Israel Defense Forces putting up a flag

After many unsuccessful bids to find a partner for peace with the Palestinians, in August 2005 Israel completed its disengagement initiative. Israel handed over all of the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank to the Palestinians, making it the first country in modern history to give up land acquired in a defensive war.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's proposal for a full Israeli withdrawal was referred to as the "disengagement" initiative. The plan involved dismantling the homes and communities of about 9,000 Israelis who had lived in those areas for three decades. The areas that were evacuated included 17 settlements in southern Gaza, known as Gush Katif; four settlements in northern Gaza; and four settlements in the West Bank.

When Sharon introduced the plan, he said, "Like all Israeli citizens, I yearn for peace. I attach supreme importance to taking all steps which will enable progress toward resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians."

The disengagement

Prime Minister Sharon cited Israel's willingness to make painful sacrifices for peace, its security and its eminence within the international community as major factors that contributed to his decision to support what many believed was the most significant Israeli initiative for peace in the past two decades. Israeli support for withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank fluctuated, but the majority of Israelis supported the pullout.

Israel gained control of Gaza and parts of the West Bank and other land during a 1967 defensive war after the armies of Syria, Egypt, Jordan and other Arab countries amassed on Israel's borders. Their stated goal was to wipe out the Jewish state, which is roughly the size of New Jersey.

In the Gaza Strip alone, Israel dismantled 38 synagogues, closed 42 daycare centers and 46 kindergartens, elementary schools and high schools. The evacuation also meant the loss of 10,000 Israeli-created agriculture jobs, half of which were held by Palestinians.

The disengagement plan caused massive economic losses for Israel's agricultural sector. For example, 60 percent of Israel's cherry tomato exports had come from Israeli farmland and hothouses in those areas and 70 percent of Israel's organic produce was grown in Gaza. When Israelis left Gaza as part of the disengagement, they abandoned almost 1,000 acres of greenhouses.