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Former Israeli prime minister reflects on the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

What can Gaza's past tell us about its future?

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SHAPIRO: Nearly 20 years ago, after weeks of heavy fighting between Israelis and Palestinians, Israel officially began to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

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AVIV KOCHAVI: The mission is completed. An era has ended.

SHAPIRO: In 2005, Gaza divisional commander General Aviv Kochavi spoke at the border crossing between Israel and Gaza.

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KOCHAVI: From this moment on, the responsibility for all that takes place in Gaza Strip lays on the Palestinians.

SHAPIRO: At the time, Israel had occupied Gaza for 38 years - since the 1967 war. The move polarized Israelis. They watched soldiers forcibly evacuating some of the 8,000 settlers who lived in Gaza.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Shouting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Shouting in non-English language).

SHAPIRO: Palestinians hailed the withdrawal as a victory - a cause for celebration.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

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SHAPIRO: The withdrawal happened when Ariel Sharon was prime minister. One of the chief architects of that plan became the next prime minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert. When I spoke with Olmert earlier today, I asked him to reflect back on that time and explain why he viewed a controversial disengagement as the right course of action.

EHUD OLMERT: I thought then, and I still think, that we do the right thing. Israel didn't have to occupy Gaza. It didn't add anything to the security of the state of Israel. In fact, it forced us to keep 30,000 troops in order to protect about 8,000 that lived in the middle of Gaza. And in fact, in the five years prior to 2005, there were more rockets shooting against Israeli settlements within Gaza and more Israeli victims within Gaza than in the period between 2005, when we pulled out from Gaza, until the 7 of October this year.

SHAPIRO: And yet, it was such a controversial move that, at the time, Benjamin Netanyahu, who is now prime minister, resigned from his cabinet post to object to the decision. What do you say to those who claim that the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip led to Hamas' rise to power?

OLMERT: No. 1, Benjamin Netanyahu voted in favor of the withdrawal from Gaza in four different occasions in the cabinet and in the Knesset. Only a week before the actual implementation, he decided, because of political considerations, to pull out from the cabinet on the excuse that he is against what he has voted for. That's No. 1. No. 2, as I said already, in the 18 years that passed since the actual pullout from Gaza in 2005, we had less number of casualties and victims than we had in the five years before we pulled out from Gaza. So anyone that can say that the reason for the atrocities that were perpetrated against us in October is a result of the pullout from Gaza speaks nonsense. This is not true and is not reasonable and has nothing to do with the realities that we have gone through.

SHAPIRO: Just to take a step back - what do you think the most important lesson from the 2005 withdrawal is as we consider Gaza today?

OLMERT: That we should have arranged to have more security measures. We should have been much less arrogant about ourselves and about our neighbors. We thought that we can control everything - that we are smarter, that we are more sophisticated. We are the startup nation. We know everything that they don't know. And it turned out that they are smart enough and sophisticated enough and courageous enough and murderous enough to be able to do what they did and to surprise us and to catch us in a total, total unawareness which caused a terrible damage.

SHAPIRO: And so security is one question. Governance is another. What do you think the governance lesson is from Israel's 2005 withdrawal that applies today?

OLMERT: Look - the two periods from 2005 to 2009 - most of the time, I was prime minister. So what happened from 2009 until now is the total, total disregard to the option of political negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and the calculated decision to support the control of the Hamas in Gaza.

SHAPIRO: Today, Ehud Olmert says Israel should again pull out of Gaza once it has completed its military objective. He says another occupation is not an option, and the current military campaign should end once Hamas is eradicated. So I asked him, how close is Israel to achieving that military goal in Gaza?

OLMERT: It's too early to say. We need more time. Unfortunately, we need more time than perhaps President Biden and the Europeans may want to afford us.

SHAPIRO: But to the question of how far off that goal of eradicating Hamas is, you recently said that Hamas' command center is actually in the south of Gaza - not in Gaza City, where fighting has been concentrated. How do you know? And if so, what do you make of Israel telling Palestinians to go to the southern part of Gaza and then continuing to bombard that area?

OLMERT: We have, more or less, completed the first part in the north of Gaza, which is completely destroyed, and Hamas is not present there anymore. They are all - those who could escaped to the south part. Now we have to deal with the south part. It will take a few weeks. How long? I don't know. So...

SHAPIRO: I know you said Hamas must be eradicated.

OLMERT: Yes.

SHAPIRO: Is there any civilian cost that, in your opinion, is too high for that objective?

OLMERT: Any civilian cost is too high - any. One person who is not involved and has been affected is too high. And there are a lot more than one person. The question is, if we will not kill him, how many innocent people will be killed if he will stay alive - as opposed to how many noninvolved people will be killed while we are killing him? And sometimes you have to kill knowing that noninvolved people will be killed to save many more. But when there's...

SHAPIRO: And so you're confident that if the death toll is 12,000 people in Gaza, that's...

OLMERT: I - how can we know - how do we know that?

SHAPIRO: But if that is the number, then...

OLMERT: The Hamas...

SHAPIRO: ...That is still a lower number than would have been killed. I know we're speculating about counterfactuals, but...

OLMERT: You know, the Hamas is spreading numbers that are unchecked...

SHAPIRO: Well, I need to note...

OLMERT: ...So we don't know...

SHAPIRO: ...That the Palestinian health officials...

OLMERT: ...We don't...

SHAPIRO: ...That department is not run entirely by Hamas. The Palestinian Authority is involved.

OLMERT: The Palestinian Health Authority in Gaza is controlled by Hamas. It's as simple as that.

SHAPIRO: So you don't believe...

OLMERT: So I don't know.

SHAPIRO: ...That the death toll is as high as the health authority is reporting?

OLMERT: Maybe thousands of people were killed. I can tell you that I genuinely regret every single one of them. It is not our purpose. It is not our policy. It is not our goal. We don't want to kill any innocent civilians. But if we want to save the Middle East from a total disarray and possible comprehensive military confrontation, we have to eradicate Hamas. And we'll do it.

SHAPIRO: Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, thank you so much for talking with us.

OLMERT: Thank you very much.

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Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
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Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.