Has Israels government forgotten its own refugees

Nowhere in the world is the news cycle faster than in Israel. Not only do major events seem to happen on a daily basis in the small Jewish state, but society is used to moving on quickly, from cleaning up the site of a suicide bombing and carrying on business as usual a few hours later to debating the political positions of Ariel Sharon’s would-be successors even while grieving over the prime minister’s medical condition.

A case in point is the fate of the 7,500 or so Jews who were evacuated from their homes in Gush Katif in Gaza six months ago. At the time, and for months leading up to the traumatic event, the media in Israel and around the world focused on whether Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan would result in a civil war. But there is precious little written about those evacuees today.

Where are they? How are they faring? Are they feeling any less bitter about being uprooted for what the government insisted was the greater good of Israel?

And is the lack of news about them the result of a left-leaning media, a lack of public interest or simply because Israeli life has already been swept up by far more dramatic and pressing matters, from Sharon’s incapacitation to the success of Hamas in the Palestinian national elections?

During a recent trip to Israel, my wife and I visited a number of Gush Katif evacuees to see what they were doing and what they had to say. We spent a day in an area near Ashkelon, not far from Gaza, visiting Nitzan, the largest community of evacuees, as well as a hothouse farmer and a group of families living in a tent city.

Our first stop was Nitzan, where some 400 displaced families have moved into the small, new, orange-roofed dwellings called caravillas, a cross between a trailer and a normal home. Another 100 families are due to move in soon to these temporary homes.

We were hosted by Debbie Rosen, 42, an agronomist who lived with her husband and six children in Gaza for 20 years. Despite her bitterness at the upheaval in her life, she has a warm smile for her visitors, still likes to laugh and calls herself an optimist. Looking around at the neat apartment filled with fresh flowers, one would never suspect she has lived here only four weeks after spending months in an overcrowded Jerusalem hotel room her 10-year-old son called “a golden cage.” (About 200 families are still living in these hotels.)

Rosen had invited several neighbors, friends and leaders of the community to discuss their situation, and the story they told was one of anger at the government and distrust of its statements, and deep concern about the emotional and psychological impact the trauma continues to have on their children.

Laurenc Baziz said her 20-year-old daughter told her that if she had known the family was going to be expelled from their home, she wouldn’t have given “her best years” in service to the army.

“The biggest crisis is for our children,” Rosen agreed. “So many of them have lost their faith in the government.”

Some high school students insist they will not go into the army that forced them out of their homes, while others still aspire to join elite army units.

Esther Lilenthal, 72, who left West Hempstead, N.Y., many years ago to live in Gush Katif, said she emphasizes to her nine children and many grandchildren that her disagreement is with the government, but she remains committed to the people and land of Israel.

The former residents of Gush Katif describe the life they lived there as close to idyllic, even though they were the frequent targets of the hostile Palestine population that surrounded them. They feel betrayed by a government that once described them as brave pioneers. Mostly farmers, they say they have no land to work now, and that most have not received any compensation at this point. But they said that despite all the hardships they have suffered, they want to remain together as a community and find new ways to contribute to the land.

Dudu Michaeli and Dror Vanunu, young men active in the community, complained that the farmers were about to lose another season while living in what Vanunu called “this modern refugee camp.”

A major complaint among the group was that while the army was remarkably prepared for the disengagement — “they knew each of our names, how many children we had, if we had a dog, the size of our homes’ doorways, everything,” Baziz said — the government at best has been completely unprepared or, more darkly, purposefully uncooperative, when it comes to dealing with them in every other way, from housing to schools for their children to finding work for them.

“There is 80 percent unemployment here,” Lilenthal said.

She and the others worried about the psychological impact of once proud, independent people becoming reliant on the government.

The residents say the local schools function more as day-care centers than as educational institutions, and that children are listless and prone to depression.

There was much resentment over the need to offer proof of how long they had lived in Gush Katif by showing bureaucrats gas and electric bills for each year of residence. Who keeps such records, they asked incredulously.

Not surprisingly, government spokesmen have a different interpretation regarding a number of the complaints. They say many of those in Gush Katif were not permanent residents but had second homes there, thus necessitating proof of residence. The government officials also say they have done their best in dealing with a difficult situation, trying to provide services for the evacuees while pointing out that the Gush Katif families made things more difficult for themselves by resisting earlier pleas for them to leave in a more orderly fashion.

But Assaf Assis, the largest supplier of geraniums for Gaza hothouses, said even though he agreed to relocate well in advance of the August evacuation, he has yet to receive any compensation from the government. He showed us around his enormous hothouse a few miles from Nitzan, noting that he had transported 200,000 plants by making the drive from Gaza 150 times in his truck in the months before the disengagement.

“This is only 60 percent of what I had before,” Assis said, looking at the acres of flowers.

“Of the 200 farmers who were in Gush Katif, I am one of only nine who are working now,” he said, adding sarcastically, “I am one of the lucky ones.”

At nearby Alei Sinai, a group of about 85 families walked many hours when they left Gush Katif in August and settled in makeshift tents, just beside a gas station, determined to stay together.

“Why here?” we asked Yossi Berreby, who showed us around the grimy site where teenagers played cards listlessly under the largest communal tent.

“We got tired,” he shrugged.

A sign on the road read “153 days we are homeless.”

About half the families have remained, determined to stay together and not be dispersed among six Jerusalem hotels.

“We’re OK, we’re strong, but the government has no spine,” said Berreby, who claimed that officials had offered the group a site for relocation. He said the group agreed to the move but that bureaucratic snags have slowed matters.

“They were efficient in expelling us,” he said, “but no one thought ‘what do we do with these people the day after?'”

Berreby’s words echoed those of the people we spoke with earlier in Nitzan, but for all the bitterness we encountered from the evacuees, there was also a sense of determination.

“We’re asking ourselves many questions,” Baziz said, “but we want to stay in Israel. And if our dream of settling the land won’t be fulfilled, we still have the pioneer spirit and we’ll find other ways to make a difference.”

The next chapter of the Gush Katif families is still to be written.

Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher of the New York Jewish Week, where this column previously appeared.