- The Washington Times - Friday, August 26, 2005

JERUSALEM. — It was, all agree, one of the most brilliant victories ever achieved by the Israeli army. Employing a tactic never before used in a major confrontation — tears of empathy — the army melted much of the resistance expected from Israeli settlers in Gaza and completed their evacuation in five days instead of the three weeks originally planned.

Despite an atmosphere charged with religious passions and personal outrage, the 8,000 residents of the Gaza settlements and some 5,000 supporters were removed with minimal physical force and with no serious injury on either side.

In the operation, the soldiers — and the police involved — displayed a maturity and self-control even Israeli evacuation opponents found remarkable. Senior officers had badges of rank torn off by furious settlers, some security force members were spat at, all were subjected to hours of taunts and curses. But there was no instance reported of any soldier or policeman reacting aggressively to these provocations.

Turning the other cheek is not an instinct normally encouraged in military training. But in this case, it was at the heart of the army’s strategy developed over the last year.

Deploying overwhelming force — some 50,000 soldiers and police — ensured the outcome before the confrontation began but it would not have forestalled acts of despair by people near hysteria. Settlers were to be evicted for reasons they could not understand and in defiance of the divine intervention their religious leaders said would prevent evacuation.

A large team of psychologists had a key role preparing the security forces. On their recommendation, senior commanders began meeting with settlers a half-year ago to explain what would happen and establish personnel rapport.

In the weeks before, the forces underwent drills that included playing the roles of settlers hurling abuse and resisting physically. The role-playing became so realistic commanders at one point halted it to permit everyone to cool off.

The training slogan was “sensitivity and determination,” with emphasis on the former. Officers leading teams that would inform the residents they had to leave got special training in body language, which included watching filmed Tel Aviv actors role-play. Psychologist Yael Ben-Horin said some scenes were designed to show if the officer’s posture were aggressive and signaled he came to remove the family from its home, or instead signaled empathy and willingness to listen.

On the eve of last week’s evacuation, Chief of Staff Gen. Dan Halutz sent the troops a clear message: “You are permitted to identify with their pain and shed a tear. Remember, you are not confronting the enemy, but our brothers.”

And tears they would shed — many. Not as a ploy but as a spontaneous reaction to scenes in which they took part. Beyond the politics, beyond the emotional blackmail some settlers blatantly used, beyond the shouts at them of “Nazis” and other epithets, the soldiers and police were deeply touched by the mass uprooting of families from their homes and the overnight destruction of vibrant communities.

Many young soldiers, male and female, were overcome with emotion and some had to be temporarily removed from the fray. Even tough, ranking police officers wept. Often they moved to embrace the distraught man upbraiding them.

The genuine identification of the soldiers and police with the pain of the settlers much softened settler resistance. In synagogues prior to the settlers’ departure, settlers and soldiers prayed and often embraced and wept together.

At a meeting between Gen. Halutz and officers who participated in the Gaza evacuations, a young lieutenant asked the chief of staff if some units could stay in contact with the evacuees and help them rehabilitate in new communities. “It will help us overcome our own trauma,” he said.

Abraham Rabinovich is a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, a U.S. Army veteran and former reporter for Newsday and the author of “The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter that Transformed the Middle East” (Schocken, 2004).

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