Taking responsibility: Then and now

By Judy Lash Balint

Hundreds of Jewish families living in tents, dormitories and rundown hotels with minimal belongings and no work. Government bodies and officials unable or unwilling to implement solutions to their misery. Israel of the 1950s or Israel in the post-disengagement era?

Sadly, the situation of many of the 1,700 families evicted from their homes in Gush Katif last August resembles in many respects the plight of Jewish refugees from Arab lands who landed on Israel’s shores almost 60 years ago. Back then, one could maybe excuse the tiny nascent state of Israel for the conditions endured by thousands of Jews pushed out of their homes into the ma’abarot — temporary shelters. But what are we to make of the government of a modern state of seven million people that carried out the expulsion of 8,000 people from their homes quickly and efficiently, but can’t seem to implement their resettlement even after more than a year of planning?

ADVERTISEMENT


Could it be, as many of the evictees themselves assert, that the intention of the government of Ariel Sharon is to deliberately break up the formerly strong 22 national religious communities of Gush Katif? After undergoing the trauma of being wrenched from their homes, their livelihoods and their familiar surroundings, former Gush Katif residents insist on at least remaining with their friends and neighbors as they rebuild their lives. People who have invested most of their adult lives in building some of the most productive Zionist communities, want to stay together to preserve the values and lifestyle that made them so successful. So far, the only way they have managed to achieve this is by building and living in tent cities while they wait for the authorities to complete the “temporary” housing that is supposed to accommodate them until a permanent solution is found. Thus, almost 60 families from Elei Sinai are camping out in dismal conditions near Yad Mordechai, in tents perched on wooden planks to keep them from the rain and mud. A further fifty-five families formerly of Atzmona, form the encampment known as Ir HaEmunah — city of faith, in an abandoned factory compound just outside the southern town of Netivot where they endure minimal privacy and communal bathrooms and showers. The former residents of the largest Gush Katif town of Neve Dekalim are dispersed between 14 hotels all around the country. Families with seven or eight children live in two or three cramped hotel rooms, with no room for children to relax or do homework. Parents have difficulty supervising teenagers living in a hotel room by themselves. And worst of all, hardly anyone has found work. These proud Israelis who brought millions of shekel into the economy through their extraordinary success in hydroponic agriculture, are now living in enforced idleness. Housing and employment go hand in hand — how is a farmer living in a Jerusalem hotel supposed to rebuild his business?

What of compensation? At a recent meeting of the Ministerial Disengagement Committee at the Knesset, members learned that only three out of the 140 Gush Katif business owners who applied for compensation have been reimbursed. Almost three months after the disengagement, fully 87 percent of the evictees have still not received the promised government compensation. Bureaucratic inefficiency is rampant: Anita Tucker, a celery farmer and 29-year-resident of Netzer Hazani was asked to produce phone bills for the last 29 years to prove her claim of residency in order to receive compensation. Incredibly, residents who lost their homes are still required to pay their mortgage, on top of $450 per month rent if they’re living in one of the small “caravilla” temporary housing units. Disengagement Authority officials say that the problem is that hundreds of families were in denial about the impending disengagement and didn’t apply to the authority in a timely fashion. Even if that were the case, surely the government itself knew that 1,700 families were being displaced and would need alternative housing and jobs. Where did they imagine these thousands of people would go once their communities were destroyed? With all the talk about the urgent need to populate the Negev, it’s hard to understand why the government didn’t authorize an allocation of a piece of the plentiful Negev desert land to the Gush Katif evacuees and build enough temporary housing there for them. With their pioneering spirit, community ethos and agricultural know-how, there’s little doubt the people of Gush Katif would have made the desert bloom a second time, and their eviction would have been far less traumatic.

Instead, the dispersed people of Gush Katif, model Israeli citizens who braved years of mortar barrages and Kassam rocket attacks, are now forced to endure a degrading limbo existence akin to that of the immigrants of the 1950s. The effects of that treatment resound through Israeli society to this day. It’s time to shine a spotlight on those responsible for carrying out the disengagement policy, and to insist on a timely and just solution for the evictees.

Judy Lash Balint is a Jeruslaem based writer and author of Jerusalem Diaries: In Tense Times (Gefen) http://jerusalemdiaries.blogspot.com.