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The Spirit of Gush Katif: Don't Let It Get Washed Away
Trying to Keep Dry at Ir HaEmunah
by Judy Lash Balint
November 23, 2005

It rained heavily this week all over Israel. Not particularly notable for late November, unless you happen to be one of the 8,500 people who were evicted from their homes last August as part of the Gaza withdrawal plan.

For many of them, the heavy rains prove to be one more trial to endure in the turmoil that their lives have become since these Israelis lost any semblance of normalcy more than three months ago.

At Ir HaEmunah (City of Faith), the tent city established by former residents of Atzmona in the wake of their eviction, parents desperately attempt to swoosh 2-3 inches of water away from the meager belongings in their makeshift homes. In between sweeps with a rubber floor sweeper, Moshe, 35, a father of six, explains that the rain seeped in during the early morning hours while everyone was still asleep on their iron cots. Anything left on the floor, including cardboard boxes of clothing and plywood bookshelves is sopping wet and unlikely to dry out anytime soon. Someone had the foresight to build the communal toilets and showers on wooden planks, but kids who woke up to the sound of rain had to slosh through the water with damp towels to start their day.

"Welcome to the ma'abarot (temporary dwellings for Jewish refugees from Arab countries) of 2005," exclaims a middle-aged woman as she welcomes visitors to the mud-soaked entrance to Ir HaEmunah, just outside the southern town of Netivot.

"If you don't come to see it, you can't believe it," adds Michal, a former Atzmonah school-teacher. Michal explains that Atzmonah residents had the opportunity to move to scattered apartments offered by the Disengagement Authority after the evictions. "But we know that ultimately we want to build a new community in the Negev together, and once we would be scattered it would be almost impossible to sustain that goal." So, the intrepid pioneers, who endured thousands of Kassam rocket and mortar attacks during their time in the far south of Gush Katif close to the terrorist nest of Rafiah, decided to take advantage of an offer of an empty industrial warehouse to set up their tent homes inside. More than 55 families are here, trying to negotiate a solution to their plight. The renowned Atzmona pre-army mechina program has relocated to the community of Yated, but the remaining residents try to maintain a positive attitude and routine amidst the difficult physical conditions. Just last week, a number of rundown caravans (mobile homes) were brought into the area, which are an improvement over the industrial tents shored up by plywood that make up the homes inside. One small, half-assembled playground sits starkly in the mud outside the caravans. Inside thecold, cavernous warehouse space, kids wander around, pushing at the water with their shoes.

Michal describes how they built the school rooms on the second floor of the structure in a three-week period. But the school is not recognized by the state, so supplies are bought and salaries paid by the community itself. "We have lots of donations," Michal smiles. Michal and her friends are wearing the lavender fleece jackets provided by Project Warm-Up, an initiative operated and funded largely by Jerusalem-based English-speaking immigrants to provide warm winter coats for every evictee.

Until recently, none of the families had their own cooking facilities and meals were eaten communally, provided by a kibbutz catering service. Someone donated one electric hotplate burner for each family, "...and you can't imagine how good our first omelette tasted!" exclaimed Michal.

The inability to prepare meals for one's family is one of the most-often cited complaints of the evictees scattered in hotels all over the country. Parents don't go out to work--their previous workplaces vanished overnight--they don't shop and they don't cook. The kids of the hotel families don't help out--there's nothing for them to help with--so essentially all traditional family functions have been disrupted.

Michal says that the Ir HaEmunah people have now been told they will have to remain there for another 2-3 months until their new temporary homes in Lachish, south of Hebron will be ready.

Meantime, the source of their strength, their synagogue, has been recreated by joining together two mobile homes. Residents managed to salvage their beautiful light wood synagogue seating and the Ark together with it's blue velvet covering. "I cried when we davened there on the first Shabbat after we were evicted," says Michal. "But week by week, it's got better. We're resolved to rebuild ourselves," she adds.

A forty minute drive, past the turn-off to the Kissufim entryway to Gush Katif, brings us to the tiny community of Yavul, just a stone's throw from the border with Egypt. A drone hovers overhead monitoring the border crossings. Here at Yavul, dozens of pre-fab buildings sit in the muddy, sandy soil in varying states of completion. Pre-teen kids ride around on bikes and play in the sand. Inside the industrial-size tent that serves as meeting place, dining hall and shelter from the rain, Drora Visner and Tzurit Yarchi describe their lives here. Yavul is now home to most of the evictees from Netzarim, which was one of the most dangerous places to live in Gush Katif. For years before the eviction, the IDF insisted that only bulletproof vehicles could travel in and out. Today, the determined people of Netzarim are awaiting their permanent solution. Eighteen Netzarim families are in Ariel, almost three hours drive away. "We're looking forward to doing in the Negev what we accomplished in Gush Katif," Tzurit emphasizes. She explains that they hope to bring their experience and knowledge and unique agricultural methods to build a new community. But most of all, " We want to preserve the spirit of Netzarim," she says. Drora nods in agreement, as she holds the hand of one of her 11 children, ages 2-23. Drora is a double-evictee. Her family was kicked out of Yamit when she was a child and re-established itself in Gush Katif. Her sister, Tiferet Trattner, was murdered by terrorists in Gush Katif in 2004.

Tzurit tells her visitors that the mourning over the Gaza withdrawal should be national. On the other hand, she adds: "While the state did a great crime here, we still have faith in the state. We just have to work to change the leaders."

Bryna Hilberg, one of the founders of the Gush Katif community of Netzer Hazani, now living in the guest house of Kibbutz Ein Tsurim concurs. "The politicians made a mistake, but I still love my country," she emphasizes. Hilberg's family has paid dearly for their commitment. Their son Yochanan was killed in action while serving as an Israel Navy frogman. He was buried in the cemetery of Gush Katif. The Hilbergs were forced to exhume his body and re-bury him when the Jews were forced out of Gush Katif. "I felt as if the state killed him again," she grimaces as she holds up a book dedicated to her son with his face adorning the cover. "It was the nightmare of my life," she recounts. Yochanan was reburied in Nitzan, close to the sea that he loved.

Bryna's husband was an expert in cultivating crops in the sand. Today, he's lucky to have a part-time job in the local grocery store.

Fellow Netzer Hazani evictee, Anita Tucker tells visitors that while the loss of her physical community is painful, she and her neighbors feel that "it's the values, the spirit the sense of community that couldn't be destroyed by the IDF bulldozers." Presently, half of the 60 families from Netzer Hazani are living in dormitories at the Hispin Yeshiva in the Golan, with the remainder at Ein Tsurim, not far from Ashkelon.

In a session of the Ministerial Disengagement Committee on November 23, Prime Minister Sharon said: "There is no doubt that building communities in the south is very important." Prime Minister's Office (PMO) Director-General Ilan Cohen added that, "The vast majority of the residents will maintain their communal way of life."

Perhaps the Committee should make another visit to Nitzan, where remnants of several Gush Katif communities will be spending the next two years. The "caravillas" spread out in their neat rows over the former watermelon fields are now home to 320 families--eventually, when they're completed, some 4-5 months AFTER the evictions, 450 families will live here while they wait for permanent housing and employment solutions. It's hard to maintain a"communal way of life" when there's no store and massive unemployment and little for the restless and traumatized teenagers to do. Here too, on this rainy day, residents are outside trying to deal with massive puddles and the mud that surrounds their homes. Containers sit outside some homes, in violation of the Disengagement Authority's directive. Most families couldn't squeeze the belongings from their former homes into the 90 sq.meter space they now inhabit. For the privilege of living in this neighborhood, the former Gush Katif residents pay $450 per month rent that's deducted directly from their compensation package.

Over at Kibbutz Chafetz Chayim, another religious kibbutz that has taken in Gush Katif evictees, Avraham Berrebi formerly of Gadid, puts a brave face on his family's situation. Avraham and his wife Colette and six children emigrated from France decades ago. "We fell in love with Gush Katif immediately," he recalls. Since the August evictions, the Berrebis have been shunted between Neve Ilan, Tiberias and Chafetz Chayim. "We've become experts in moving," he chuckles. Only problem is that the Berrebis have no idea where their next move might take them when they have to leave Chafetz Chayim at the end of November.

Together with another 16 families from Gadid, they agreed to resettle in Massuot Yitzhak, not far from Ein Tsurim and Ashkelon. The Disengagement Authority has just informed them that they will only make the necessary arranegements for a minimum of 20 families. Exasperated, Berrebi explains that the other Gadid families got so fed up with waiting, that they found other solutions.

If solutions aren't found quickly, there's a risk that the Zionist commitment, energy and enterprise of the pioneers from Gush Katif will disappear with the rain.
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Photos of places and people mentioned in this story may be seen at http://flickr.com/photos/jerusalemdiaries/

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