Israeli Soldier Oren Shares Gaza Story

Six months ago, Israeli Army officer Michael B. Oren was breaking into a Gaza synagogue with a sledgehammer. At Emerson Hall last night, Oren, who is also a historian and a visiting lecturer at Harvard this spring, recounted the traumatic experience of dismantling Jewish settlements during the Gaza disengagement.

The Gaza is a narrow strip on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea that—from 1967 until last August—was controlled by Israeli forces.

But last August, Israel withdrew its troops from the Gaza and removed approximately 8,000 Jewish settlers from the territory.

And last night, Oren transported a room of 60 Harvard students back to the thick of the Gaza conflict.

“It is Aug. 19, 2005, and 500 Israeli soldiers, all from elite units, are lined up in full battle formation on a road outside Netzer Hazani,” Oren said, referring to a small Jewish settlement that was situated in the northeast corner of Gaza.

“There is smoke in the air, it’s 110 degrees,” he said, beginning a dramatic description of an operation that resembled a battle scene of an Arab-Israeli war.

Except this time, it was Jew versus Jew.

Oren said of the settlers: “Their rabbis told then that God would send a miracle at the last minute. We walked into houses where people were eating lunch. They hadn’t packed a tea cup. We had to sit and talk with them for hours.”

At a second settlement, Bedolach, in the southeastern section of Gaza, Oren said that he and his fellow soldiers broke through synagogue walls, finding 100 men, women and children “on the floor, screaming in agony.”

According to Oren, he and his fellow soldiers were shell-shocked by the scene. “I saw soldiers go down as if they had been hit by bullets. There were settlers helping soldiers to their feet. Everyone was crying hysterically,” he said.

Oren explained that the Gaza disengagement was painful, but that—in his opinion—it allowed Israel to gain worldwide recognition as a country willing to compromise.

“Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza greatly increased Israel’s level of support internationally,” he said. “The support for Israel among Americans is now higher than ever before.”

“The Gaza disengagement, with all the trauma that it involved, will be the precedent for the future. This is an exquisitely painful process, but I think that a solid majority at least understood that this was unavoidable,” Oren said.

“The paradigm for Israel has been to capture a territory and then negotiate with an Arab country to recognize its existence,” he said.

But according to Oren, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has “changed the paradigm.”

“Yes, we are willing to negotiate with a Palestinian leadership if it wants a stable and permanent two state solution. If not, we will withdraw unilaterally,” Oren said.

Oren’s account of the Gaza disengagement prompted questions and criticisms from Arab students in the audience.

“I wish I could hear him say more about the Palestinian side,” said Divinity School student Hayfa M. Abdul Jaber, a Palestinian who was born and raised in Kuwait and who is now enrolled in one of Oren’s courses.

Huda Abuarquob, a resident of the West Bank city of Hebron and a master’s student at Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia, said she recognized that the disengagement was “heartbreaking” from Israelis’ perspective. But, she said, “it’s trauma from all sides.”

Meanwhile, Oren’s talk garnered rave reviews from members of Harvard Students for Israel (HSI), which sponsored the event.

HSI President Amy M. Zelcer ’07 said that Oren’s semester on campus is “a fantastic opportunity for HSI and for students in general”—especially considering what she says is Harvard’s lack of Middle East experts on its faculty.

Oren’s 2002 book, “Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East,” was a New York Times best-seller and won the Los Angeles Times Book Award for History.

—Staff writer Shifra B. Mincer can be reached at smincer@fas.harvard.edu.