Looking at the recent war in Gaza, one wonders whether disengagement was the right thing to do. The answer is, you can win every battle but lose the war.

The disengagement was tactically sensible. From 2001 to 2005, Hamas fired more than 5,000 rockets and shells at Gush Katif. The former residents who nostalgically extol their life in Gaza forget that 149 people were killed during those years and many more were maimed. Though police measures improved the situation, it’s hard to imagine why Hamas would shell Gush Katif less than Sderot: as the Kassam industry proliferated, the attacks should have taken off.

The disengagement also made sense politically. Sharon probably reasoned that Israeli withdrawal would both create some international goodwill toward Israeli peace efforts and establish a terrorist state in Gaza so that the world would not impose the same solution on the West Bank.

It’s questionable whether Hamas would have been elected if Israel had stayed in Gaza. The US would have pushed for democratic elections and Hamas’ victory, but IDF could have exiled the Hamas candidates.

After disengagement, IDF lost its freedom of operation in Gaza. The army still conducted a lot of secret forays into enemy territory, but the scope of operations fell far below that in the West Bank. Hamas bomb masters and rocket artisans worked in relative safety, and improved their work in terms of quantity and quality.

In terms of defense, Gush Katif was not tremendously different from Sderot: a half-mile-wide no-pass zone around the settlements would have eliminated hand grenade and other personal attacks; then, like Sderot, Gush Katif could only have been hit by Kassams.

The disengagement stemmed from the leftist delusion that all problems can be solved. But witness the century-long fighting in Chechnya or Ireland to realize that many real-life problems lack an immediate solution. Whether we disengaged or not, the rockets would have continued falling, we would have retaliated, and so on. In many countries, border areas remain unruly.

The disengagement was a consequence of warped priorities: of peace over Jews and Jewish ideals. It should have been preferable for an Israeli government to displace thousands of Arabs from the Gush Katif buffer zone than thousands of Jews from Gush Katif.

Theoretically, the Gush Katif withdrawal should have pacified the Arabs, as their demands were met. In reality, the two tendencies clashed: Arabs felt victorious but had no good reason to press on. For all its radical rhetoric, even Hamas accepted the reality of the Jewish state. But having been incited by Israel’s defeat in Gush Katif, Arabs were sensitive to any pretext for resuming the attacks. Thus, Israeli restrictions on border crossings quickly escalated into an all-out rocket war. Short of the restrictions, any other pretext would have done. In a familiar spiral of violence, small Palestinian groups fired on Israel for minor or imaginary offenses, Israel increases its offenses in response, larger Palestinian militias join the fray, a conflict breaks out, is mediated, and brought down to ceasefire. Soon, the cycle starts anew.

The disengagement produced the opposite results with Jews. It established a precedent of massive action by Israel against Jews. Sure, there was the Yamit eviction three decades before, but Jews had only lived there for a few years, rather than three generations. Gush Katif’s destruction also ran contrary to the Zionist spirit of settling the land, and the Zionist atheist premise that “whatever land we developed is ours.” Defeated in Gush Katif, Israelis tried to forget the debacle. While Palestinians jumped on every opportunity to attack Jews, Jews shrank from action even on clear and unacceptable provocations. Palestinians built on their success, Jews buried their shame.

The disengagement was not a disaster. Just as the biblical kingdom expanded and shrank on occasion, so the modern Israel, under a decent leader, would have retaken Gush Katif. But its destruction was a strategic error.

Gush Katif revisited