Polls: Gaza Disengagement and Policy Considerations

gaza-gush-katif

With most international attention of late in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the question of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, the topic of Gaza has fallen notably to the wayside. This is in part because little has changed there since Operation Cast Lead in December 2008. Abducted Israeli serviceman Gilad Shalit is still held prisoner somewhere in the Strip, Hamas is still the reigning power estranged from the Palestinian Authority, and the Israeli maritime blockade (although considerably loosened) is still in place.

Gaza has just today returned to the headlines because of two stories. In the first, the Israeli government-appointed Turkel Commission has completed its internal investigation into the Israeli raid on the activist flotilla which attempted to breach the naval blockade in May 2010. The raid reached its climax when Israeli commandos boarded the lead ship, the Mavi Marmara, were attacked by the passengers, and resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish nationals. The Israeli commission found that the raid was legal under international law and the Israeli soldiers acted in self-defense. It also ruled that the Israeli naval blockade has caused a “lack of nutritional stability” rather than starvation and is legal in accordance with international law. The Turkish government has also dismissed the report, claiming it has “no value or credibility.”

The second story which has put Gaza in the news today relates to the recent bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria on New Years Day which killed 23 people. Egypt’s Interior Ministry has claimed that the Army of Islam, a Gaza-based al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group, was responsible for the bombing. This is the same group which was behind the abduction of Gilad Shalit in 2006, although has since clashed with Hamas. They have denied any involvement however has said they “praise those who did it.” Whether true or not, this story underlies the danger that Egyptians, as well as Israelis, feel emanates from the troubled coastal territory.

For Israelis, it is taken as self-evident that an unstable, Hamas-ruled Gaza is bad for Israel. They are largely unwilling to tolerate a situation in which the southern communities will again be subject to the kind of constant rocket attacks which characterized the region in particular between 2006 and 2008. It was in no small part because of these attacks that Israel conducted Operation Cast Lead and today still maintains a military blockade of the coastal strip. Yet after completing the 2005 unilateral disengagement from Gaza, despite the subsequent political rise of Hamas and the markedly increased frequency of rocket attacks on Israeli soil, there has been almost no call among Israelis to reoccupy the strip.

Compare this to past Israeli responses to Palestinian violence. In the first Palestinian intifada, Israel responded with an “iron fist” policy of suppressing civil disturbance, although this approach was later substituted for diplomatic engagement with the PLO. After the second intifada broke out and Israel suffered wave after wave of suicide bombings, Israel massively expanded its military actions against Palestinian terrorist groups with Operation Defensive Shield. In this operation, Israel reoccupied every Palestinian population center from which they had withdrawn in the West Bank as part of the Oslo Accords. The latter operation in particular was very popular as was the decision to maintain a strong military presence in these areas once quiet had been achieved.

So what has made Gaza so different? A survey of longitudinal data collected by the Peace Index demonstrates that between 2002 and 2007, the idea of and later support for a unilateral disengagement from Gaza was reasonably and consistently strong by Israeli standards. Take these polls from 2002-2007. In the surveys from 2002 and 2003, participants were asked if they would support the unilateral evacuation of all settlements from the strip, while in 2004 and early 2005 they were asked if they supported Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan. In later 2005 and 2006 they were asked if the disengagement was in Israel’s national security interest. The data included from November 2006 and May 2007 asks if they would support the reoccupation of Gaza, with the scores reversed (i.e. strong support for reoccupation is scored here as a strong belief that the disengagement was not in the national interest). The data below is given for both the general and Jewish populations respectively.

support-for-disengagement-general

Support for Unilateral Disengagement from Gaza (General)

 

Definitely Yes

Yes

No

Definitely No

Don’t Know

2002 Nov 44.7 17.4 8 21.5 8.5
2003 Jun          
2003 Nov 46.7 17.2 8.8 22.2 5.1
2004 Jun 39.8 25.1 10.9 16 8.2
2004 Nov 31.2 29.4 13.1 20.3 6
2005 Jun 37.3 18.8 11.5 27.1 5.3
2005 Dec 37.9 21.2 11.8 22.7 6.4
2006 Jun 25.8 22.1 14.3 34.1 3.7
2006 Nov 46.1 14.8 15.2 17.1 4.3
2007 May 36.2 16.8 16.2 21.5 9.3

support-for-disengagement-jewish

Support for Unilateral Disengagement from Gaza (Jewish)

 

Definitely Yes

Yes

No

Definitely No

Don’t Know

2002 Nov 39 19.2 8.8 23.8 9
2003 Jun          
2003 Nov 41.1 19 9.9 24.1 5.9
2004 Jun 43.2 25 9.3 15.6 7
2004 Nov 31 28.8 12.4 21.6 6.3
2005 Jun 36 17.9 11.9 28.8 5.4
2005 Dec 33.2 22.3 12.5 25.7 6.3
2006 Jun 25.4 20.9 15 35.4 3.3
2006 Nov 42.2 14.8 17.6 18.8 4.3
2007 May 30.5 17.6 17.8 24.4 9.8

support-for-disengagement-comparison

Support versus Opposition to Gaza Disengagement

Support (g)

Opposition (g)

Support (j)

Opposition (j)

2002 Nov 62.1 29.5 58.2 32.6
2003 Nov 63.9 31 60.1 34
2004 Jun 64.9 26.9 68.2 24.9
2004 Nov 60.6 33.4 59.8 34
2005 Jun 56.1 38.6 53.9 40.7
2005 Dec 59.1 34.5 55.5 38.2
2006 Jun 47.9 48.4 46.3 50.4
2006 Nov 60.9 32.3 57 36.4
2007 May 53 37.7 48.1 42.2

Several trends are noticeable upon examination of the data. In terms of simple support and opposition to the disengagement, support outweighs opposition in every instance included here except for June 2006, which followed the January 2006 electoral victory of Hamas in Palestinian elections. It is in this month where the strongest “strong opposition” was expressed in the survey by both the Jewish and general populations. It also coincides with Operation Summer Rains, the first major Israeli ground offensive in Gaza after the disengagement. These numbers, however, are not conclusive as other polling agencies found majority opposition to the Disengagement, particularly just before and during its implementation.

Examining the more nuanced measures of support and opposition, one does find that the scores on the margins (strong support and strong opposition) are almost always larger than the scores in the median. This is unsurprising given the polarizing nature of both territorial withdrawal and settlement evacuation in Israeli public opinion. Opposition is always more strongly expressed among the Jewish population than among the population in general excepting June 2004 in this sample. The difference (some 2%) does not appear to be terribly significant.

The strongest “strong support” for withdrawal among the general population is expressed in November 2003, a month before Ariel Sharon announced his plan at the 4th Herzliya Conference. Clearly the idea of unilateral disengagement was already on the national agenda and the Prime Minister was proposing an approach which already had significant public support. The strongest “strong support” among the Jewish population is expressed in June 2004, following the June 6 government approval of an amended plan which concluded that the dismantling of each settlement would be subject to separate cabinet votes. The second strongest “strong support” for withdrawal in the Jewish and general populations is also expressed in this sample in November 2006. This month ended in a Hamas-Israel ceasefire and an Israeli withdrawal.

As such, it would be reasonable to conclude from the evidence here that Israeli support for and opposition to the disengagement plan was linked to security perceptions, with support generally dropping where violence was most evident and increasing where successes in the way of ceasefires were achieved. Yet in the face of violence, what were the policy choices that Israelis preferred? In May 2007, the Peace Index gauged Israeli support for three approaches to stop rocket attacks on Israel: reoccupation of the Strip, a limited ground operation, or direct negotiation with Hamas. These were the results:

gaza-policy-options-2007-g

May 2007: If you support or oppose the following measures to stop rocket attacks on Sderot and the surrounding area? (g)

 

Very Supportive

Supportive

Opposed

Very Opposed

Don’t Know

Reoccupy Gaza 21.5 16.2 16.8 36.2 9.3
Limited Ground Op 28.5 27.4 12.7 22.3 9
Hamas Negotiations 26.4 24.3 15.3 28.7 5.2

gaza-policy-options-2007-j

May 2007: If you support or oppose the following measures to stop rocket attacks on Sderot and the surrounding area? (j)

 

Very Supportive

Supportive

Opposed

Very Opposed

Don’t Know

Reoccupy Gaza 24.4 17.8 17.6 30.5 9.8
Limited Ground Op 32.8 29.9 11.9 16.2 9.2
Hamas Negotiations 21.3 25.4 16.6 31.6 5.1

The most strongly popular and popular-in-general approach among both the general and Jewish population is a limited ground operation. For the general population this is followed by Hamas negotiations as next strongly preferred while for the Jewish population reoccupation is next strongly preferred. However, the second generally preferred approach for both is negotiations with Hamas, even over a territorial reoccupation. The most strongly opposed approach among the general population is a reoccupation of the Strip while it is (barely) negotiations with Hamas for the Jewish population. However, the most generally opposed strategy for both is still the reoccupation of Gaza!

When a similar question was asked in February 2008, namely, “Which of the following seems most appropriate to you to prevent further rocket attacks against southern communities?” the options given were negotiations with Hamas, restraint, a limited ground operation, or a full reoccupation. The results are fairly consistent.

gaza-policy-options

February 2008: Which of the following seems most appropriate to you to prevent further rocket attacks against southern communities?

 

Don’t Know

Other

Full Reoccupation

Limited Ground Operation

Restraint

Negotiate with Hamas

General  9 9.5 21.9 28 6.6 25.1
Jewish 7.8 10.8 25.9 32.7 5.6 17.1

As before, the most strongly preferred option remains a limited ground operation. For the general population, this is followed by a preference for negotiations with Hamas while for the Jewish population it is a full reoccupation. This apparent shift in second-order preference toward reoccupation among the Jewish population is not really surprising given the high volume of rockets being fired at Israel at the time. Yet is it notable that a limited ground operation remains, by far, the strongest preference even in the face of these attacks. Unfortunately it is not clear what options are encompassed in the “other” category which make up some 10% of the responses in both the Jewish and general populations.

So what can account for this aversion to reoccupation in Gaza, especially when such aversions are not apparent in the West Bank? From a security standpoint, the military threat posed by Hamas is greater than that posed by the Palestinian Authority. Moreover, Israeli security officials often argue that it is only because of the strong Israeli military presence in the West Bank that the area does not become another Gaza!

From the perspective of population protection, it might be argued that following the expulsion of Israeli residents from the Strip, there was no longer a compelling reason to have soldiers there. Yet this has not been the approach in northern Samaria where Israel dismantled several small settlements at the same time as the Gaza Disengagement, as well as several since. Rather it maintains a military (and in some places creeping civilian) presence in many of these areas.

My work here in Israel thus far suggests that the difference cannot be accounted for by such means. Clearly there are compelling security arguments for Israel to maintain a military presence in Gaza yet, despite broad recognition of these arguments, reoccupation remains highly unpopular. This is so much so that even politicians on the nationalist far-right who have told me they believe Israel should reoccupy and resettle Gaza do not believe it to be realistic or even desirable at this time. What is going on here? A survey by the Peace Index in July 2005 may offer a part of the answer.

This poll asked for those who supported the Disengagement plan and those who opposed it, they asked why. For supporters, the strongest response among both the Jewish and general population was that the Israeli presence in Gaza was too costly in terms of soldiers’ lives and motivating Palestinians towards supporting terrorism (19.2 and 17.4% respectively). The second strongest response among both populations was the belief that Gaza is not part of the historical land of Israel and there is therefore no reason for Israelis to be there (12.3 and 12.7%). The third strongest response was the belief that a withdrawal would signal to the Palestinians Israel’s desire for peace (8.3 and 11.6%)

For opponents of the disengagement, the strongest reason among the Jewish and general populations was that the Palestinians would see the withdrawal as their victory (8.5 and 7.8% respectively). The second strongest response for both was that a withdrawal would lead to an increase in terrorist bases in Gaza (8.1 and 7.5%), while the third strongest response was that withdrawal would be a strategic threat to Israel (7.3 and 6.6%). The weakest response explaining opposition to withdrawal was that Gaza is part of the Promised Land of Israel (3.4 and 3%).

Although security arguments are the most important reasons given for both supporting and opposing withdrawal, I have above made clear that such security considerations have not dictated policy in the same direction when it comes to the West Bank. Indeed, the most consistent condition revealed in these sets of questions are that, strategic concerns aside, more Israelis believe that Gaza is irrelevant to their historical homeland than those who believe it is integral. If this is a critical factor for national polities in determining whether or not a territory is worth defending, it may help explain why such security arguments have significantly less traction in Gaza than they do in the West Bank.

4 Responses to Polls: Gaza Disengagement and Policy Considerations

  1. MikeN99 says:

    Interesting observation. I would guess that such polls would probably under represent the level motivation that comes from historical connections to the land. For example, a person may tell themselves that they have come to a position based on security concerns, but in reality they are motivated by the gut-level historical connection.

    • arielzellman says:

      This would definitely be my instinct, although I cannot prove one way or another from the data presented here. However, it is highly suggestive, given the low priority given to “land of Israel” concerns for those who opposed the disengagement and the relatively high priority given to claiming Gaza is not a part of the land for those who supported it. The security arguments, on the other hand, are pretty much a given.

  2. […] by the public that peace with Egypt was actually possible, opposition to withdrawal dropped off. With regard to the former, support for “disengagement” grew as demographic concerns rose in prominence and shrunk as […]

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