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What’s next for Gaza’s settlers

A community displaced to Ariel by the disengagement, has remained steadfast in their pioneering spirit

A modest gathering on a cool January evening may arguably have been the most significant development the settler movement has seen since the 2005 Disengagement from Gaza. In terms of quantity, it was a seemingly insignificant dedication of a single semi-detached home on a quiet street still under construction. In terms of quality, it revealed the soul of a settler, the admiration of his students and an evolving partnership with a city perched upon the crossroads of Israel’s future.

Rabbi Tzion Tawil weathered the tumultuous summer of 2005 unlike any of his peers. He and the Netzarim community that he led were the last evacuees, having guaranteed the Israeli Defense Forces that they would face no adversity. Rabbi Tawil would not be dragged out of his home. He peered beyond his doorpost and carried himself, his family and his community to an uncertain future, on his own two feet.

Needless to say, what came next was an extended blur of anything but clarity of vision. Fatigued and disoriented families disembarked the charter buses at 2:00 am. They had arrived at Ariel University, then known as the College of Judea and Samaria, where student dorms were hastily prepared as temporary dwellings until a more permanent government solution presented itself. Today, nine and a half years later, government solutions remain less than comprehensive and the displaced community has learned not to hold its breath.

Culture shock characterized much of the twisted path towards repatriation. Ariel’s predominantly secular city environment was foreign to the new arrivals, who were accustomed to their tight-knit and intensely religious community of yesterday. It was more than visible differences that distinguished between the homeless and the hosts, expressed in dress and lifestyle, belief systems and worldview. It was the essence of what their respective communities represented that set them apart. Ariel was the settlement that dared to become a city, fully incorporated by every Israeli land-for-peace proposition as part and parcel of Israel. Netzarim on the other hand, only a short while earlier a stone’s throw away from Gaza City, was long the subject of Israeli debate until it finally met its ruin. With the exception of the fringe hilltop elements who perennially draw the attention of undiscerning press and media, Ariel and Netzarim characterized the opposite extremes of the settler spectrum.

After months of introspective deliberation, Rabbi Tawil and many of Netzarim’s residents chose to call Ariel home. They decided to accept and embrace the inherent differences between their homogeneous community and the diversified locals. Mutual curiosity quickly gave way to daily interactions and dynamic dialogue. Virtually overnight, under the radar and far from the spotlight, a new settler conversation was born.

Different as they were, the veteran and nascent elements of Ariel’s population shared an important degree of commonality. All settlers follow an extensive Jewish tradition of disengagements, distributed over a period of millennia, executed by numerous governments and host societies across the globe. Whereas their dis-engagers, large and small, tend to fade into the annals of history, disengaged Jewish communities inevitably manage to resurface. For better or for worse, the Jewish People have not held their dis-engagers accountable for their actions. They simply gather their collective experiences and ask themselves “what’s next?”

Though disengagements take their toll, settlers ultimately grow from them. Settlers are, by nature, agents of engagement. At their core, they have never been defined by the particular tracts of land where they live but rather by the roles and responsibilities that they choose to assume. The three Gaza wars that ensued after the residents of Netzarim sacrificed their homes, livelihoods and community for the sake of peace are not a source of bewildered paralysis but a point of reference for circumspect analysis. They do not look to the United Nations for salvation. They do not march in the streets seeking justice. Instead, they continue to ask themselves what they can do to contribute to a resilient Israel. Neither victims nor victors, they are undeterred by the familiar echoes of international ridicule. They seek not glory but engagement, and the subtle thrill that comes with living a life of relevance and purpose.

Interestingly, Rabbi Tawil’s housewarming gathering was held just one week before the city of Ariel would erect a cornerstone for the Ron Nachman Memorial Site and Pioneers Museum. Ron Nachman, the city’s founding father and longstanding mayor, would consistently and unequivocally reject the popular use of the term “settlement” in reference to Ariel. For Nachman, the term undermined the permanence and consensus status of the city that he built, while dis-informing the public with regards to his social progress and regional coexistence achievements. Yet after his passing, Ron’s wife Dorith expressed a different sentiment. She believed that Ron’s posthumous receipt of the Israel Prize was grounds for a celebration of the pioneering spirit and unyielding perseverance that the settler term addresses. All perspectives considered, the juxtaposition of the Tawil and Nachman events suggests that Ron and Dorith are both right, and that they’re both wrong. It is not the conversation about the settlers but the conversation among them that will determine who they are and what their future will bring.

Rabbi Tawil and his family had little choice but to abandon their trusted trailer of nine years once the recent snow caused the roof to collapse. Their permanent home was not quite complete, but they were ready to move on. Rabbi Tawil carefully and intently affixed the traditional scroll to the doorpost at the house’s entrance. Ariel’s mayor, Eliyahu Shaviro, pulled a kippa out of his pocket and donned it upon his arrival. He was given the honor of affixing a second mezuzah, this one at the balcony’s doorpost, overlooking Ariel University below and Tel Aviv in the distance. The two men danced together, joined by a darbuka, a guitar and a hundred yeshiva students who brought the home’s bare walls to life with songs of thanksgiving. The concentric circles swayed in unison, imbued with modest delight, thoughtful exchange, and a clear view beyond the doorposts.

About the Author
Avi Zimmerman is the City of Ariel's international representative. He is the Executive Director of American Friends of Ariel and the Founder of TALK17.