israelis with suspicion, and questioned the true extent of the Israeli withdrawal. While Israel still controlled the Gaza Strip’s borders, coastline and airspace, they anticipated renewed Israeli interference in the territory in the future. But despite the scepticism in some quarters, as the last of the armoured vehicles rolled out of the Strip and the Israeli flag was lowered, the scene was one of jubilation in the tiny coastal enclave. Dancing and fireworks reflected the celebratory mood as the excited Gazans set about exploring and reclaiming the areas that had for so long been the preserve of their occupiers.
The withdrawal of the Israel Defense Forces from Gaza closed the door on a difficult era in Palestinian history, but was swiftly followed by another inauspicious period for the territory. It was hoped that the withdrawal would revitalise the Middle East Peace Process, but the years following the retreat have in fact witnessed a decrease in stability. As the politically opposed Hamas and Fatah movements struggle to assert control, violence in the territory has increased, and Israeli forces have regularly been compelled to respond to breaches of security emanating from extremist groups within the Gaza Strip.
Caption: Gates close on the eastern side of the Kissifim checkpoint after the last Israel troops left Gaza strip, setting a new border.