There is no place like home, and no one knows it better than the former Jewish settlers of the Gaza Strip. Evicted from their beachside villages on the shores of the lapping Mediterranean Sea, they are living this week out of hotel rooms, high school dormitories or in refugee-like tent camps.
Late last week, post-eviction, Ruth Etzion found herself wandering the streets of the Samaria settlement of Ofra, the home of her in-laws. Walking under tall pine trees in an almost trance-like state, Etzion, her husband Yaacov, and their three children reside in a two-room dormitory “suite” in the local religious girls school. It’s a step down from their two-story home on the sandy streets of the isolated Gush Katif settlement of Morag.
But Etzion was content in some ways. For her, moving into the girls’ school in August brought closure. Exactly four years ago that is where she and Yaacov got married.
“We are trying to recover from our expulsion,” Etzion said, as her blonde haired, blue-eyed toddler Shira wailed in the background. “What they did to us was horrible and brutal.”
By “brutal” she meant mostly the insult of the eviction itself, with its psychological and economic toll. She did not say that any soldiers or police physically or verbally abused family members.
For now Etzion is trying to regroup and keep her family united. The Ofra high school is the perfect place to do just that, with local residents arranging free Shabbat meals, afternoon children activities and a free babysitting service for the 20 displaced Morag families.
The scars of the evacuation are far from disappearing, she said. On Monday, Etzion told her 3-year-old son Yoav to finish eating dinner, because she needed to clear the table.
“Ima,” Yoav asked. “Are they now coming to evacuate the table?”
But stories like Etzion’s are already a blur of the recent past for most Israelis. The army completed the disengagement on Tuesday with the evacuation of two settlements in northern Samaria: Homesh and Sa-Nur.
Attention has now returned to the question of whether Sharon’s disengagement plan will, in the end, benefit the Jewish state.
On Tuesday, veteran settler leader Benny Katzover milled around the burning streets of Homesh watching the destruction of a dream. A pioneer in the Gush Emunim settlement movement, Katzover was one of the first to establish a modern Jewish outpost in Hebron. He later became head of the Samaria Regional Council, where he literally helped to build settlements with his bare hands.
A short, bearded religious man, Katzover sucked hard on a cigarette as he watched security forces break through a home surrounded by barbed wire. The soldiers were being pounded with eggs, paint and pickles by the entrenched anti-disengagement activists. Homesh looked like a war zone on Tuesday with close to 1,000 anti-disengagement activists barricading themselves inside abandoned settler homes to put up a last fight against their planned expulsion.
But although passions ran high, pickles can only make so much headway against military gear and professionally trained officers, especially ones who would, under other circumstances, rather be sharing the pickles with their adversaries over dinner — or using the paint to help spruce up settlers’ homes.
And, indeed, when settlers are lobbing pickles instead of grenades, it’s a sign that there are limits to this last stand against disengagement. That doesn’t make the settlers any less angry.
“Sharon has established an expulsion machine,” Katzover said under the scorching August sun. “By surrendering to the Palestinian terror he has placed the entire Jewish settlement enterprise in danger.”
Katzover’s views resonate with a vast majority of the Israeli rightwing, which openly worries that Disengagement 2006 is just around the corner. With defense officials predicting that Palestinians will renew terror attacks against Israel, Katzover and thousands of others are wondering what Israel really got out of disengagement.
“Every settlement that is not behind the West Bank security fence is in danger of destruction,” said Yossi Zilber, a settler from the tranquil community of Peduel, in Samaria. Pointing to the nearby Palestinian cities of Nablus and Jenin, Zilber shrugs his shoulders, wondering aloud what Sharon was thinking.
“Instead of protecting us, he is expelling us,” the 31-year-old father of four said. “After we leave northern Samaria it is only a matter of time before rockets begin falling in Kfar Saba. And then what will we do? Leave Tel Aviv?”
But the settlers also will be part of another looming challenge — reunifying the Israeli people. If disengagement did one thing, Etzion said, from her dormitory suite in Ofra, it alienated settlers and their supporters from many other Israelis.
Knesset Member Uri Ariel faced off last week with Maj. Gen. Yisrael Ziv, head of the military’s operations division, in one of the Gaza Strip settlements. It was a sign of the growing rift between the right-wing religious Zionist movement, the Israel Defense Forces and those who back each, inside and outside of government.
“How many Jews have you expelled today,” Ariel shouted at Ziv as security forces got to work pulling people out of houses. “You should be embarrassed.”
In a manner that seemed out of character for a senior military officers, Ziv yelled back: “On the contrary, it is you who should be embarrassed.”
Maj. Gen. Uri Bar-Lev, who was in charge of the evacuation, talked this week of curing the division in the nation.
“For now the rift is out there,” he said, as security forces wrapped up the peaceful evacuation of the Gaza settlement of Katif on Sunday. “But it is only temporary and we will reunite together again, like most things in life do, similar to the birth of a child after which everything eventually comes together.”