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Palm Beach East
Neve Dekalim founder Esther Bazak
by Judy Lash Balint
April 25, 2004

At Palm Beach there are no sun umbrellas, no crowds and no traffic jams to impede a drive on a sunny spring day alongside the bright blue waters and the pristine sand.

That's because Hof Dekalim (Palm Beach) is in the Gaza Strip, about 15 miles south of Gaza City. But Hof Dekalim is also less than a mile away from the Jewish community of Neve Dekalim in the Gush Katif area of the Strip, and just a few minutes up the beach from the tiny Jewish beach communities of Shirat Yam and Kfar Yam.

It's difficult to understand, particularly for anyone who has not visited the area, the real meaning of Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan. The image of a few thousand Jews embedded in communities in the midst of millions of Arabs, guarded by platoons of IDF soldiers are what prevail.

The real picture of 21 thriving, economically productive communities peopled by idealistic and industrious Jews, separated from the Arabs of Gaza and living on terrain whose beauty far surpasses that to which East Coast Americans run every winter, rarely emerges.

Gush Katif is the micro version of the state of Israel. The country is surrounded by hostile Arabs,as are many Israeli communities, so why the retreat mentality for Gush Katif? Jewish settlement in the area was founded during the Hasmonean Period and continued in Gaza City for two thousand years until the riots of 1929. The remains of the 7th century Great Synagogue of Gaza are supposedly protected by the 1995 Interim Agreement of Gaza-Jericho.

To confront the reality, make the two and a half hour scenic drive from Jerusalem that will bring you to the Kissufim checkpoint half way down the Strip. As in Judea and Samaria, Gush Katif residents travel in and out at all hours of the day and night, some in protected vehicles, some in regular cars.

There's heavy military presence at Kissufim, despite the fact that Israel actually disengaged from Gaza 10 years ago in May 1994. According to the Gaza-Jericho Agreement, Israeli troops withdrew from the area with the exception of forces protecting Jewish communities. Today, the Kissufim road has been denuded of the trees and Arab houses that once lined the road that provided cover for a series of murderous attacks against Jews driving in the area.

Kfar Darom lies to the north of Kissufim on the main north-south road that dissects the Strip. The scene of repeated mortar attacks, Kfar Darom is a main commercial center of Gush Katif (Harvest Bloc). The community's claim to fame prior to Sharon's retreat plan, was for the bug-free produce sold in every supermarket and exported worldwide.

At the packing plant, work goes on as if nothing were amiss. New immigrants work at the conveyor belt, shoving romaine lettuce into plastic bags bearing a rabbinic hechsher. Since my last visit more than a year ago, a new row of homes has been built. Thanks to Kfar Darom's openness to resettling immigrants from the Bnei Menashe, the village has doubled in size over the past three years, with 80 families now making their homes behind the concrete barriers protecting them from the neighbors in Deir El Balah.

The majority of Jewish communities in Gush Katif are clustered together about a mile south of Kfar Darom, miles away from Gaza City and the Jabalya refugee camp. Unlike many moshavim and kibbutzim in the rest of Israel, Gush Katif communities are economically self-sufficient. The high level of production and state of the art technology has produced extraordinary results. Netzer Hazani farmers lead the nation in cultivation of cherry tomatoes; at Moshav Katif it's the dairy that lays claim to being one of the largest and most modern in the country; Atzmona boasts a thriving nursery that raises houseplants, as well as being the leading producers growing organic potatoes for export.

Driving between the villages through the sand dunes, with picture-perfect glimpses of the Mediterranean Sea and stately tall palm trees dotted all around it's hard to believe that this is a place that experiences regular shelling or any kind of violence. We drive on roads forbidden to Arabs, with only the occasional military vehicle in sight. Teenage hitchhikers stand at the entrance to every village, and the general quiet is broken only by the scream of an Israeli jet overhead.

Almost every car and the gate to every community is adorned with a blue and red poster proclaiming the slogan that Gush Katif residents are trying to impress on Likud voters: Dismantling settlements is a victory for terror. It's a message that is being carried throughout the country in a systematic door-to-door campaign mounted by the local council. Armed with lists of Likud voters, teams led by Gush Katif teenagers and retirees are fanning out to ask Likudniks to look them in the eye and tell them they're still going to vote to dismantle their homes. Reports coming back to campaign central command indicate that the reaction has been mixed. Neve Dekalim resident Rachel Saperstein, a teacher at the local girls high school, recounts that several of her students are shocked that some people won't even open the door to them.

Neve Dekalim, at the center of the group of communities, appears to be command central. It's here that the foreign journalists descend on a daily basis to interview English, French and Spanish speakers and local political figures. Teenage activists man a large blue tent at the entrance to the town and politely hand out background material, CDs and bumper stickers.

More than 500 families now live in Neve Dekalim in tidy single-family homes surrounded with gardens bursting with color. There's a central square with small shops, a zoo, a central library, eight synagogues and an industrial zone. Two yeshivot and a women's college complement the elementary and high school educational institutions.

Inside the hesder Yeshiva at Neve Dekalim is an artistic interpretation of the 1982 destruction of Yamit, a town of 2,000 families in the northeastern Sinai, given away to Egypt as part of the Camp David peace deal. Then Defense Minister Ariel Sharon was the one who convinced Prime Minister Menachem Begin that Yamit would have to go.

Many people from Yamit pioneered settlements in Gush Katif. Among them was Esther Bazak, today a fiery, auburn-haired grandmother and one of the founders of Neve Dekalim. Esther explains that almost every house built in Neve Dekalim has one wall rescued from Yamit. The glass and white ceramic of the Yamit monument opens up to the beit midrash (study hall) of the yeshiva. The meaning is clear. "It's destruction and continuation," Esther says.

In the late afternoon sunlight, the courtyard of the two main synagogues is filled with modestly dressed women of all ages quietly reciting Psalms. The women have been gathering every afternoon at 5 p.m as their part of the campaign to prevent the retreat. There's no idle chatter here, just the quiet whispering of ancient words of comfort and hope.

A similar atmosphere prevails at the Mechina (pre-military training academy) located in Atzmona, one of the communities closest to the Egyptian border, a little more than a mile south of Neve Dekalim. Two years ago, five students were killed at the Mechina when a terrorist lobbed two hand grenades into a packed classroom during evening study. Eli Adler, the American-born rabbi who was teaching the class that night, notes that applications for places at the remote academy have risen significantly since the terror attack. "Nothing has changed with our boys since then," he says. "We're deepening our roots here," he adds.

As he speaks to a visiting group in that same classroom, facing the memorial plaque for his students and the cabinet labeled 'Emergency Equipment,' a heavily armed student patrols the academy grounds.

The heaviest visible army presence is reserved for the 13 couples and families living out the fantasy of many a veteran of the 60s and 70s. Who didn't want to be living on the beach, next to the surf, under the endless sun? But the residents of Shirat Hayam have more than sun and fun in mind.

Shirat Hayam is a collection of mobile homes, donated by the Norwegian friends of Gush Katif, sitting directly on the beach across the road from Neve Dekalim. The first settlers moved in 2001 to old abandoned summer homes last used by Egyptian officers prior to 1967. The move was a concrete way for several young people to channel their grief over their friends murdered in the Kfar Darom terror attack a few months earlier. Today military guard posts protect their presence there.

No soldiers are needed to guard the nearby deserted Palm Beach Hotel, which once accommodated foreign tourists and Israelis looking for an idyllic, secluded, kosher Mediterranean beachside getaway. Doors flap in the breeze, and weeds cover the open-air dining area, tennis courts and mini-golf course. A few local students occupy some rooms, but there's a sad air of abandonment about the place.

It's hard to conceive that this will be the fate of one of Israel's most productive and naturally beautiful areas. It's even harder to assess the impact the unprecedented destruction of thriving Jewish communities by a Jewish government will have on Israelis and Jews worldwide.