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More than 14 months after the disengagement, construction has not yet begun on the homes promised to some 500 Gush Katif evacuees.
I ask Avi Levy where he wants us to meet and he suggests the ma'abara, the Hebrew word for a transit camp for immigrants. Which one, I ask. Ma'abarat Nitzan, he replies. From the first moment, he related to his new home as a transit camp, since it reminded him of the old days, at the beginning of the 1960s, when he was sent with his family to live in such a camp in southern Jerusalem right after immigrating to Israel. There, between Kiryat Hayovel and Kiryat Menachem, the newcomers moved into tin shacks strewn about in disarray.
Forty years have passed since then and Avi feels like he has been thrown into a tin hut once more -- a fancier one, yes, but a hut all the same. In those 40 years, he has had eight children and five grandchildren. But this hasn't dulled the feeling of displacement that hit him when he entered his new home in Nitzan, the temporary site built for Gush Katif evacuees. It's the feeling of someone who has come to a foreign country to start his life over again.
At the beginning, Avi was astonished by the diminished living space. Indeed, the shock of displacement intensified when he saw the small, crowded houses near the sea that awaited him and his friends. For years, they had gotten used to wandering about in open spaces and living in large, multistory houses with a garden and driveway. They were living inside a military bubble secured by barbed-wire fences and watchtowers and roadblocks, but they felt like they were on top of the world.
Although it is slightly more than a year since Avi was uprooted from his home in Neveh Dekalim, he is still finding it difficult to cope without the spacious rooms, the garden, the synagogue nearby, the neighbors, the friends. He especially misses the homey feeling and the privacy. He also has no room for his library -- particularly the diverse collection of books that helped him write his doctorate in animal physiology, and his Torah books. His living space has decreased from 300 square meters to less than 90. In the new home, his children sleep two or even three to a room. Just like in the old days, in the Jerusalem transit camp.
"But there's one significant difference between those days and these days," says Avi, smiling and rearranging the large skullcap on his head. "My parents made aliyah from Morocco to Israel out of love, and settled in the transit camp out of love, and made a personal choice to make the sacrifice. Here, in Nitzan, everything that happened to me and my friends did not come from love. They uprooted us from our homes. A year and a quarter have passed and we still do not see the light in our future."
Avi is considered lucky. He is one of the few Gush Katif evacuees who has not lost his job. He heads the Hemdad Hadarom Academic Teachers College in Netivot and earns nearly NIS 10,000 a month, with which he supports more than 10 people. The time that has passed since the uprooting has only strengthened the feeling of Avi and his friends that an injustice has been done. Had peace prevailed in the Gaza Strip, had there been progress in negotiations with the Palestinians, had the security situation improved, had the communities in the south been prospering, then they would have felt that their sacrifice was not in vain. "We agreed to be uprooted, we agreed to live in crowded conditions, we agreed to live with high unemployment, we agreed to go through the tremendous fracture of faith -- and what happened?" asks Avi. "Nothing. The situation is only getting worse."
The Nitzan neighborhood was initially intended to provide a temporary solution for the evacuees. It is made up of simple houses with red roofs that were hastily built on the Ashkelon coastline to absorb the thousands of families removed from their homes as part of the disengagement plan. The land on which the neighborhood is located was supposed to be rezoned as agricultural land again within two years of the residents moving in. Next summer will mark the end of the second year, and no one is under the illusion that the arrangement will proceed as planned.
The evacuees insist on staying together and building their future as a community. They see any other solution as a threat to the community feeling they toiled to build while living in Gush Katif. Avi sees the whole story of Gush Katif as being a tale, not of a settlement, but of an attempt to build a new communal life. He is sure that if Israelis had distinguished between Gush Katif residents and West Bank settlers, the Gaza residents' fate might have been different.
"All in all, most of the inhabitants of the Gush came from development towns and communities in distress," he explains. "The matter of land was less important in our eyes than the environment of togetherness that we built. We weren't like the people of [West Bank settlements] Ofra and Beit El. With us, it's a different story because we came from a different background. Most of the inhabitants came from a Mizrahi background [from Muslim or Arabic countries] and a low socioeconomic status. Over time we built an outstanding human society, with a tremendous feeling of solidarity at its heart."
The need for community led the evacuees to take the lifestyle they developed in Gush Katif and try to move it to the temporary site where they were sent. Each settlement took a group of apartments for itself, in an effort to perpetuate the communal structure they had created in Gush Katif, trying to base their new lives on the same foundations.
"That is the only thing that sustains us," says Avi. "Even now, amid all the crowdedness and the emotional crisis, you come to the transit camp in the evening and you meet your friend and you sit with your neighbor and you encounter the same communal brotherhood. We upheld the same principles of equality. Community is everything."
David Shalom, who has been living in Nitzan since the disengagement, also points to the importance of the neighborly visits that continue to take place. "That's what sustains us in life," says David, adding that he sits in one neighbor's garden in the morning and in another's in the evening.
I remember David from the pre-disengagement days, when he was considered the uncontested king of the Gaza coast. In the good old days, Jews and Palestinians swam in the same stretch of the sea. But as the craziness intensified, the Palestinians were banned. Who didn't know David the lifeguard? Who wasn't impressed by his muscular presence in his lofty look-out tower? On August 15, 2005, the day of the evacuation, he looked back at the Gaza coast for the last time and took leave of his beloved sea.
David generally sits in the yard of his neighbor Ezra Mordechai, where he watches the trains passing nearby. They have developed the custom of counting the trains that pass. There's a train to Tel Aviv and a train to Ashkelon, and they have learned how to guess how many cars each train has by the sound alone. "It saves us from going crazy," says David.
Out of the 486 families that lived in Neveh Dekalim, 252 are living in Nitzan, waiting to move to their new homes in a new neighborhood not far away. Another 250 families from other Gush Katif settlements are also living in Nitzan, and they too are waiting for permanent housing. Over time the temporary site has taken on the appearance of a permanent community. There are roads, sidewalks, a clinic, a post office, bus stops, a supermarket and kindergartens.
Plans for the move are progressing sluggishly. Some 15 months after the disengagement, construction has not yet begun on the homes of some 500 evacuees who want to establish new communities. Nitzan residents say the plans have stalled and blame the government for intentionally dragging its feet.
Avi Levy and his friends have two dreams: They yearn to preserve the communal structure in their new homes as well, at any price, and they long to return to their old homes one day, in Gush Katif. Most Nitzan residents are still wearing their orange anti-disengagement bracelets, like a symbol of a struggle that has yet to end.
"The people here dream about the day they will return to Gush Katif and rebuild their homes," Avi whispers, as though he is revealing a secret. "We left behind not just a home, but our lives. I lived there for 22 years, that's where my children were born, that's where I started as a simple teacher who came from Netivot and became a doctor of animal physiology. That's where I saw how people create a human society that doesn't exist anywhere else in Israel. And they uprooted us in the end. It's not right."
Avi and his friends are also angry at the left-wing groups and human-rights organizations that closed their eyes to the uprooting and to the brutality that the evacuees think was used against them. "They didn't know how to distinguish between political views and the human aspect," he explains. "If they had acted out of belief and conscience, they should have stood by our side. For months, farmers stood at the intersection at the entrance to Nitzan and protested their difficult financial situation. Not a word, not a mention [of us]. We feel that we have been betrayed twice. Once by the state and once by the human-rights organizations. It's painful. Because we created a model society in Gush Katif and the state came and ripped it to shreds."
One year and three months after they left their homes in Gush Katif, many of the evacuees feel that they made a mistake. Had they known what awaited them after the uprooting and predicted the weakness of the government, they would have clung to the land, even by force, and refused to leave it.
Daniel Ben Simon is a senior features writer for Ha'aretz. Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org This article appeared Nov 3, 2006 in Ha'aretz
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