EIN HASHLOSHA, Israel — As the residents of Netzarim, the last Israeli settlement in Gaza to be evacuated, left the area Monday, the respective commanders of the Israeli military and police southern commands, Dan Harel, a general, and police chief Uri Barlev, met the press in what was tantamount to a victory ceremony.
They maintained a collected, professional demeanor, but definitely had a lot to celebrate: The first and most difficult phase of the disengagement plan was complete, two weeks ahead of schedule and with very few serious incidents. A well-earned feeling of achievement hung in the air.
This week, the evacuation of four settlements in the northern West Bank went just as well, despite predictions that Israeli forces would encounter higher levels of violence than they did in Gaza.
In the span of a week, it seemed the swift and efficient execution of the disengagement operation transformed soldiers and the policemen into national heroes. One commentator declared that the Israeli public had re-established trust with the organizations in charge of its security. This may be an overstatement — the Israeli army is a perennial leader in polls regarding the level of trust enjoyed by different Israeli public institutions — but it reflected the mood among the vast majority of Israelis.
The media was quick to reflect this mood. Yediot Aharonot even published a special supplement praising the troops’ poise, determination and the way they carried themselves in the face of constant badgering and cursing from the evacuees. Hour after hour, news broadcasts showed soldiers stoically facing settlers who used every insult possible: comparing the troops to Nazis, threatening them with godly vengeance or simply calling for them to disobey orders. Some soldiers wept openly, others said that the deluge of offensive words had scarred their souls. But almost all of them went on with their tasks. There were only two cases of disobedience, neither of them in the units that actually carried out the evacuation.
Ironically, the army and the police have long been powerful supporting forces of the settlers. The report issued by Talia Sasson, a former senior official in justice ministry, regarding the illegal outposts in the West Bank was clear about the Israeli army’s role in helping the settlers carry outactivities that were illegal, though supported by senior officials, with the blessing of Prime Minister Sharon himself. The report found that troops provided an armed escort to mobile homes, making their way to outposts the government never formally decided to establish; senior officers, aware of the settlers’ pull in the prime minister’s office, allowed representatives of the settlement movement to join planning discussions and let them influence operative decisions. This had gone on for decades: No wonder the settlers were dismayed when the same military force was directed against them with the August 15 launch of disengagement.
The pullout was indeed a vast logistical operation. Close to 20,000 soldiers and policemen participated in the evacuation, vastly outnumbering the settlers and their supporters, who had infiltrated Gaza in the weeks preceding the operation. The troops were well trained, patient and immovable. They also encountered much less opposition than expected: Except for a single case in the Gazan settlement of Kfar Darom, in which youth barricaded themselves on the roof of the local synagogue and showered the police with paint and caustic soda, there were almost no physical attacks by the evacuees. Whether this was because of the overwhelming force of the army and police or the lack of organization by the opposition is still not clear.
The police had even more reason for pride than the army did. The military’s popularity is a well-established fact of Israeli life, while the police are much less heralded. Only five years ago, during the October 2000 riots in which 13 Israeli Arabs were killed, the police force was exposed as an inefficient and under-equipped outfit that seemed incapable of handling mass demonstrations without using excessive force. The disengagement changed that perception, as the black-vested riot police became the force most in demand in making sure the evacuation went smoothly.
Police chief Moshe Karadi, who personally led his forces throughout the operation, told the Forward that this was a unique opportunity for his organization. “We are not the army,” Karadi said. “They are used to this kind of operation. For us, moving 10,000 police around and using them simultaneously is unprecedented. I hope this will be a step for us, a new platform we can use for the future.”
It is unclear, however, whether the political support that Karadi enjoyed during and prior to disengagement — a plan to sack 1,500 policemen was shelved because of the urgent needs of the withdrawal — still would be at his disposal once he and his officers resume their daily work of chasing “common” criminals, and, among other things, sticking their noses into the improper dealings of important people.
Meanwhile, many foot soldiers were basking in the new popularity of the armed forces and the police. Israeli military spokeswoman Miri Regev, who fought hard to keep the field of operations open to everyone, received high praise: The open-door policy, against the natural tendency of many in high command, showed the brave face of the troops to all of Israel and abroad. Some observers still wondered whether the army and the police would be as polite and patient come the day after disengagement. The sentiment was well expressed by a cartoon in Ha’aretz: It showed a citizen getting a speeding ticket from a policeman, and responding with: “Okay, but at least give me a hug.”