Israeli Life: Longing for Gaza
The year since the disengagement has been chaotic for Israel. For the former settlers it has been a time of mourning and of trying to rebuild their lives.
When 48-year-old Orit Friedman, a graceful music therapist and mother of six, was interviewed several months before the Gaza evacuations in her large garden in Neve Dekalim, a prosperous settlement in Gush Katif, she pointed proudly to the fish pond her 18-year-old son had created.
Today, her Neve Dekalim home is rubble. She lives in a caravelle, a temporary metal-and-plasterboard dwelling, in Nitzan between Ashkelon and Ashdod. One of 450 in the area, her caravelle does not have a garden, though she admits it is well-designed, with a dinette, open kitchen, living room and four bedrooms.
“But the expulsion”—as Friedman describes the evacuation from Gaza—“was a catastrophe. We were torn from the home we lived in for 23 years,” she declares, tears welling up in her eyes. At the entrance to Nitzan, the largest of the temporary neighborhoods for the former settlers, residents have put up a sign that reads Neve Dekalim, a constant reminder of their former town.
It has been over a year since police and soldiers evacuated 8,000 Jews from Gaza and northern Samaria. After a few weeks of media focus, the world returned to its routine. The evacuees, however, still mourn their losses, and when Hamas made incursions into Israel from their old neighborhoods in June they felt a bitter sense of vindication. Despite the time that has passed, they are also still struggling with the psychological and practical consequences of the events of August 2005.
Responding to settler dissatisfaction and perceived government neglect at a special Knesset session in June, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reported on the state of the evacuees: About 80 percent have received full compensation for their homes. Of the approximately 1,700 families evacuated, about 1,240 are living in temporary communities, and an additional 50 still living in hotels will join them soon. About 1,300 families have signed up for permanent housing.
Yehoshua Zweig, from Ganei Tal, moved to a caravelle in Yad Binyamin, a small village between Ashdod and Beit Shemesh. He acknowledges that the government is offering $800 per 10 square feet as reparation for former residences, but a permanent home in Yad Binyamin costs $1,200 for the same space.
“The conflict with the government is that it is trying to use routine bureaucratic tools to solve issues of an extraordinary nature,” says Shimon D’han, a former contractor for electronic security and communications systems in Neve Dekalim. “It applies standardized procedures in deciding compensation for homes and businesses…when rehabilitation demands a different approach.”
D’han invested a lot of money into his former home. “I felt like a freier [sucker], a man who could do nothing to protect his home and family,” he says. “The government didn’t care about anything but kicking us out. They made no plans for our employment, housing, the children’s schooling. Most of the evacuees were taken to hotels. Some went to the houses that were ready in Nitzan and Yad Binyamin, but there were fewer than needed.”
Another difficulty was that the government offered compensation for rebuilding homes on a per family basis, while the evacuees wanted to rebuild as communities. “It soon became clear [the government] had to invest in infrastructure [even] for temporary housing,” says D’han. “No one wanted to move into the apartments the government offered. It would disperse the communities. So a rushed program to build temporary housing was initiated on the assumption that permanent communities could eventually develop.”
Chaim altman, spokesman for SELA (a Hebrew acronym for Helping Evacuees from Gaza), the government agency in charge of the evacuees, says the agency was aware of the desire to keep communities intact. “But we couldn’t develop infrastructure if we didn’t have an agreement as to where they wanted to live,” he explains. “They wouldn’t talk to us…. It was only in October and November 2005 that they began to discuss alternatives, and then within a couple of months caravelle areas were constructed. It is amazing that temporary housing went up in a few months in 20 different locations and infrastructure for permanent housing has begun.”
In general, those who had made plans before the evacuation—a small minority, about 350 families—and settlements that moved as a group had an easier time. The agricultural settlement of Ganei Tal, where Zweig lived, arranged to move as a group to Yad Binyamin. Consequently, they lived in a hotel for only about a month.
The settlers from Netzarim also sustained their sense of unity. “On the day of the expulsion,” says former resident Tzurit Zarchi, “we marched proudly out, carrying our Sefer Torah and the special menora from our synagogue through the streets of Jerusalem to the Kotel.” Most of Netzarim went to the Ariel Community College for two months and now live in Moshav Yevul in the Negev, while their new town is being built in the western Negev near the Egyptian border. Other communities have also moved together: Atzmona took over a deserted kibbutz in Shmarya, P’at Sadeh moved to Mafki’im before the disengagement and Katif relocated to Moshav Amatzia. Daniel Struhl, director of social welfare at SELA, notes that in all these situations, local leadership was crucial.
Housing aside, the other big practical dilemma is employment. According to the office of the prime minister, of 1,700 people seeking jobs, only about 600 have found work. Those who lost jobs were given six months unemployment insurance and adjustment benefits. About 700 are retraining, but many are now reaching into their savings.
Over half of the 400 farmers of Gush Katif have received full compensation or an advance for their businesses. However, some, such as geranium grower and exporter Yehoshua Zweig, feel they are still in limbo.
Zweig received an advance of about $65,000 to reestablish his nursery. “But it would take [$224,205],” he says. “I’m 60 years old, and I’m not sure I can rebuild everything from scratch. In the meantime…I’ve gone into a temporary partnership with someone who invests the money while I supply the know-how. I’m not earning that much, but hopefully, it will keep my options open.”
Struhl admits unemployment is a problem: “There are two groups that suffer. The farmers, who are in many cases too old to start again, and those who worked for the local authorities and cannot compete on the free market. There are, however…people in retraining courses, like those for Egged bus drivers and tour guides. Benefits are also being awarded to employers who hire Gush Katif evacuees.”
Those unable to find jobs are susceptible to emotional problems, explains Moshe Chamiel, who was director of Educational Psychology Services in Gush Katif and today oversees psychological services in evacuee kindergartens. And according to The Land of Israel Legal Forum, a nonprofit group working with the former settlers, 50 couples have sued for divorce.
Struhl acknowledges the process of disengagement and hotel living undermined family structure, but questions the divorce numbers. He knows of nine families in divorce proceedings. In one case, a family was moved from one location to another, but the wife decided that she could not stay in the new place and would divorce her husband rather than remain there. “At great expense, SELA organized a caravelle in the original place,” he says. “We did everything to keep the family together.”
Images of that fateful time—the tears, the passive resistance—still haunt the evacuees. While the country remembers the self-control of the soldiers and police, the evacuees direct their anger at them as unthinking government tools. “The soldiers…were like robots,” says Friedman, “highly trained, with sentences like ‘We understand your pain,’ but no understanding why they were causing it.”
While adults focus on finding work and shelter, teenagers and young adults are floundering. According to the forum’s July report to the Knesset, 30 percent of Gush Katif teens have either failed to integrate into new schools or failed their final exams. Alcohol and drug abuse have risen, too.
“We youth from Gush Katif just can’t pull ourselves together,” says 20-year-old Anat Yefet, who lived in Netzer Hazani and is making a film about her peers. Her family relocated to Ein Tzurim. “I’m in national service and I come to visit them, but there is no way I can see that as my home.
“We’ve been told that everything we believe in is worth nothing,” she continues. “At the moment, boys are putting off going into the Army. They feel they can’t wear the uniforms that threw them out of their homes.”
But Yefet still identifies with the state. “It’s the government that’s corrupt,” she says. “Each of us is seeking our own way to rehabilitation. Some became more religious; some married…. But most of us are [still] bruised emotionally.”
Fourteen-year-old Shlomit (who didn’t want her last name used) is disdainful of adults who did not fight for Gush Katif. “The expulsion did not have to take place,” she declares. “It is a mark of shame.” Friedman, however, reports that her son has entered the Army, but with a haredi unit that will hopefully not be involved in further evacuations.
Struhl believes the teenagers were harmed because neither their parents nor their rabbis could protect them. “We must…help rebuild their parents’ authority in their eyes,” he says.
“The process of evacuation and destroying the communities gave rise to an anger that any process of government assistance and treatment cannot totally erase,” admitted Olmert in his Knesset speech.
There is no doubt the evacuees feel the government failed them, but the ultimate cause for their mourning is that the majority of the country did not share their vision of Greater Israel. And the fighting with Hamas and Hezbollah has only strengthened their views. “They’re shelling Ashkelon from the place where my house once stood,” wrote a former member of the Dugit settlement on a blog. Indeed, military experts are questioning the wisdom of leaving without negotiated terms with the Palestinians.
Despite recent events, and pundits’ comments about the end of unilateral disengagement, Olmert still believes in the necessity of further withdrawals. In a July interview in The Jerusalem Post, Yonatan Bassi, who was head of SELA during the Gaza disengagement, had advice for the prime minister on how to deal with future evacuations: “Do it slowly, slowly.”