For many former Gush Katif residents, the day of the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, 10 years ago next month, was the day they lost all faith and trust in the Israeli government.
“There’s a lot of bitterness” remaining, said Oreet Segal, a former resident of the Gush Katif community of Ganei Tal. “The government promised a lot of things, but it was just a PR stunt.”
The ordeal began in 2003, when the Israeli Knesset adopted then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral disengagement plan. In an effort, later proved fruitless, to “unfreeze” the peace process with the Palestinians, Sharon proposed a plan to withdraw all Israeli presence from Gaza, including dismantling the 21 communities which had been part of a settlement bloc built in the 1970s and 1980s.
The plan was adopted by the Knesset, and the deadline for evacuation was set for August 15, 2005. Immediately, there was an enormous outcry from the 8,500 residents of Gush Katif, as well as many Israelis who disagreed with the plan. They wrote petitions, held protests, and begged the government to reconsider.
However, their attempts were in vain. The government went ahead with the plan, promising compensation packages and resettlement deals to the Gush Katif residents who would be evicted and whose property would be destroyed as per the agreement.
Some chose to leave their homes voluntarily before the deadline, including Holocaust survivors who were not prepared to deal with the anguish of being taken again from their homes – except this time, by Jewish soldiers.
Many residents stayed until the last possible days, when soldiers forced them out. The resulting trauma had lasting effects. “A lot of teenagers who had to join the army after didn’t want to,” said Debbie Rosen, a former Gush Katif resident who was also a spokesperson for the communities during the disengagement. “They felt betrayed by the government. Some decided, ‘This is not my country anymore.’”
Rosen went on to explain how the government had misled them, promising solutions and providing none. “It was all media propaganda about having solutions for the evacuees. There were no such plans,” she said.
She and other former Gush Katif residents said that while the evacuation itself had been planned to a T, consideration of what would actually happen to the evicted families after they were taken out of their communities was nearly non-existent.
“You forgot one piece of this puzzle,” she said. “You forgot about us, about the people.”
Many of the residents were taken to hotels, which were quickly overfilled or not expecting the evacuees. Some were sent to a tent city where they lived like refugees. Others were assigned “caravans” – small, cheaply-built temporary structures which sat on concrete blocks.
The government promised that the evacuees would be resettled within a year. Most remained without permanent homes for years on end. Yehudah Gross and his family, former residents of the Gush Katif community of Neve Dekalim, were relocated to Nitzan, a new community designated for evacuees.
Though the government promised the community shops, schools and infrastructure within three months, 10 years later, they are still waiting. The Gross family lived in a caravan for over seven years before moving into a permanent home – and their story is not unique. Twenty percent of evacuees remain without permanent housing today
“Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told Avner Shimoni, who was the Regional Head of Gush Katif and later of Yesha, that everything in Gush Katif would be okay just like when we evacuated Yamit. Sharon made sure that the people from Yamit got reimbursements, money, homes,” said Aryeh Weingarten, founder and director of Karmey Chesed, an Israeli nonprofit organization that gives assistance to Gush Katif evacuees.
This time, Weingarten said, Sharon did not keep his promise. “In Gush Katif most people were left without houses and basic needs. After building their lives and businesses for 23 years in Gush Katif, it killed them to be forced out of their homes. Many, till this day, have serious trauma and cannot even work.”
In an effort to help the evacuees heal, Karmey Chesed provides former Gush Katif residents with badly needed basic necessities, such as food, appliances, furniture and clothing. The organization even helps to finance weddings and provides professional psychological support for those still dealing with the trauma.
After the last residents were removed from Gush Katif, wrecking crews took over, razing thousands of homes to rubble. The Israeli government had made a deal with the Palestinian Authority to destroy private homes and leave all public buildings standing. “We begged the government to destroy the synagogues, because we knew what would happen to them, that they would be defiled,” said Segal.
But the synagogues were left intact – though not for long. As soon as the Gaza Strip was officially declared closed, 18 synagogues were vandalized, trashed, graffitied, and ultimately destroyed by the Arabs who took the buildings over. In fact, said Segal, almost every single Jewish public building was trashed, with the exception of the central complex of her former community, Ganei Tal. This, she said, has been turned into a university run by Hamas.
The Jewish residents also left hundreds of acres of hothouses, equipment, and infrastructure behind them, ostensibly so that the Palestinians could take over their use, producing food, improving farming technology, and providing employment in Gaza.
The reality, Segal said, was that every hothouse was looted and destroyed by Gazans within 24 hours of the evacuation.
Especially painful is the knowledge that the pullout yielded no positive results for Israel. “The disengagement plan did not achieve its goals,” said Rosen. “There is no security, no change in the Palestinian attitude towards us, no change whatsoever.”
Instead, Gaza has become a hotbed of terrorist activity representing a constantly growing threat to Israel. It is firmly in the hands of Hamas, which stockpiles weapons and digs tunnels under the border with the goal of killing Jews and destroying Israel.