Sensitivity and Determination

Brigadier-General Gershon Hacohen. (Photo: Bethsabée Süssmann)
By Roland S. Süssmann
Question: by taking a leading role in the expulsion of the Jews of Gush Katif, did Israel’s army fail in its basic mission, the defense of the Jewish state? Unhesitatingly, the answer is NO! The IDF’s major task is to protect the country and its inhabitants, and that is precisely what the army continued to do while it carried out its accursed job of putting Jews out onto the street. We should not forget that Israel is surrounded by 300 million enemies and has a further 3 million enemies within the country. Throughout its action in Gush Katif the army remained alert, and if during those difficult days any Arabs had had the idea of launching an attack, the IDF’s response would have been immediate and extremely sharp.
In order to understand how the IDF carried out such a difficult mission that went against its very nature, we asked Brigadier-General GERSHON HACOHEN, who commanded the entire operation in a masterly manner, to explain to us how he had gone about it.

As a military expert and coming from a religious family, you probably underwent a severe dilemma. The first question is, how did you conceive your mission?

Basically, I reckon there was no difference between this operation and any other military operation. Every activity is unique in its own way and must be taken as a stand-alone strategic phenomenon. During the First and Second World Wars, many battles were lost because generals wanted to employ methods of fighting that had been used in other conflicts. There were no breakthroughs until those in command realized that they were facing entirely new situations that had to be assessed from new perspectives. That was one of the strong points of Allenby and of Lawrence of Arabia, who was under his command. This was also the case in breaking through the western front in the Second World War. From my point of view, it is essential to analyze and re-analyze the facts before us, and it is only by recognizing the specific nature of each operation that we can succeed. I acted that way in the case of Gush Katif, and right from the start I treated my mission as a military operation that was unique of its kind. We were four generals who did everything to prevent blood from flowing. There were no dead, no injured, or any hurt in accidents. Our objective was to use the maximum of restraint. It was mandatory to ensure that a violent conflict situation did not occur. At no time did we ever consider our adversaries as enemies. We never forgot that we were facing our brothers, and for many of us it really was brothers or other close relatives. So we did not employ any empty slogans. One of the major constraints in carrying out this mission was to avoid letting the fissure that was developing in Israeli society from getting any bigger. We had to be in a position to bridge this gap. This constraint was clearly stated in writing, in the orders issued by the General Staff. So we took all necessary steps to ensure the operation would be carried out in exemplary fashion, and the way we carried it out created surprise. We wanted our approach and modus operandi to be clearly understood and that we would not need to explain what we were doing. I would compare this to a statue set up in a town, such as Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais”, for example. If you have to explain the meaning or the idea, the artist has failed in his intention. We all in fact knew that the entire operation would so to speak take place on stage, with us as the actors, watched by 8,000 journalists from around the world. These had come to show the world how Jews treat their brothers during a sort of civil war. Without wishing to blow my own trumpet, I can say that we created a unique, historic situation. We were involved in a real confrontation and conflict that was extremely painful for all concerned. Despite everything, we succeeded, in part because we had clearly delineated boundaries within which to contain events, so that no blood would be shed. This was the spirit in which we worked, striking the balance between essentially Jewish behavior and the necessities of a military operation.

Talking of the Jewish approach, we heard that in your Order of the Day that you issued your men at the start of the operation, you opened with a quote from the prophet Jeremiah. Is that so?

Absolutely. It is in fact as difficult for the soldiers as for us to understand the distance between the prophet’s assurances and reality. I am thinking of the last sentences of the prophet Amos, who says, “And I will bring again the captivity of my people of Israel, and they shall build the waste cities, and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and drink the wine thereof; they shall also make gardens, and eat the fruit of them. And I will plant them upon their land, and they shall no more be pulled up out of their land which I have given them, saith the LORD thy G-d.” (Amos 9: 14-15). We were now going to carry out an operation diametrically opposed to this prophecy. That’s why I wanted all to understand, from the lowliest soldier to the Chief of the General Staff, that the destruction we were going to carry out was part of the redemption of the Jewish people and of Israel, and that we were acting in the hope of seeing the realization of one of the prophecies of Jeremiah. This is a sentence a few lines from the end of the Haftarah that we read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, which starts with the issue of destruction (which goes some way to showing that this concept is accepted in the Scriptures), where the prophet expresses himself like this, “This is what the LORD says: A voice is heard in Ramah mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted because her children are no more.” (Jeremiah 31:15). Then comes the promise of the second phrase of the verse I quoted at the beginning of my Order of the Day at the start of the evacuations, “Just as I worked against them to uproot, overturn, demolish, destroy and turn into ruins, so shall I work for them, to build and plant, says the Almighty”. (Jeremiah 31:28). You see, for us the operation to destroy the Jewish towns and villages was not Roman-style devastation or annihilation, but a stage in the process of reconstruction, in the Zionist meaning of the term. This was the spirit in which we worked.

Did this hope make the task easier for you?

In a sense, yes, even though it was by no means an easy mission. I always wanted this destruction to retain a Jewish character. At the risk of repeating myself, I must stress that the Israeli army carried out its task in this spirit, saying, “It’s true we are going to destroy, but this is a stage in the process of redemption of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel”.

Do you think it was right to involve the army in what was after all a massive police operation to carry out a law voted by the Israeli parliament?

I think that the modern forms of belligerence have rendered both frontiers and the distinctions there once were between police and military operations entirely unimportant, unconnected to contemporary reality. To illustrate my thesis, I will quote you an example that occurred in Israel. When the first Intifada broke out in 1987, left-wing political parties immediately claimed that it was a matter of crime and for the police to combat it. We very quickly realized that it was in fact a form of guerilla warfare, and that the army had to fight it, though not excluding the police. This separation of powers emanates from political science, in particular from Foucauld’s French School, but for my part there is no science, just a certain political ideology that is no longer valid today. Times change, the situation changes, and cooperation between the police and the army is becoming increasingly common. You have to understand how we felt when we were working. I felt like “a knight serving his kingdom”. As such, my task is to protect “the kingdom”, whatever the source of the threats, whether from within of from outside the country. A final comment on this point, I would say that today all the world’s major armies are seeking ways to get their different units and elements to cooperate between themselves. We easily managed to overcome the various obstacles and bring together within a single entity two large and totally different organizations. This worked very well at all command levels. We were all very much aware that we were sharing a large responsibility. We were actually taking part in a rare phenomenon.

Despite that, the Israeli army was not prepared, at least morally, to expel Jews from their homes. Do you think this operation will have marked the army, or that all things considered it was just a minor incident that will have caused just a few ripples?

The biggest surprise for the inhabitants of Judah, Samaria and Gaza was when they realized that they were not being confronted by a band of brutes, but by soldiers and policemen who were enforcing the law in a truly and deeply fraternal manner. They thought they would appear highly motivated, with a spiritual energy legitimized by their ideology and certain of their right to defend their homes in the Land of Israel. They expected to come face to face with soldiers driven by duty to obey the law, but shorn of any motivation and destitute of any spiritual energy. However, to their amazement, they found that both the police and the army were motivated by significant spiritual energy. These groups were facing each other, each motivated by authentically Jewish feelings. I think this realization by the Movement for the Settlement of Judah, Samaria and Gaza was the turning point in this entire confrontation. When it occurred, the first points of understanding had been established between the two sides. These two energies could not face off against each other, and the leaders of the Movement for the settlement of the territories understood that the police and soldiers were in fact involved in the same struggle as they were.

It must be acknowledged that this was not a usual attitude for the IDF. How did you manage to infuse this spirit in your troops?

This spirit always existed in the army, just it had to be brought out. I did not realize this when I was appointed to command the operation. I noted it when I met up with the commanders of the platoons, battalions and brigades. I then realized how they were approaching this operation. They considered it an exceptional mission for the future of the State of Israel. What’s more, they bore no animosity towards the inhabitants of the territories. This task was much more important for them than just enforcing a law passed by the Knesset. At that point the operation had to be given a Jewish slant, to develop a special sensitivity, and to provide specialized training. In this way we also set up special units to evacuate the synagogues, others for taking people out of their homes while the father was praying and the mother was nursing the little children etc. During training we recreated these types of situation, which we rehearsed just like a play. Half the soldiers and policemen played the families, and the others the evacuation forces. They prepared so well that when they arrived they did not find any situation strange. This national psychodrama provided our forces with an in-depth understanding of the situation, which helped the final execution.

What did you feel when you found out that you had been appointed to command this operation?

It was not really me personally that was chosen, but my division. I had no choice but to get to work, because no other unit in the IDF apart from mine was in a position to do it. It would have been given the job with or without me in command. I started studying the situation, which was no small undertaking. Even though I come from a religious family, I am no longer so observant. So I had to update myself on a number of matters that were happening within religious society in Israel: in what state of mind it was, the different streams that existed, various customs etc. I consulted rabbis who were prepared to help me and to listen to me.

Do you think that after disengagement that the Israeli army is the same as before these events took place?

Absolutely not, and in a way it has even improved. You see, there’s a difference between a warrior and a soldier. A warrior can carry out a military mission that he is given, whether defense or attack. A soldier is above all someone who is loyal to his king or his prime minister. He accepts a mission that runs counter to his own ideals and interests. We succeeded in creating a situation where each soldier was able to control the tensions within him, where his own convictions came up against the need to carry out the mission he had been given in a faithful, loyal manner. What happened was that the army was transformed from a group of warriors into an army of soldiers, in the spirit I have just described.

Nowadays there are many army officers, some of them very senior, who come from national-religious circles, which in fact made up the majority of Gush Katif’s inhabitants. This society was traumatized. Do you believe the next generation will join the army with the same enthusiasm as those religious officers currently in the ranks?

I think so. To illustrate my thesis, I’ll quote a letter I received from one of my officers during the evacuation of the teenagers from the Neveh Dekalim synagogue. He is a religious major in the Golani Brigade, who lives in a settlement in Samaria. This is what he wrote me. “I want you to know that I see in your conduct an example that I and dozens of officers have decided to follow”. You must understand that this type of people has a real love affair with the army. So they underwent a terrific crisis, they were faced with a terrible dilemma. But case by case they had to learn to live with this harmonic dissonance, just like we find in certain harmonies by Bach, which in no way detracts from the beauty of the whole.

Some rabbis told soldiers to refuse to carry out orders. Overall, this movement was not followed. But are there within the army today voices calling for the exclusion of religious soldiers?

I hope that the army will manage to deal with all these tensions and that it will find the way for no one to be excluded. It is true that a trend to demand the exclusion of religious soldiers could emerge. However, as a commander, including of the Golani Brigade, I can state that the men under my orders who are religious have found a balance so that they can continue their life in the army without second thoughts or a bad taste in the mouth. For the time being, the idea of excluding religious soldiers is very marginal.

At the strategic level do you believe the unilateral withdrawal from Gush Katif was a wise move?

If someone wants to assess this operation from a strategic point of view by trying to forecast the number of terrorist attacks that will take place after the withdrawal, he will be showing that he has only a very narrow outlook on military issues in our region. These are not measured by statistics of terror acts; rather you must have an overall vision of the realities on the ground. I think that our security and our ability to maintain it depend upon the degree of our national unity. This is much more important than maintaining control of this or that hill or strategic points that may have some justification at the level of military topography. For my part, I was never involved in questions about the whys and wherefores of the evacuation, and even less on the consequences it might or might not have on the present conflict.
I was selected to carry out the operation to evacuate the inhabitants of Gaza, and my task was to execute it properly. From the start I knew that my job was to find out how to carry out this operation. It’s a bit like someone going to the theater to see a Greek tragedy. In advance everyone knows the end, and the only question is to find out how it will be acted. The fact that notwithstanding this terrible task, the IDF managed to maintain its internal strength lets me think that we will also be able to transform this experience into a new source of energy that will make us even stronger.

During your military career, did you ever imagine one day having to carry out such a mission?

No, but in every army unforeseen things happen. For example, for years the US Army trained to fight the USSR in Europe, and in 1991 it found itself in the sands of the Iraqi desert. Soldiers who had been prepared to fight a defensive war against Warsaw Pact forces were suddenly involved in an offensive war in Iraq.

We hear a lot that at the end of the day the Gush Katif inhabitants were docile and cooperative, but that if the government had to decide on unilateral withdrawal from parts of Judea and Samaria, opposition would be ferocious and even bloody. What do you think?

It cannot be ruled out that an Israeli government might take that sort of decision. As I’ve already said, there is no “ready-made mould” for a military operation. If the commanders of a possible, future evacuation in those areas just copy what we have done, they will fail.

Finally, what impact do you think this entire period that Israel has gone through will have on Israeli society?

There is a lot of talk of fissures and I cannot say there are none. I, however, have a more positive approach that I draw from my observations on the ground. I believe that followers of secular and religious Zionism have come a bit closer together. I’ll give you an example of what I saw during the demonstrations at Kfar Maimon. While a lot of religious people were demonstrating inside the village, young police cadets and soldiers on the other side of the wire were the sons or cousins of the demonstrators. My brother was inside, his son outside. I then understood that on the one hand the Zionist movement had risen to the challenge, but also that the religious Zionist leaders had decided to play both sides of the game, in order to maintain the fragile bridges that we had created between both parts of society: on the one side people opposed to a government decision and on the other their children, guardians of loyalty to national sovereignty. I think that therein lies the start of a movement that with time could lead to a change in the situation.
In conclusion I would say that the fact the evacuation went well and above all without the shedding of blood, which would have been a national catastrophe, was quite simply a miracle.