It has been eight years since the homes and shops and factories of Gush Katif were evacuated, since the synagogues were made flat, since the greenhouses that once yielded 90 percent of Israel’s organic produce were either taken down or turned over the Palestinian Authority.
Those who were evacuated, some of whom are still to be permanently re-housed, continue to live with its legacy.
Anshel Pfeffer reported from Gaza during the disengagement, and also served in the military in the years prior. In Ha’aretz, he writes:
The first of these settlements to be evicted was the small agricultural community of Morag which, on its last day, numbered 30 families. I knew quite a few of the Morag residents personally and on the most basic human level, seeing them being removed from their homes that morning was heartbreaking. Of course it was a lot of manufactured drama; they had many months advance notice to leave and take advantage of the resettlement programs they were offered. It was their choice to remain there until the last day. They didn’t have to suffer the trauma of an Israel Defense Forces officer entering their kitchen during breakfast and ordering their children to leave. Part of me blamed them for doing that, but it was no less painful to watch.
The most poignant moment for me however was after the last settlers had been dragged out and put on the buses back to Israel. The journalists’ transport had not yet arrived and I went into the settlement’s small synagogue which had remained untouched. Some of the men would be allowed back later to pack up the Torah scrolls and prayer books and on that early afternoon, the synagogue looked just like any other tranquil house of prayer waiting for a minyan of men to assemble for Minha. In the quiet that had descended on the settlement, I could easily imagine I was just the first early arrival and in a few minutes the rest would arrive. The siddurim (prayer books) and talitot (prayer shawls) seemed to be waiting for their owners. I could have been sitting in any synagogue around the world.
One must feel some sympathy for those who had to leave their houses and their lives, whatever one’s view of the settlement enterprise itself. After all, Israeli governments one after the other never gave the residents of Gush Katif any other impression than that their status on the land was a permanent one. Up until the moment they changed their minds. Even taking into account that those who stayed in anticipation of a bitter end made the whole thing as traumatic as possible, those scenes of Jews being uprooted and dragged from their homes by the military were certainly perturbing.
Since the disengagement from Gaza, not only the demolition of homes but the end of military control there, that territory has been constant source of instability in the region. It has become a Hamas fiefdom, with the former settlement of Neve Dekalim turned into a terrorist training camp, the sounds of gunfire heard across the borderline. It is now also an unchecked launching pad for rocket attacks upon Israeli civilians. According to figures published by the Israel Defense Forces, 1,123 rockets were fired from Gaza in 2006; 2,427 in 2007; and 3,278 in 2008. Since then, the IDF states that more than 12,800 rockets and mortars—an average of three attacks a day—have landed in Israel.
Thus it is not only the evacuees who have felt the impact of disengagement. Israelis living inside the Green Line – a majority of whom supported the disengagement throughout the ordeal and would not wish to reoccupy Gaza and reconstruct the settlements, even if they could – suffer the rocket attacks. As I highlighted in my recent dispatch from the Eshkol Regional Council published in The Tower, residents of Israel’s south have become conditioned to the sound of the Red Alert:
When the red alert siren goes off, residents of Ashkelon have 30 seconds to find a safe room, a bomb shelter, or simply a place away from exterior doors and windows. In Rahat, the time window is 45 seconds. Beersheva has an entire minute. For Eshkol residents, 15 seconds is the maximum time. 10 seconds, perhaps fewer, is a more accurate estimate. In Kerem Shalom, by the time you’ve heard the red alert it’s probably too late.
Rockets have landed in the chicken houses, playgrounds, and factories of the kibbutzim. A volunteer was shot by snipers from the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades working out in the fields of Ein HaShlosha. The children of Sderot suffer from PTSD, manifest as development regression — they cannot concentrate in school and go back to using the bottle and wetting the bed. Adults cannot sleep at night and report to hear digging and scratching coming from underneath their houses.
Such chaos and instability, such trauma, such darkness, might lead one down the path of a nostalgia for Gush Katif, a longing for a previous time when it was possible for Israelis to visit the beaches and Palestinians to work in the kibbutzim and moshavim across the border. That is certainly what the curators of the Gush Katif museum would like Israelis to experience, anyway. As Tal Kra-Oz points out in a report for Tablet, the museum “excels in memorialising the beautiful red roofed Jewish settlements by the beach” — a place where life was good and happy and the sun shone all the time until the moment the government came and turned off the light.
But the wistful, watercolour feelings this museum wishes to summon up are based on a partial or selective remembrance of the settlement of Gaza, one based on security and the breaking of Palestinian sovereignty and contiguity. Not only was the latter immoral – the museum neglects to note, as Kra-Oz goes onto say, anything about “Palestinian life in Gaza – the squalor and despair I saw while on patrol in Deir al-Balah and Khan Younis” – but the former never really existed.
Fundamentally, having a few thousand people reside on one-third of an already-overcrowded Palestinian exclave could not have produced and indeed did not produce security in the long-term: not for the Palestinians, not for Israelis, and certainly not for the settlers. Linda Grant, who visited and stayed in Gush Katif a year before disengagement, reported on how the settlers lived at that time:
The settlers can only survive in Gaza with the protection of the Israeli army, manning checkpoints and providing firepower. But Gaza has little biblical significance – it contains no holy sites for Jews. Inside Israel, there has been a growing mood among soldiers and their parents that the Gaza settlers weren’t worth dying for. In poll after poll, 60%-70% of Israelis have supported leaving. Sharon signalled his intention to withdraw from Gaza six months ago. I went to find out what the Gaza settlers themselves think about their enforced evacuation.
At the crossing into the Gush Katif settlements, two-thirds of the way down the length of Gaza, a single bored, dishevelled soldier sits at the checkpoint. Access is via an Israeli-controlled road, and visits from outsiders are rare; in a car with Israeli plates and a named destination, it’s easy to pass through. You drive for a few minutes along a two-lane highway. Parallel to it is a single-track road along which white-scarfed Palestinian schoolchildren are walking home. People carry burdens on donkeys. This is al Mawasi, a tiny strip of land, 14km long and 1km wide, a strip within a strip, on which 5,000 Palestinians live, penned in by the settlement block and the sea.
The situation in the Gaza Strip in the years following the first intifada, let alone the second, was neither desirable or sustainable. Moreover, as is the case with the settlement of the West Bank, it was without principle. It was not something worth defending, neither with words nor with lives. “While in many ways Israeli society has drifted rightward in recent years,” Pfeffer notes, “this hasn’t resulted in a national wave of nostalgia for Gush Katif.” Israelis, whatever the hardships that have followed disengagement, are right not to surrender to fantasy and illusion.