Life in Gush Katif was good, even idyllic. The children had free range to roam about. No one locked their doors. And the sea was always there along with rolling acres of gleaming golden sand.
Once, a child of five went missing. The people searched everywhere, fearing the worst. At last they found him, fast asleep, under his best friend’s bed. That child is now 40 years old.
In the early days, during the 80’s, not too many Gush Katif people owned cars. So the Jews would go to nearby Khan Yunis to do their shopping or get their drivers licenses. But it was a symbiotic relationship and the Arabs in Khan Yunis depended on the Jews of the Gush as much as the Jews depended on them. Thousands of Arabs were employed by the Jewish farmers of Gush Katif.
In fact, our tour guide on 10 Buses for 10 Years, Oreet Segal, said that Ganei Tal, where she lived, employed 400 hundred Arab workers at the time of the “Expulsion.” “That’s what I call it,” she said, “Because that’s what it was.”
Segal notes that their Arab workers just wanted to do their work and go home to their families at the end of the day. Unfortunately, in uprooting 22 communities, and expelling just shy of 11,000 people from their homes (if you count those expelled from the Shomron, Samaria), the Sharon government effectively created a situation of rampant Arab and Jewish unemployment. The Arabs who had worked in Gush Katif for the Jews, were now without work. But the Jews of Gush Katif lost their farms and also had no place to live, despite assurances that “for everyone, there is a solution,” which turned out to be a lie.
As of this writing, ten years since the Expulsion, 300 Gush Katif families/expellees still have no homes.
Most of the 11,000 had no idea where they were going when they were trucked out of the communities to which they had devoted their youth and strength, making something out of nothing, a bit like the Creator. When they moved in, an Arab sheikh had dropped by with bread and salt to welcome them. “What will you do?” he asked. “No one has ever managed to grow anything here.”
Ah, but the Jews have come back, they said. Now things will grow.
And grow they did. They grew tomatoes, peppers, and herbs. They prospered. And all of it was l’tiferet Medinat Yisrael, for the glory of the State of Israel, for they were not only trying to carve a living from hostile growing conditions, but living the Zionist dream.
It was the government that encouraged them to live there, the government that put them there. And now, it was the government that on a capricious whim expelled them as if these people and the lives they’d built were inconsequential. They took them out in trucks, stuck them in hotels and guest houses, where some of the expellees lived for a year.
Does living in a hotel for a year sound like a fun time? It might until you consider that your children might be in separate rooms, sometimes on separate floors, behind locked doors. Or perhaps all together in one room, mother, father, and all five children.
While the expelled were in the hotels, the government set up “caravillas” for some of them, or as Segal called them, “Cardboard boxes.”
I remember all this in vivid living color, because I monitored the sitution from my perch in Efrat. I remember how the missiles rained down on the caravillas and the irony of that. We’d thrown them out of their homes for “peace” and installed them in cardboard boxes, making the expellees targets for the tens of thousands of missile attacks that would and did (and do) ensue as a result of the Expulsion.
We were a small minibus of a group, touring the communities that absorbed most of the expellees of Gush Katif. The idea behind this tour, sponsored by the International Young Israel Movement, Israel Region (IYIM), was to raise awareness of the plight of the Gush Katif people, ten years on. Nine more such groups will be visiting the area in upcoming weeks. I would urge anyone who can to sign up for the limited number of seats available, because this is one helluva shocking eye-opener.
The injustice done to these people is horrifying. It makes you sick to your stomach to think of it: how Sharon made the Expulsion an election issue, promised he would not do it. How he then promised to accept the mandate of the people and then promptly rejected the results of the referendum that was held. How he promised that the settlers would be compensated.
And how subsequently they were NOT. Not compensated.
Sure. They got something. Take Oreet, our tour guide from Ganei Tal. She had a home there that was 325 square meters and received a compensation package that was enough to build a home that was 160 square meters. Oreet and her family were farmers. They grew tomatoes, herbs, and peppers. When they had a good year, like other people in Gush Katif, they built on an extra room. What else were they going to spend their money on?
So she had this money, after 11 months of being in a hotel with her 5 children. She and her husband no longer had the farm, hence no livelihood. They were middle-aged, too old to be employable, unless they wanted to bag items for customers in the local Superpharm. But they had bills to pay and mouths to feed.
What kind of solution is THAT?
We heard the same story with different, but similar details from all the people we met on the day-long tour. Take Yehuda Gross, formerly of Neve Dekalim, for instance. Yehuda lived in Gush Katif for over 23 years. His five children were born there. Everything they knew was there: schools, business, everything. It was the center of life for the Gross family.
Sure, there was the occasional missile, and at that point in his recitation, Yehuda brought out from under the counter of his hardware store, a two-foot tall rocket and we gasped. And gasped again when Yehuda told us the rocket had gone through the roof of the Gross home into his son’s bedroom.
At the time, his son had been praying the morning service in synagogue.
And of course, there were endless stories that could be told. The stories could only be explained as nissim gluyim, revealed miracles. The Arabs themselves did not understand how it was that they launched so many missiles and so few Jews were killed. “Hashem protected us,” said Yehuda. “It can be explained no other way.”
When the Gross family was expelled, they were told they’d be put up in a hotel for just ten days, and ended up staying there for 6 months. Yehuda Gross was then told it would take only 3 months for the government to get his new business up, “We’re still waiting,” said Gross.
He had mouths to feed. They all did. So he and a friend pooled their resources and put up a framing and hardware store in Nitzan, where the government put their families after throwing them out of their homes. Not long after he opened the store, Yehuda got a threatening note from the Israeli treasury, to the effect that he was trespassing and that he must evacuate the premises immediately. “Fine,” he responded. “I’ll evacuate the premises. Just as soon as you give me that store you promised me more than two years ago.”
People had to eat, you see. They had to feed their children, pay their bills. The government had made them homeless and jobless.
We toured the Gush Katif heritage museum where Gush Katif Spokewoman, Debbie Rosen tearfully told us the too sad history of what we did to our own. We sat on padded tree stumps, the remains of Gush Katif trees, and watched a split-screen tour of a destroyed community. The camera rolled as it slowly chronicled the changes to one street, the gorgeous homes and gardens as they were, now turned into piles of rubble.
I asked Debbie, “How can you do this day in and day out? Talk about this stuff, without breaking down?”
“We must remember,” she said.
We started out sitting on those tree stumps, then wandered from room to room, as Debbie explained the exhibits that showed the ancient history of Gush Katif, where medieval Rabbi Yisrael Najara lived and wrote the Sabbath tune Kah Ribon Olam (God, Master of the Universe). We learned about the contemporary history of the area, watched Yitzchak Rabin proclaim, “Zeh yom gadol. Yom gadol. A great day,” in a clip from 1976 of the dedication ceremony for Netzer Hazani.
The government put them there then threw them out with nothing.
Near the end of the tour, we once again sat on something from Gush Katif, tiny wooden boxes, each marked with the name of a family to be expelled. These were the boxes the soldiers gave to the families in which they were to pack a lifetime of possessions and dreams. Other than cry, what could I do to make up for what was done to these people, MY people?
I put five shekels in the pushke, the charity box.
Our final stop was Bnei Dekalim, where we were addressed by Shlomo Yulis, a sixth-generation born Jerusalemite, and a founder of Neve Dekalim. Shlomo talked about the annual basketball tournament he created as a living memorial to his son, who died at only eleven and a half years old. He talked about his son’s prophetic fear that Gush Katif would not be his final resting place, and how he remarked that if the families were expelled, his family would have to mourn him all over again, after his reinterment.
That is exactly what happened.
Shlomo told us about the closeness of the community. How for a period of three years, he had to drive his son to Beilinson Hospital in Tel Aviv for treatments each day, and how the community took care of his other children, even dressing them in Purim costumes at holiday time, so he never had to worry about them.
“What was your son’s name,” I asked him in Hebrew.
“Itai. His name was Itai,” he said and then it was as if everyone else in the room had disappeared. He was speaking only to me, each word like a dagger in the heart, dripping with pain. His eyes said what his words, what no words, could express.
“The land of Gush Katif does not belong to Sharon, Netanyahu, or Ben Gurion, but to Am Yisrael, the nation of Israel,” said Yulis. “How did we finally return to Jerusalem?” he asked.
“We returned to Jerusalem because all these years, over more than 2000 years, we kept Jerusalem alive in our hearts. We talked about Jerusalem and we vowed we would return.
“This is why it is imperative we speak about Gush Katif, and that we continue to identify with and feel connected to the land,” said Yulis.
There is so much more I could tell you. About the bodies of loved ones that had to be dug up and reburied elsewhere, far from the homes they loved. About the spate of heart attacks. The suicides that were not buried as suicides, but probably were. The divorces. The people who never recovered from the shock and wrenching pain. The soldiers who expelled them who were told to wear sunglasses and never to make eye contact with the families as they tore them away from their homes, their lives.
And most of all the betrayal: the betrayal of 11,000 Jews by their own people, some of whom remain homeless until today. It is unspeakable. But we must speak of it, must speak of the Expulsion of the people of Gush Katif.
Please think of Gush Katif and speak about it with your family and friends. Please help keep the memory of the place alive in your hearts, so that someday we may return and restore the peace and productiveness of an era we destroyed.
For more about Ten Buses for Ten Years, please see: http://www.iyim.org.il/10buses/