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September 2005 > Gaza > Katif

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Previous Issues
- August 2005
- July 2005

Journey to Gush Katif

By Judith Gelman

Little suggested that only weeks remained for Ganei Tal, a religious moshav in southern Gaza. The lawns were watered and fresh flowers filled the gardens. The major clue that change was coming was the stream of Orthodox tourists making pilgrimages of support. Tourists never visited Ganei Tal before talk of disengagement-even now, visits by secular, pro-disengagement groups are so rare that FOX News and Ha'aretz accompanied the tour I joined in late June.

We met Michael in his hothouses. His workers dug up, trimmed and packed his amaryllis bulbs as he spoke. This frenzied activity was excusable because this is his regular harvest season. Still, time is of the essence-in six short weeks, the IDF would start removing settlers and then packing their household goods; they will not harvest crops. 

We began our encounter warily, but committed to listen politely. Expecting a hostile response, Michael seemed nervous as he recited the arguments against disengagement-Gaza appears in the Torah and so it is part of the Jewish homeland. Palestinians never inhabited these previously barren sand dunes. The settlers' hard work created productive communities. The workers want their employers to stay. Disengagement rewards terror. Abandoning Gaza is the first step to losing Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem. 

When we did not challenge his arguments, our host grew more comfortable and told us his own story. Originally from South Africa, he settled in Ganei Tal 23 years ago. Using his engineering degree, he created a high tech farm - hot water pipes buried in the sand warm his bulbs in the winter; drip lines water them; an aerial system sprays nutrients. He can replicate his greenhouse inside Israel's 1967 borders, but without the subsidies he received in Gaza, the capital cost may be prohibitive. The operating costs will be higher too - his Palestinian workers earn just a third of Israel's minimum wage. Growing amaryllis bulbs has been quite profitable for Michael in Gaza, but it could be a losing proposition inside the green line.

For a second time in his life this 56-year-old man faces the prospects of starting life over again, but this time with a less profitable business, in a new community, and in a smaller house. This time he will not be an idealistic pioneer raising his young family. Instead, he is disillusioned middle-aged man who feels betrayed by his government. But the government did not betray him - before he moved to Gaza, Michael, like all settlers, signed a statement acknowledging the government's right to remove him in the future. Now, the government is calling the option; his family's heavily subsidized lifestyle must end so Israeli troops can leave Gaza. 

Governments around the world uproot their citizens for more mundane reasons than security. The US Supreme Court recently affirmed New London, Connecticut's right to evict homeowners to make way for a shopping mall. In China, one million people must move to make way for the Three Gorges Dam hydroelectric project. However, in China and Connecticut, no one argued that God gave them the right to stay. 

In Gaza, anti-disengagement advocates wrap their arguments in Torah, even though Gaza's biblical pedigree is weak. The Torah mentions a kfar darom (Southern Village), Samson destroyed a Philistine temple in Gaza, and Abraham farmed land near Beersheba (25 miles outside of the Gaza Strip). Hardly proof that it is Jewish territory. Still, religious settlers claim Gaza as part of the Jewish people's God-given territorial inheritance. For them, God trumps the Israeli government in determining the boundaries of the Jewish homeland. This religious rhetoric has real consequences: most secular settlers will be gone before disengagement begins; most religious settlers will stay until the end.

Experts who studied the evacuation of Yamit recommend that communities move intact so that evacuees can adjust to their new lives together. However, communities like Ganei Tal, who refuse to discuss the future, may end up divided. Families in these communities have not found housing or new jobs within Israel proper. Their children are likely to start school late, making the transition more difficult. Even the dead, being evacuated along with the living, cannot be reburied until their community chooses a new location.

At one point, Michael, who refused all contact with the disengagement planning authority, complained that no one has told him the size of his compensation package. Refusing to cooperate and then blaming the government for the results is illogical, but anxiety about the future is natural among those who have made no plans for the day after. And those who plan for their future, or leave early, are seen as traitors.

Leaders of the settlers' movement, who live in the West Bank, show little interest in helping those who must soon leave their homes adjust. Instead of helping Gaza's settlers prepare for new lives, these leaders hope to bring tens of thousands of people into Gaza in order make disengagement as difficult as possible. These outsiders are not necessarily committed to the nonviolent approach championed by Michael and may escalate the conflict.

No one really expected to stop disengagement. By massive opposition in Gaza, the leaders hoped to preclude future withdrawal from the West Bank. Gaza's settlers are just pawns in this larger battle. After Gaza is empty and the leadership goes home to the West Bank, their pawns may suffer the results of their lack of preparation for years to come. Sadly, the more psychological scars the evacuees carry after disengagement, the better it will be for the settlers' movement as they fight any future moves to leave the territories. 

Judith Gelman, an economist and DC resident, is the chair of Ameinu's Policy and Advocacy Committee. She traveled to Gush Katif with the New Israel Fund's International Council, of which she is a member.