Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

6 Ellul 5766 - August 30, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Fresh Troubles Crowd Out the Old — The Ongoing Agony of the Gush Katif Evacuees

by T. Katz

A complete and utter fiasco is the best way to sum up the State of Israel's treatment of the families that were expelled a year ago from the settlements of Gush Katif and Northern Samaria. The State Comptroller's report issued six months ago contained scathing criticism of the government's handling of the situation but nothing has changed since then.

Right now, the caravans housing the evacuees are roasting in the heat of the late summer; in a few months they'll freeze in the cold and damp of winter. Their inhabitants are growing sicker, poorer and more depressed with every passing day. Unemployment is worsening, while economic and family tensions are rising. It's hard to escape the feeling that the mishandling of the situation is intentional.

The Ticking Clock

In four years' time the State of Israel will have to wrestle with a weighty issue: what are more important, watermelons or human beings?

After taking a close look at the State's track record in dealing with the Katif evacuees one gets the feeling that the watermelons will win. After all, what compares to watermelon on a hot summer's day? What could be more Israeli than a cool, refreshing wedge of red watermelon?

In four years time, the caravilla (a word formed from the two words "caravan" and "villa" and meaning a house ("villa") that is manufactured "caravan") site in Nitzan where the Katif evacuees are being housed "temporarily," is supposed to revert to the ownership of one of the nearby kibbutzim and to its original use, growing watermelons. If no permanent solution for the Katif families has been found by then it doesn't take much effort to imagine the likely outcome.

It's altogether unclear what, if any, progress has actually been made on this issue. Over the past year, meeting after meeting has taken place. Committees have convened and consultations have been held, so far, all apparently without any practical outcome.

In general, the meetings with the executive committee and its derivative bodies have been fruitless because no records whatsoever were taken of the proceedings. Chagit Yaron, a former resident of Neveh Dekalim who now lives in one of the caravillas at Nitzan and is a member of the settlement's secretariat who bears responsibility for the community, told Yated Ne'eman, "We sat for hours and hours and for days and not a single word was documented. Yonatan Bassi [then the head of Selah, the government agency charged with handling the expellees compensation claims] made heaps of promises — and the next day he said in amazement, `I promised? Never!' The meetings with government departments were a little more organized but there too, everything is mired in bureaucracy and has ground to a halt."

And meanwhile, what about the people whose futures hang in the balance? What about the human beings who have been tossed aside like some discarded, unwanted appliance, onto the caravilla and caravan sites? ("Sites" is too nice a word. It's a misleading description. These places are no tourist spots. "Refugee camps" would be more accurate, shocking though the associations are.) Like the wearying, endless, futile words, the folk living there are being wearied and worn down by the endless procrastination.

Unrequited Hopes

Take Ezra Eldad for example. For twenty-eight years Ezra put his heart and soul into farming the land at Ganei Tal where the flowers and spices that grew in profusion in his greenhouses yielded bumper crops and bumper profits. A year after the evacuation, Ezra is still living at the caravilla site at Yad Binyamin, virtually unemployed, with barely a quarter of a job. Yes, promises were made that substitute land would be found and that everything would work out. In the meantime though, the Eldad family, like many others in similar situations, are living off the compensation money they received. What will happen when that runs out? "Nobody knows," Ezra told us. "But that's how things are. There's no alternative."

Why hasn't Ezra received any land? How can a sovereign state drive a man out of his home and off his land without giving him even the minimum that could be considered a reasonable exchange?

When you listen to the horrifying stories that the Katif evacuees tell and come face-to-face with the obtuseness of officialdom, the apathy of the decision makers and the highly professional bureaucracy that together amount to a splendid fiasco, one forgets about getting any answers. Even the questions become irrelevant.

And perhaps they are all just excuses. It could well be that all the committees, meetings and promises are simply one big cover-up for unparalleled heartlessness, cruelty and torment.

A lot has been said about the flawed and scandalous planning. Only the residents of two settlements are living in caravans on lands that are to become their future permanent homes — Shomriyah and Pe'at Sadeh (in Mavki'im). And there too, the contracts have not been finalized. Let's hope there are no surprises.

The other evacuees are scattered here and there, trying to find one another while living on the caravan sites. To this day, ninety-one families still live in extremely difficult conditions, in hotels, guest houses or tents. Thirty-five families from Elei Sinai live in tents. Virtually not a single community has a signed agreement for a permanent place to live.

The State Comptroller's report, published half a year after the Gaza disengagement (about six months ago), lays the blame squarely on the State and the Selah executive board. "Though long months have passed, many of the evacuees are still living in temporary dwellings and lack jobs. The findings that emerge from the current reports clearly show that the Prime Minister's Office, the Selah executive board and several of the designated departments have given insufficient consideration to the evacuees' reabsorption.

"Without any doubt, the evacuees, children and adults, the elderly and the young, have all suffered a harsh trauma, of the highest order, with their evacuation from the Gaza Strip and the way in which it was carried out. They have paid a very high personal cost in consequence of the evacuation. The obligation to improve their situations and the conditions in which they live rests upon the State and its institutions — a most important responsibility."

The Comptroller said it? So what? The State continues merrily along its own path.

United We Stand

"Every passing day strengthens our conviction that this isn't just some miserable collection of mistakes," says Chagit Yaron. "We feel that somebody deliberately intended to shatter our communities and unravel the fabric of our society."

If a civilized country decides that for one reason or another it has to move some of its civilians, Yaron adds, it gauges the mood within the community and makes alternative arrangements. Only then does it go about transplanting such a delicate plant, together with the soil in which it grows, to its new permanent home. The Gush Katif leaders spoke about the importance of community until their throats were dry but the decision makers took no notice and are now proposing unhelpful solutions.

"The Gush Katif settlements carry the stigma of having been wealthy places," Chagit Yaron explains. "But it's important to realize that a cross section of the settlers showed very great socioeconomic contrasts."

She describes Neveh Dekalim as having been "a heterogeneous settlement; a development town that succeeded in bridging the [economic] gaps between its inhabitants." While Yaron owned her home in Neveh Dekalim, making her eligible to receive a plot of land and a house to replace the one she lost, others lived in rented accommodations, like the thirty- five families of the Bnei Menasheh community whose apartments were provided by Amidar. There is no way that the amount of compensation to which they are entitled will be sufficient for another home.

"They never owned a home," explain the powers-that-be, absolutely incapable of grasping why people are upset. "So what do they want now? To extort money from the State?"

This is a cynical response. These families lived in Neveh Dekalim in rented accommodations and never asked the State for anything. Isn't the onus upon the State to find a way of restoring the original situation? They certainly aren't looking for luxury accommodations. All they want is to live in a similar environment, within a warm and supportive community.

Chagit Yaron: "They say to me, `Yaron, what do you care? You'll receive your home and the land that is due to you. Why are you waging campaigns on behalf of others? Take what you deserve and enjoy it.' There's no way we'll agree to that. We were a community. We supported one another. We won't allow them to dismember the integrated unit that was known as Neveh Dekalim."

As well as those who rented their homes, there are others who lived in small houses. They are also entitled to trifling compensation, nowhere near enough to purchase a home of a similar size.

What can be done? While the Neveh Dekalim community has no intention of allowing its red lines to be crossed, the negotiations are wearying and complicated, involving no end of documents, contracts, stipulations, meetings and misleading proposals. Meanwhile, a sense of hopelessness becomes more and more tangible.

The Economic Fallout

The Council of Gush Katif Settlers has just published a survey of its members' situations, containing clear figures.

The settlers submitted a total of 1,963 claims relating to living accommodations. Final verdicts have been given in 1564 cases — that is, in only eighty percent of the claims. However — and herein lies the rub — even the rendering of a final verdict bears no relation to actually receiving the compensation. 650 files relate to private assessments where a final decision is still pending, or a decision has been reached to accept a lower assessment. One major bone of contention that is blocking the way to finalizing the arrangements for new living accommodations is the reliability of the work of the government assessors.

It should be borne in mind that many of the settlers lost their jobs and are currently living off their compensation money. By the time they are assigned land on which to build, they may not have enough money left either to build or to purchase homes.

"The inhabitants of Gush Katif were productive citizens who made an important contribution to the economy," Chagit Yaron says sadly. "Now they have become an economic burden on the State."

Ezra Eldad, who was an outstanding agriculturist for a generation, is now virtually unemployed. If and when he is provided with land, this fifty-seven-year-old will have to start anew, getting to know his land and the crops for which it is suited and new growing techniques. He will also have to seek new export markets abroad, for the Katif farmers lost their overseas purchasers and channels of commerce.

Can a man of sixty who has seen his life's work destroyed before his eyes find the enormous motivation necessary in order to start a new life and career and to cope with an unfamiliar world? Fortunately, Eldad's wife is still employed in the place where she worked before the evacuation.

What is a family to do when both parents are unemployed? And there are many such families. The figures show that some five hundred families have suffered a significant downturn in their finances. They receive food packages and other aid from welfare organizations.

At present, over fifty-one percent of the Gush Katif residents are unemployed (some one thousand three hundred are looking for work). The majority no longer receive unemployment allowance. At the Nitzan caravilla site, unemployment stands at seventy percent and fifty-seven percent are looking for work. Those who were self-employed are not entitled to unemployment benefits, which is the reason why so many are supporting themselves from their compensation money. Out of seven hundred businesses, only one hundred and fifty were reopened.

The farmers were the hardest hit. Over thirty percent of the families that lived in Gush Katif supported themselves from farming. Only a handful have gone back to the same type of work.

This is a major failure on the State's part. The breakdown of occupations among the Katif population was well known. The authorities knew exactly how many farmers there were and what their names were but no new land was provided for them to farm.

Worse still, the insensitive treatment of the farmers continues. One hundred and forty-one farmers have so far submitted claims due to the loss of their land but in only ten cases — just seven percent — have final verdicts been given. Note that this doesn't represent seven percent of all the farmers, because sixty-six percent haven't yet submitted claims to the executive, partly because the process is so drawn out, but mainly because of the complicated nature of the documents that have to be submitted. Thus, only about two percent of all the farmers have actually received a final verdict.

Business owners have it no easier. Since some of the basic guidelines as to how compensation for businesses is to be calculated have yet to be given, there are major delays in processing the claims of business owners. For example, tens of families are still waiting to be told whether or not families who owned more than one business can submit separate claims for the different businesses that they owned. Hitherto, instead of giving full compensation for each business separately, the profits of one business were used to offset the losses of another, resulting in far lower compensation.

Coping with the New Reality

How are former farmers and business owners who want to do any kind of work available so that they can provide for their families, actually supporting themselves?

Before the Gaza pullout Baruch Rosen (not his real name) was self-employed, earning approximately thirty thousand shekels a month. His business was one of the casualties of the disengagement. "I decided not to let it break me" he told us. "We built up that business by ourselves. Our entire family were involved in it and we were proud of it. Yet, despite everything, I always said to the children, `If they choliloh drive us out and the business is lost we won't sit idly by. We'll look for different work. Even if they take away our home and the life that we've built here, we won't let them take away our spirit.' "

And what happened when they did? Baruch sought work as soon as he could. Gritting his teeth, he didn't indulge in regrets and recriminations but went out and found a job — where he works hard for three-and-a-half thousand shekels a month, that is, just over a tenth of his previous income.

"It was the only suitable position, so I took it," he says. "You ask why? Do you have any other work to offer me?" Baruch's wife, however, couldn't find any work. They took stock of their situation. They now have to manage on three- and-a-half thousand shekels a month instead of thirty thousand.

"Never mind the humiliation," says Baruch. "Please note that instead of being wealthy we are now paupers."

Why hasn't the State arranged for some form of occupation for such people? Actually, with typical perversity it does.

At the time of the disengagement the representatives of the communities told the executive board that any irrelevant job proposals that might be offered by some distant official sitting in an air-conditioned office would be of no help. They made it clear that if the authorities were sincerely interested in helping the evacuees, they should liaise with someone within the community who was familiar with people's mood and feelings.

Naturally, the executive board decided that they, and only they, would make the decisions. The result is that valuable time has been wasted and many people have sunk into the rut of unemployment. Only recently has one of the evacuees been appointed to assist the unemployed — too little and too late. He visits people at home, reviews their options with them and even accompanies them to job interviews.

The Heaviest Price of All

The multiple trauma of losing one's home and livelihood and the consequent financial strain have caused — and are still causing — irreparable damage in a number of areas. One area where the damage is most devastating is within the family.

The Katif Council's survey, which was submitted to the relevant special Knesset committee (the Subcommittee for Dealing with the Evacuees) reports that over fifty families have broken up. Chagit Yaron tells us that in the Neveh Dekalim community alone over ten families are in the process of splitting up. It's not hard to see why.

Evacuation and resettlement brought extra expenses — from replacing household equipment that was damaged in transit or storage, to paying for emotional counselling — precisely at a time when unemployment and delayed payment of compensation impose financial strictures that would be hard to deal with even in a normal situation. The resulting pressures are intense, imposing strains and tensions which lead to accusations and blame laying and a breakdown of communications.

Dreadful behavioral and emotional damage has also been caused, for which nothing can compensate. The Gaza disengagement had far-reaching effects on the impressionable children and youth. Many children under twelve have developed problems in paying attention and concentrating. Many of them are having problems integrating into their new schools and their scholastic achievement has drastically declined.

The year of their struggle and the four months they spent outside any proper educational framework have put the Katif students a year behind the general level of children their ages. Even those who were strongly motivated to integrate and succeed have not been able to do so properly because of the tardy process of absorbing the evacuees in temporary places of learning.

Many of the under-twelves exhibit post-traumatic behavioral patterns: panic attacks, a rise in violent behavior, hair loss, bed wetting, challenging parental authority and similar symptoms.

The older youth have paid a terribly high price for what they have been through. Naturally, they were active participants in the struggle against the expulsion and, moreover, they grasped the dimensions of the tragedy. There have been severe problems of usurping parental authority, anger and contempt for rabbonim and teachers, and a decline in religious observance and faith.

Many youngsters who were at the forefront of the struggle and took the brunt of the assault have become contemptuous of school and institutions of learning. Thirty percent have stopped attending school and have quietly fallen by the wayside. Others, who continue school attendance, had problems in adapting, showed a decline in academic level and failed their matriculation (Bagrut). Idleness and inactivity have led to feelings of rootlessness and to aimless wandering.

The deepest effects are the most severe. Many youngsters are having problems in establishing solid relationships (`Everything is only temporary anyway so why make the effort?'). Others have taken to using drugs. There have been over ten cases of severe eating and digestive disorders. Nine youngsters have been hospitalized for psychiatric care, while milder cases receive psychological care within the community.

The adults have their own set of problems. Alongside severe emotional reactions such as depression, anger, withdrawal, problems in functioning and deep melancholy, there have been physiological responses too. These include increases in medicine-taking, a high incidence of heart problems (there have been more then ten heart attacks at the Nitzan caravilla site alone), hospitalizations for a range of conditions and an unexplained rise in the incidence of cancers. In the past year there were a number a deaths as a result — direct or indirect — of the expulsion. "He died from grief" is a sentence that is heard far too often.

Individual stories are terribly sad; when seen together they form a mosaic that yields a picture of sordid, shocking neglect on the part of the State. It took just one week last summer to demolish what people had spent their lives building. In a whole year, officialdom has not been able to decide how to carry through compensation and rehabilitation.

The State Comptroller's report contained the following unambiguous guidelines for dealing with the evacuees and their problems:

"There must not be a single evacuee who is not assured of the full attention of the responsible authorities, or of their full assistance. All the lines of investigation in these reports point to the State and its institutions. It must overcome all and any budgetary considerations and give first priority to the resettlement and rehabilitation of the evacuees. Every delay in achieving this goal is clear evidence of an ongoing failure. The evacuees are entitled to be helped immediately, the sooner the better."

In the meantime nobody seems to be greatly perturbed. The evacuees' leaders say that the Comptroller's next report will recommend opening a criminal investigation into the official foot dragging and procrastination.

As to the treatment they are receiving, the evacuees just say, "Would that four years' time will see us living in our own homes, on our own land. We've already learned our lesson. We have no hopes and no expectations. Deep down we have the feeling that we're going to be spending the prime of our lives here on the caravan sites."


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