Gush Katif: Rebuilding and healing 10 years later

A drive through the Israeli city of Nitzan tells the story of the slow, painful rehabilitation of the communities of Gush Katif, the former settlement bloc known as the “harvest belt” of Gaza before Israel’s withdrawal 10 years ago. Located between Ashdod and Ashkelon, about 45 miles north of Gaza City, Nitzan has been the main absorption site of the evacuees torn from their homes in the summer of 2005 as part of the “disengagement” from Gaza, which the evacuees continue to refer to as the “expulsion.”

Today, the temporary housing site to which they were moved looks like a slum. Makeshift synagogues are only now closing, and the remaining dank shops clearly rely on the community for charitable business. Weeds grow on the plots of “caravillas,” the government euphemism for the pre-fab housing structures that have been relocated elsewhere as residents moved out. Human-size sewer pipes decorated with graffiti — the makeshift community bomb shelters — adorn the parking courtyards of the worn-out structures.

About a half-mile away, a garden-lined road has turned around the unseemly vision of the weeds and scrap metal. An impressive school building — a new girls school — recalls the well-kept, pretty community buildings that were once in Gush Katif, and it leads the way to the new site of Neve Dekalim, the most urban of the 21 settlements of Gush Katif that were destroyed. The residents have expanded the already existing community of Nitzan, and the desert homes say: “We’ve finally rebuilt … sort of.”

This picturesque image should not negate the suffering and neglect experienced by the evacuees, said Hagit Yaron, a member of the Gush Katif Committee, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of the communities with government agencies.

“The government of Israel knew how to expel Jews in one summer; over 10 years, it didn’t know how to reinstate their communities,” Yaron said, sitting under the canopy at the entrance to the temporary site of the Gush Katif and Northern Samaria Commemoration Center in Nitzan, a state-sponsored exhibition center memorializing the legacy of modern Jewish settlement in Gaza. The government assumed evacuees would take their compensation money and buy or rent in whatever town or city suited their fancy, but they insisted on sticking together as communities.

“It didn’t understand we speak the language of community, which is a different language,” Yaron said. 

Yaron is originally from Neve Dekalim. Her husband, a mechanic, managed to find new partners to rebuild his business, but, she said, not everyone has been so fortunate. 

“People who didn’t fight for their homes, who didn’t resist, it’s very hard for them. They have a tortured conscience. They wonder, ‘How did we let this happen?’ I know I’m at peace with myself. I did what I could.” — Einat Bloch Yefet

“There are families whose money ran out. They haven’t worked for 10 years, and they spent all their compensation money; there are those who were cheated by investors.”

Among the hardest hit are those men and women who were older than 50 at the time of the evacuation who ran established businesses in Gush Katif, usually in agriculture, or who had jobs in Gush Katif but who now find themselves feeling too old to start over or to be hired.

Until today, all but three of the Gush Katif settlement communities have been rebuilt throughout Israel; some have created new towns named after their former ones, while others have joined existing towns. Of the approximately 1,300 families that have chosen to stick with their communities, 900 have settled into permanent homes; 170 are in the process of building them; and 200 families have still not found solutions. It took about four years for the first families to move into their permanent homes, usually with compensation money the were given according to the appraised value of their home in Gush Katif, which, by the time they were ready to build, had depreciated considerably. Some evacuees with lesser means opted to have their caravillas transferred to a new site and reoutfitted for permanent living. 

“There is a feeling among some of the people of failure — that they didn’t succeed as much as the others,” Yaron said. 

Yaron is well aware of criticism by pro-disengagement activists, who argued that the evacuees should have cooperated with the government. 

“You could not fight it and negotiate with the government at the same time,” she said. “They require two different spiritual energies.” She’s noted that even those who cooperated are no better off.

According to a study of teenage evacuees conducted by Mahut, a nonprofit dedicated to emergency preparedness and treating post-trauma, and which from the outset advocated for the Jewish communities in Gaza and northern Samaria, resistance to the pullout contributed to the teens’ resilience in the face of the trauma of the pullout.

“We do have evidence that people who did not struggle at all, who just left before the time, were not more prepared and did not adjust better,” said Miriam Shapira, co-director of Mahut. 

The study also found that sticking together as a community contributed to the healing process.

“We see that youngsters very much used their communities, their sense of belong to a community,” Shapira said. “It gave them a lot of meaning and a lot of strength.”

Nonetheless, 10 years later, some of these former teens are still seeking psychological counseling, especially as they transition into adulthood and a life with a family of their own. 

Einat Bloch Yefet, who lives now with her husband and two children in the new Netzer Hazani, said she experienced an emotional and spiritual breakdown after she was forced to leave her home at age 18. Today, she conducts lectures on tools for overcoming trauma, guided by her experience of first losing a brother to Islamic terrorism in Gaza, and then her home. She has no regrets about leaving on her terms; she compares it to never giving up on a loved one dying of cancer.

“People who didn’t fight for their homes, who didn’t resist, it’s very hard for them,” she said. “They have a tortured conscience. They wonder, ‘How did we let this happen?’ I know I’m at peace with myself. I did what I could.”

Public and private commemoration ceremonies marking the Gaza withdrawal are taking place throughout Israel, but Yaron is not optimistic that the government will ever take responsibility for its failure to resettle the evacuees swiftly, fairly and with sensitivity. 

But what pains her most is the continuing sense of longing. “It was a good life. We had a great regional council. Good people. A love of work and Torah and a sense of mission, which I don’t have anymore. I miss the view. From Nitzan, you don’t see the ocean.”

On eve of Sukkot, most Gaza evacuees still live in temporary housing

Arab workers are taking down a roof of a caravilla in the coastal town of Nitzan. They’re stacking the terra cotta tiles, leaving standing a framework of fading, mustard-colored, thin walls made of wallboard. The residents are moving out, and the shell of their former house is about to be loaded on a truck, to be transported and recycled by Israeli government.

“Caravilla” —  a compound of “caravan” and “villa” — is the nickname given to the prefabricated bungalows set up on temporary foundations throughout Israel for the 8,500 settlers who were uprooted from their homes in the Gaza Strip in 2005 as part of the disengagement — an event the evacuees call “the expulsion.”

Initially, most of the evacuees were relocated to hotels, youth hostels, dormitories and inns to wait for the caravillas to be readied. Five years after the exodus from Gaza, these caravillas can be seen as modern-day sukkot, temporary shelter for Jews who have not yet settled in permanent homes.

Twenty-one beachside settlements were emptied out and destroyed in August 2005, most of them in the main settlement bloc of Gush Katif, the “Harvest Belt.” The majority of the settlers were religious Zionists who viewed settling, sowing and defending the land and state of Israel as a religious and national imperative, with service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) elite units an exalted goal.

Originally, the land was zoned by the Israeli government for agricultural settlement. Gush Katif settlements produced the majority of Israel’s organic produce and nearly 15 percent of its agricultural exports, including the famous bug-free lettuce grown hydroponically in the sand.

The settlers were surprised when, in 2004, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon first announced the disengagement, and up until the disengagement they were split on how to fight it. The majority of communities refused to cooperate with the government as an act of civil disobedience, and they didn’t pack or fold up their businesses, believing the operation would eventually be overturned. Others, either as individuals or communities, reluctantly negotiated their relocation in advance of the eviction.

The Gush Katif Committee is an NGO started by the evacuees to represent them. The committee says about 1,500 of the 1,800 families from Gush Katif remained together in hopes of keeping their community intact. Today, about 1,200 of those families still live in the temporary caravilla sites. With Sukkot around the corner, evacuees are now rushing to finish construction on permanent homes. About 200 families expect to eat their holiday meals in sukkot at new homes, up from 120 families last year.

Laurence Beziz, who immigrated to Israel from France in 1981, lived for 19 years in the settlement of Gadid in Gush Katif. Her husband owned and operated a vegetable farm in Gush Katif and has since found work with a produce export company. Today they live in Nitzan, where she serves as a coordinator of internal relations for the Gush Katif Committee. She drove a reporter through Nitzan on what turned out to be a surprise rainy day.

Nitzan is the largest of the caravilla camps, built on former watermelon fields. In the five years the residents have lived here, trees have grown tall, gardens have been planted, and mature passion-fruit vines now cling to the wooden poles of the pergolas residents built to serve as year-round patios and as frames for their sukkot.

The caravillas, which vary in size from about 650 to 1,000 square feet, weren’t built to last this long, Beziz said. The ground is sinking in under foundations; walls and floors are cracked. The original community of 250 caravillas has grown to accommodate over 500, plus add-ons: room extensions, plastic sheds and shipping containers. A mini-market, pizza joint, flower shop, homegrown beauty parlor and bakery serve the community’s basic needs. During the 2008 Gaza War, Operation Cast Lead, gray sewer pipes large enough to accommodate adults were installed in parking lots as bomb shelters. They remain, painted with graffiti messages like “Gush Katif Forever.” Some evacuees call Nitzan a slum, a ghetto and a refugee camp. Only in the past year have residents begun to move into the desert-style housing being built nearby.

JobKatif, a grass-roots organization, was established right after the disengagement to help evacuees find employment. It is currently conducting a door-to-door census on employment and housing conditions and has grown into a full-fledged nonprofit partially funded by the Israeli government.

“The picture coming out is pretty dire,” said Judy Lowy, executive director of JobKatif.
Unemployment is 18 percent — about three times Israel’s national average.

The organization has also found comparatively higher rates of divorce, illness and at-risk youth behavior since the disengagement. In June, a state commission released a scathing report criticizing the government-run SELA Disengagement Authority for its failure to adequately and expediently resettle the evacuees.

In light of the commission’s interim findings last year, SELA named Benzi Liberman, a leader in the settlement movement, the new director and changed its name to Tenufa, which means “momentum.”

Tenufa spokesman Yehoshua Mor said efforts are being made to expedite the resettlement process. “We are working toward the full implementation of all of the report’s recommendations in cooperation with the Gush Katif Committee.”

About 20 residential communities for Gaza evacuees — some new, some as part of developmental towns — are now being set up in cooperation with the Israeli government all over Israel, from the Golan in the north to the border of Egypt. The speed of construction and size of the individual homes, Beziz said, depend on each family’s circumstances.

Compensation for their displacement was calculated according to a complicated formula, taking into account years of residence in Gaza, the size of the home left behind and employment. According to JobKatif, many unemployed evacuees have already spent their compensation on day-to-day living expenses and have no money left to build a permanent home, leaving them in limbo or dependent on communal support.

One of the most developed post-disengagement communities is Yad Binyamin, in the Nahal Sorek Regional Council in central Israel. It has grown from a seedling town with some 20 families to a suburban Modern Orthodox oasis with more than 700 families, among them 300 immigrant American families. Evacuees’ beautiful new homes border the town in a separate residential enclave.