Israeli society will be judged by its treatment of the Gush Katif evacuees. On that score, we are failing at present.
It is precisely those who view the Gaza withdrawal as a national triumph -- not those who warned that the Gaza withdrawal would lead bring Ashkelon’s oil refineries and power plant within range of Palestinian missiles and give Hamas a huge popularity boost -- who should be most concerned with the fate of the evacuees.
For even if the withdrawal were a signal success, it was achieved by sacrificing the evacuees. Like fallen soldiers, who give their lives to protect us, the settlers paid heavily on our behalf. That they view the destruction of their homes and communities as a national tragedy does not diminish the analogy.
We salve our consciences by telling ourselves that the settlers brought their suffering on themselves by refusing to cooperate with the Disengagement Authority (SELA) in advance of the withdrawal. That balm will not work. Nothing could replace what they lost. Moreover, the State Comptroller’s special report on preparations for the disengagement details the government’s woeful lack of preparation.
The Gush Katif settlements were not bedroom suburbs; they were faith communities of people animated by a shared vision and depth of commitment. The Gush Katif settlers, in Ari Shavit’s words, "buil[t] a kind of model Zionism in the sand . . . [and maintained] on the dunes of Gaza beach a form of the lost Israel soul to which Israel itself is already foreign."
From the beginning, the settlers made clear to the government (through their legal representative the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel) that their primary concern was to remain together with the neighbors with whom they built their lives over nearly four decades. Yet the timeframe for withdrawal was far too short to allow for communal housing solutions, or to give the majority of settlers any chance of finding jobs after evacuation. The government preferred the simple path of handing out checks and sending the evacuees packing.
As of evacuation day, only 10% of the evacuees had permanent housing solutions, and even temporary housing solutions were in place for only 500 of the more than 1500 families. The rest were consigned to overcrowded hotel rooms lacking any marital privacy.
Rabbi Yosef Rimon, a communal rabbi in Alon Shvut and at Yeshivat Har Etzion, was shocked by what he found at one Jerusalem hotel on the eve of the evacuation. No provision had been made for laundry facilities; no lunch was to be offered; the level of kashrut was unacceptable to most of the families who would be arriving; and there were no activities for children. Only one SELA employee was assigned to the hotel, which was better than many, according to the State Comptroller’s report.
Not only did evacuees have to endure bus rides of up to ten hours, after the trauma of watching their communities destroyed, but many families had to wait six hours for a room after they finally arrived at their new "homes."
Had hundreds of volunteers from Alon Shvut not given up their summer vacations to assist at the hotel, the situation would have been catastrophic. That situation was repeated at nearly every hotel: Volunteers – primarily from the national religious community – offered activities for children, did the evacuees’ laundry, and offered the counseling services the government failed to provide.
The hardships of the first days, however, soon paled in comparison to the months of sitting around that followed. The Gush Katif settlers were among the hardest working people in Israel. The tiny settlement bloc produced 6% of the world’s potatoes, and 12-15% of Israel’s total agricultural output.
Nothing in the Gush Katif farmers’ dawn to dusk day prepared them for months of inactivity. Healthy marriages have broken up in the overcrowded conditions, as formerly productive breadwinners lose their self-respect and debts pile up. Children used to running free over large expanses have gone stir crazy in confinement and stopped going to school.
Again, the primary initiative to find jobs for the evacuees has come not from the government but from private volunteers. Perhaps the most significant effort has been JobKatif, run by Rabbi Rimon. The organization has located jobs for 300 evacuees, provided monetary grants to those formerly self-employed to allow them to open stores, paid for retraining courses, and is investigating large-scale employment projects. One hundred volunteers interviewed all those still unemployed, and maintain daily contact to discuss job possibilities, training courses, and provide needed personal support. The JobKatif website links employers and those seeking jobs, and maintains a large data base of employment openings.
The outpouring of volunteer spirit on behalf of the evacuees is inspiring. But the task of finding jobs for the evacuees should not rest primarily on the shoulders of volunteers. The government decided that destroying the Gush Katif communities was a national imperative, and it is for the government to minimize the impact on those expelled from their homes.
Doing so is not only right; it is wise. Israel cannot afford to further alienate its most idealistic elements – those who comprise a disproportionate share of the IDF junior officer corps and the last bastions of the original Zionist ethos.
If the soil bound Israelis of Gush Katif, and all those who share their values, continue to feel that the "digital Israelis of Tel Aviv would throw them out like an object no one wants" (Shavit’s words again), we will have one more proof of the loss of concern for one another in today’s Israel.