Thirteen years after the Gaza evacuation, what has changed?
For five long weeks, Jew stood pitted against Jew, Israeli soldier against Israeli civilian as the Israel Defense Forces evacuated 21 settlements in the coastal enclave. It was home to about 1.3 million Palestinians and 8 000 Israeli settlers.
Egypt had controlled Gaza until 1967, when Israel seized it (along with the West Bank) in the Six-Day War. Thirty-eight years later, Israeli military rule in the strip ended.
Over a two-day period, Israeli soldiers went from house to house asking residents to leave voluntarily. After the deadline passed, thousands of troops entered the strip to forcibly remove the hundreds of families who’d remained, buoyed by thousands of non-residents who’d come to support them.
I remember standing in Neve Dekalim, the largest settlement in the Gush Katif block, where a group of teenagers had barricaded themselves inside a synagogue. Crying, their prayer shawls flailing in all directions, they lay prostrate on the ground with their legs and arms clawing into the furniture. It took four soldiers – one soldier per limb – to disentangle them, and drag each distraught protestor onto an awaiting bus.
A line of female soldiers had cordoned off one end of a road where they stood with their arms linked together to prevent anyone from getting through. I can still see one of them crying, unable to wipe away her tears as they dripped slowly and quietly down her face. I had to turn away.
Nearby, a group of male soldiers was knocking on the front door of a house that was suddenly opened by a young mother who threw herself at them, banging onto their chests and sobbing, begging them not to come in.
And so, the scenes repeated themselves…
Months later, I would return to the same spot, and while interviewing a Palestinian politician in Khan Younis city, I looked through the barbed wire of his living room window onto the remains of where those settlements had once stood. By then, there was just one big pile of rubble.
About 3 000 homes were destroyed by the soldiers as they withdrew. The synagogues, most of the greenhouses and infrastructure, such as pipes, were later razed to the ground by rioting, jubilant and looting Gazans. Palestinian police had been unable to control the thousands who’d flocked there.
Today, some of those former settlement streets are still visible in the sand dunes. A former basketball stadium is the main hall of the College of Sports at Al Aqsa University’s south campus. Erstwhile agricultural fields are now used by Hamas for military training. An amusement park has also been built in the area.
Then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whom the settlers accused of betraying them (he had cut the inaugural ribbon at some of their settlements), had hoped the move would bolster Israel’s security. He believed it would jump-start the peace process with the Palestinians.
Chief of Staff Dan Halutz said at the time, “The disengagement decision holds hope for a better future. It transfers responsibility for the strip to the Palestinians who will be in charge of their destiny.”
But the settlers felt differently. I first met former South African Michael Goldschmidt and his Israeli wife Rivka in their beautiful double story house in the Ganei Tal settlement, where they’d lived for 28 years. Michael grew amaryllis bulbs in his hothouses, and Rivka was a school teacher. They told me that when the soldiers had first arrived with evacuation orders, they’d offered them a glass of water, and then with an accusatory look, demanded that they answer the question, “How could you?”
They were among those who chose to drive out of Gaza voluntarily in their own vehicles “to retain a little of our dignity”.
Weeks later, I met them again in Hafez Hayyim kibbutz, where we sat on the grass outside caravan-type houses they’d been temporarily provided with. Rivka told me that she couldn’t bear to watch the television news, and had been informed by a neighbour that her house has been filmed going up in flames.
“Mark my words,” Rivka insisted then, “Nothing will change. We were the human shields against the terror in Gaza. By removing us, the terror will reach closer into Israel. Does anyone in the world really think that by taking us out, this will solve the problem?”
Ironically, it wasn’t only the settlers who disapproved of Sharon’s plans. The Israeli left viewed the withdrawal as a way of stalling negotiations, and increasing Israel’s presence in the West Bank.
It turned a sizeable percentage of the Israeli population against considering similar such withdrawals from the West Bank. It also did not address wider issues of occupation – Jerusalem continues to retain control over Gaza’s borders, airspace, coastline, infrastructure, and the like. Thirteen years on, and in retrospect, it achieved nothing.
Evacuees received generous compensation, with larger families getting up to two million shekels (almost R8.5 million), but relocation and moving into new homes took a long time.
Today, all that remains of the community is a small museum near Machaneh Yehuda in Jerusalem. Very moving, it showcases remnants like the key to a synagogue, and the menorah from the last settlement to be evacuated, Netzarim.
On that final day, soldiers and settlers prayed together in the synagogue, and then walked through the streets, carrying whatever they could.
“It was a national disaster,” Maj Gen and politician, Uzi Dayan, insists. “In my opinion, this will go down in history as the sixth disastrous event of Tisha B’av [the destruction of the Temples].”