The Rules of Disengagement

At its heart, the Gaza withdrawal is all about law and order.

Answering to a higher authority?

A couple of weeks ago, I met a friend who had served in southern Lebanon under Gershon Hachohen, then a young officer. Twenty years have passed, and Hachohen has risen through the ranks and is now one of the generals responsible for the evacuation of the Gaza settlements. My friend was excited. “I have a great story for you,” he said. Apparently, he had run into Hachohen at a bar mitzvah party and heard him express some harsh criticism of the decision to evacuate. “The story of the disengagement will be Hachohen’s decision to disobey orders and quit the ranks of the military,” my friend predicted. “He will walk away. You just wait and see.”

Others have speculated about what Hachohen would do. The general comes from an Orthodox background and, according to many who claim to know him, he personally opposes disengagement—the process he is in charge of implementing. How can he reconcile his personal feelings and background with the orders he needs to fulfill? How can any right-wing, religious soldier take part in the implementation of disengagement?

Many in the Israeli army face the same dilemma. It is assumed that they are easy targets for those leaders who, in opposing disengagement, are now condoning disobedience. That’s why the demonstrators keep urging soldiers to disobey. Successfully, to some extent. Just over a month ago, nine soldiers refused to man a roadblock that was designed to stop right-wingers from entering the Gaza settlements. It turned out their rabbi had ordered them not to take part in “any activity” supporting disengagement, and they thought the rabbi’s orders had precedence over those of the military.

And that’s the real story of the next couple of disengagement days. The heated debate about the benefits and risks of the plan is no longer interesting. The opponents have made some good points, but their battle was argued and lost. The government approved Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan, and the Knesset approved it. Disengagement is legal, and there’s no way around it. So, opponents have now adopted a new strategy: They say legality is not everything. Morality is what really counts. Simply put, they answer to what they conceive of as a higher authority than that of the Israeli government and its army.

What extremists call morality, cynics (and some journalists) might call politics. The debate over civil disobedience and the right to disobey is as long as history itself, and each side is ready to manipulate the issue for its own benefit. But what Israel is facing now is a major crisis over the issue of law and order. At this point, no tolerance is possible, no hesitation can be justified.

Israel is paying the price for years of laxity. Of having let settlers decide for themselves what’s legal—or, in other areas, letting the crime rate rise or allowing tax evasion to become a habit. Some Israelis took advantage of the army and police concentrating their energies on preventing Palestinian terrorism. The illegal outposts in the occupied territories are a good example. For many years, it has been the habit of Israeli prime ministers to look the other way while they expanded. Some now say that they always opposed the settlements, but they did nothing. Others may have believed in the settlements. Either way, the outcome was destructive: Sharon promised President George W. Bush that he would dismantle these outposts, and then he couldn’t keep his word. The settlers returned every time they were evacuated, and the military—too busy to chase after them—gave up. The message to the settlers was very clear: If you don’t give up, the government will. And all the while, there was no penalty for such misbehavior.

But now the stakes are much higher, and failure means disaster. Two weeks ago, MK Uzi Landau—usually a solid, rational politician—compared the treatment right-wing demonstrators were receiving from police officers to the Tiananmen Square massacre. Landau didn’t voice any special reservations when it came to brutally crushing Arab demonstrations five years ago—13 were killed by police forces in the process of restoring order. But as one who opposes disengagement, he wants the state of Israel to capitulate on the Gaza issue.

(Manipulation is coming from both sides. MK Zehava Galon from the Leftist Meretz Party asked the attorney general to investigate those who preach disobedience from the right—although two years ago she was quite sympathetic to a group of air force pilots who refused orders to bomb Gaza.)

Regardless of political views, responsible people understand the danger of anarchy. Yesterday on a radio talk show, the southern commander, Dan Harel, warned the settlers that “those who sow the wind might reap the whirlwind.” These forceful words of the prophet Hoshea can be applied to Harel himself and to the Israeli establishment as a whole. On Tuesday night, when the Israeli army started to evacuate settlers forcefully, a line was drawn on the yellow sands of Gaza: Anarchy ends here. It can no longer be tolerated.

Brig. Gen. Gershon Hachohen, contrary to my friend’s prediction, was there to draw it.