|Gush Katif – Two years on|
|By Roland S. Süssmann|
At the beginning of 2007 the inhabitants of Nitzanim, the largest temporary village where those expelled from Gush Katif are living, received a circular from the army, in which the wording that followed the name and address was, “Nitzanim Refugee Camp”. This small statement in just two words describes the full scope of the drama that the families that were evacuated from Jewish land in Gaza are living through. Two years after the expulsion of the Jews from Gush Katif, a reckoning must be made. At the political level, the predictions of a coming catastrophe were very quickly fulfilled.
From the very place where two years ago the greenhouses of Jewish farmers, synagogues and kindergartens were the statement of a happy Jewish every day life, Kassam rockets are now fired daily into Israel, especially at Sderot, Ashkelon, and the kibbutzim and moshavim of the south of the country. In Gaza itself Al Qaida is in power, armed and financed by Iran and Syria. None of that is a big surprise. The so-called Philadelphia Corridor has been transformed into a labyrinth of tunnels that handles every sort of traffic (money, weapons, drugs, prostitutes etc), which has transformed Gaza into a major terrorist fortress. At the personal level the upheaval has been dramatic and the consequences have been difficult to live through for all the expelled families. This has been all the more so since the government was absolutely unprepared to handle the re-settlement of the uprooted men, women and children inside Israel proper.
The scale of the drama that has been playing out for two years must be fully understood. A few cold, unembroidered figures will illustrate what has happened. Of 1,667 families expelled, 1,405, 85% of them, are living in temporary locations. The communities of evacuees are dispersed in 20 different, temporary localities. The unemployment rate is almost 40% and the consequences at the communal, family and individual levels are very serious.
In Nitzanim we met Rabbi Yigal Kaminetzky, one of the leaders of this community, which is the largest grouping of those expelled. There are currently 460 families from Gadid, Gan Or, Bedolach, Netzer Hazani and Rafiah Yam who have found temporary shelter there.
We Jews are always looking for good news. Two years after the expulsion, can you tell us if it includes, despite everything, one or more positive points?
Of course, it is always better to consider the full part of the cup. Unfortunately, in our case this part of the problem has been reduced to one single item, which, however, should be mentioned, emphasized, published and widely distributed. The main idea of the architects and promoters of the expulsions was to break and gradually scatter the entire movement for the population of Judea, Samaria and Gaza. As far as they were concerned, Gush Katif was merely the first stage. Yet that strategy has failed completely, and our movement is stronger, more determined and more dynamic than ever. I recall at the time there was a duplicitous mantra intended to calm people down, “There is a solution for everyone”. It was by way of those famous solutions that we were meant to disappear as a separate entity within Israeli society. To illustrate what I am saying, I will quote the example of a friend who, when he found out that he would be expelled, called the resettlement center saying he had a house, a job and seven children and that he wanted to know what solution they were offering him. The official on duty, having looked up on his computer, told him, “For you we had slated a two and a half room apartment in Arad”. Faced with his astonishment, the official retorted, “That’s the law, take it or leave it”! Despite all the personal losses, which in some cases were at every level, including life itself, we have held up well and continue to prosper. This is solely due to the amazing human qualities of our people, who faced up with dignity to all the difficulties, the insults and humiliations, determined not to let themselves become distressed or crushed. G-d helped us, but each of us took his fate in his hands and fought to continue to live in the spirit of pioneers that has motivated us for dozens of years.
Do you believe that the fact that what we will call for the purpose of this article “the community of the expelled” has remained united is actually something that has consequences on the national scale?
There can be no doubt of that. If we had not stuck together and had not supported each other the way we did, the national religious movement would have suffered a blow from which it would never have recovered. That would have been the end of the entire movement to develop the Jewish lands of Judea and Samaria. Having said which, for eighteen years we were living in a very difficult situation, because we were the front line in an undeclared war, ever since the start of the first Intifada. At the time when some were celebrating the Oslo Accords, bombs were exploding among us and our people were being attacked with machine guns and every sort of weapon. The difficulties never scared us and we always considered it our duty to be at the forefront of the struggle for Israel and the Jewish people, and to provide an example. Having succeeded in surviving as a united community, we have continued to live and act according to those basic principles and values that guided us through all those difficult years we had in Gush Katif. At the national level, the effects of our determination to remain organized in communities have had their impact. It must be recalled that the only movement that has achieved a true upheaval in this country is that of the populating of Judea and Samaria. It has successfully settled tens of thousands of Jews in these ancestral lands, and in the face of adversity it has built up towns and villages, some of which today constitute an integral part of Israel, and are taken into account in every so-called “peace” initiative that contemplates the evacuation of Jewish villages in Judea and Samaria. So the very fact that we survived and stayed united is a tremendous achievement in its own right that has solidified the settlement movement. What’s more, it has pushed a large number of Israelis to think about the expulsions and the destruction of Jewish villages. Today many are asking themselves the question whether or not in the future, during negotiations with the Arabs, this option of “land for peace” still has a place. Incidentally, Israeli society in general is today involved in a very profound introspection that results from a combination of the expulsion, the Second Lebanon War, the scandals and the corruption. This thinking will without any doubt lead to a radical change in Israeli life. I also think that the expulsion, which for a year and a half was shown on the television screens of every home in Israel, has shown people who considered us to be lunatics motivated by an outdated ideal and with respect for nothing, that in fact we were the defenders of a certain concept of life: the spirit of sacrifice for the country, mutual support, devotion to the constructive spirit of the pioneer, and more. I can tell you that the example we gave, the dignity with which we accepted the suffering of the expulsion, the fact that we did everything to avoid a civil war and fratricidal violence represent something if which we are starting to see the first positive fruits for the future of Israeli society and the Jewish people. Today many personalities, including leading television journalists who had done everything to support the expulsion, state day after day that they have changed their minds, that the idea of the exchange of land for peace is completely wrong and that Israel is not engaged in a peace process, but rather in a war for survival, in a nutshell a continuation of the War of Independence of 1948.
What were the most negative aspects of the expulsion whose consequences are still being felt today?
Firstly, it must be clearly understood that the expulsion was a trauma for every one of its victims. Someone who did not live through it cannot understand what it was. Each and every one of us woke up one morning completely uprooted, deprived of home, work, school, in a word their community, everything that had made up their lives for years. None of us emerged unscathed from this drama, each one lived through it in a different way. Those who were better provided for suffered a shock that took them a month to a month and a half to recover from. Others were actually physically affected, to different degrees. A recent survey commissioned by the Ashkelon regional health service and conducted by Barzilai Hospital, has shown that the number of persons who were sick or died among the evacuees has increased appreciably since the expulsion, and the numbers are significant. They have been compared with the files from the clinic in Neveh Dekalim, previously the principal locality in Gush Katif. Thus, prior to the disengagement, 1.2% of the residents suffered from very high blood pressure, while this went up to 2.07%; cardiac problems before were 0.9% and afterwards 1.69%; diabetes before was 1.29% and afterwards 1.79%; asthma was 1.25% and afterwards 1.69%; various types of cancer were 0.61% before and 1.08% afterwards! I am not even speaking of the psychological effects.
Having said all of which, there can be no doubt that the most serious problem is that of work and earning a livelihood. In Gush Katif there was never really any unemployment. In the year prior to the expulsion, agricultural production in Gush Katif was almost $250 million. It was the most prosperous agricultural region of Israel, especially for the production of cherry tomatoes, spices, organic vegetables, geraniums and more. The growing and production techniques for flowers, fruits and vegetables were unique, and farmers from around the world made their way to Gush Katif to find out how they worked. All that was destroyed, and today we have about 40% out of a job and almost 30% who could have continued working but who are no longer working in their original professions or have been obliged to accept temporary employment. The farmers, like everyone else incidentally, have not been properly compensated for the full extent of the losses they suffered. But that is not the fundamental issue, even though it is a very important aspect of the drama. Let’s imagine for a moment that the government gives these farmers all the means to restart their businesses. What can they in fact do? They have an average age of 55, and every new type of agricultural production, which takes place on different soil, in a different climate, with different resources, requires at least 5 years before becoming even slightly profitable. In the best of cases, they can start going out to look for new customers when they are 60 years old! It is true that they all received compensation for their houses and their land, but today they are living off their capital, which is running lower every day.
Evidently, the employment issue does not only apply to agriculture. As everywhere around the world, for our unemployed who are over 50, it is very hard to find a job. Those who had businesses have not received compensation to set themselves up again, and the loss of earnings was not taken into account, and so not compensated. Of the 180 small businesses that existed in the Gush, about 80 have managed to reopen on a small scale, but because of the losses suffered during the transition period (clients, reputation, income etc), they are now closer to bankruptcy than to success.
You just mentioned “compensation”. Can you briefly recapitulate for us how this was paid?
As you can imagine, compensation was completely insufficient. For example, greenhouses that were more than ten years old were not taken into account, even though they could have continued to be productive for many more years. Compensation for other greenhouses came to 60% of their value. No compensation was offered for lost markets, especially those abroad. The government intended to pay $500 per square meter to rebuild community infrastructures (synagogues, youth clubs, centers for the elderly etc), whereas the minimum cost is in fact $1,200 per square meter. Who is expected to pay the $700 difference? Up till now about 30% of the compensation promised to the farmers and businessmen has been paid. The other cases have been referred to a special committee that is meant to study them individually. The list is very long, and since there is only a single office, the waiting time for pleading a case is between 6 and 12 months.
What about the young people?
The architects of the expulsion in no way took into consideration the fact that the adolescents of yesterday would become adults, need to work and want to build a family life. The young people find work outside of Nitzanim and the other temporary and permanent villages, but still live with their parents, even though these are facing enormous difficulties. For the time being there is no work here, but we are doing everything to create a viable economic environment, though it is still far from realization.
Where do things stand about education?
In Nitzanim there are no schools at all. The students have been integrated into the schools in the area. Taking a broad view, currently 1,232 school students are spread out over 120 different educational institutions. They live in uncertainty, and since they have been through a period of instability during which they have been shuttled from school to school (some have gone through 7 institutions), they cannot really concentrate on their studies and have fallen behind quite badly. Education infrastructure is still very random. But apart from studies, the psychological shocks suffered by the children must be taken into account. They know what they have gone through, what was done to their parents, and don’t intend to forget. In fact, they are more determined than ever to succeed in our struggle, which has become theirs. Despite all the ideological wrongs of the expulsion, our movement has emerged strengthened.
How do you see the future of your community?
As always, faced with the difficulties, we have only one way to react, to draw on the largest possible number of positive things from that dreadful situation into which we were put. Today we are in Nitzanim. Our little paradise of yesterday has been destroyed by the government of Israel and the 16th Knesset. From here we wish to build a new, vital center for the entire region, a capital for our religious and Zionist ideology, where the pioneering and constructive spirit can be transformed into daily action. The expulsion law, ever intent on destroying our movement, the idea I spoke of at the beginning of our conversation, has forbidden complete communities from setting up again as a single unit in a permanent village. We have circumvented this problem, and we are now setting up a regional unit that covers Ashkelon, Kiryat Malachi and other towns in the area. In Gush Katif we managed to create a society in which 70% held traditional jobs and 30% lived in the world of Torah, studies and education. This situation that was ideally suited to the spirit of those times has been destroyed. We plan to rebuild it here, in the area in which we have been transplanted.
At the national level, all those who identify with what we are doing, for example the inhabitants of the Golan, will join up with us to advance our cause, to populate the Jewish lands of Judea and Samaria and to obtain more supporters within Israeli society. Obviously, at the purely technical level, we are doing everything we can to let the members of our community of displaced persons again take up a life that is as normal as possible. By acting that way, we are simply facing up to our responsibilities and fulfilling our duty as Jews, as citizens of Israel and as defenders of the national religious ideology.