gardening tree 88 .
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Looking over the rolling farm land to the west, Yaffa Dahan took a deep breath. "Over those hills, that's it," she pointed, before falling silent. Half a minute later, she continued. "It's so hard to be so close, because really, we're so far away."
Like nearly everyone else at this Tu Bishvat tree-planting ceremony, Dahan, a mother of four, used to live over those hills, in Gaza. But seeking to bridge that distance - spiritually if not physically - some 2,000 Gaza evacuees gathered next to Kibbutz Kissufim Monday, just a few kilometers from the Kissufim Checkpoint that once led to their homes, to plant trees in honor of Tu Bishvat.
So on a cool day, when the sun chose not to show itself, a ridge next to the kibbutz nevertheless glowed orange. Orange ribbons were tied to heads, dogs and belt loops. Orange shirts, dusted off from six months ago, were back in style for an afternoon. Even the food set out for the crowd - oranges - made a statement: That this was "holy ground," as many here called it, and their bond with it would not be broken.
"We came here today to continue our connection to this land, because this land is our eternal connection to the land of Israel," Kadosh Gabi, the rabbi of Ganei Tal, told the gathering.
Following his words, a group of teenage girls read a poem they wrote collectively, comparing Gush Katif to the holiday's honorees. "We were a big tree there," a line of the poem read, "with many leaves, and blossoms, and deep roots."
Afterwards, the crowd walked down the hill to the pre-dug holes separated into plots of the different Gaza communities. Neveh Dekalim, Gadid, Pe'at Sadeh, Morag, Kfar Darom and all the others were there.
The former settlers dug the final inches and planted the seeds with the green thumbs so many of them developed cultivating the much harsher sand dunes of their desert oasis.
But instead of dispersing after the planting was done, the crowd lingered.
The Gaza reunion, brought about by Tu Bishvat, was too precious to leave.
"This is what gives us the strength to continue," said Itsik Konki, 42, a former resident of Neveh Dekalim who came with his wife, children and grandson. As he spoke to a reporter, two men interrupted the conversation to give him hugs. "We came here for the holiday, sure. But to see our friends from Gush Katif, that's the best part."
Though around 2,000 Gaza evacuees are living in Nitzan, the rest are scattered across the country. From Ashkelon to Jerusalem to the Golan, they mostly live in caravans and hotels, and are often far away from many they once saw on a daily basis and miss just as often now.
"It brings us back to the memories, it's fun to see everyone," said Daliya Danino, 42, who spoke with three other women who were also from Neveh Dekalim. "It's not like a city where you don't even know the people below you. There, we were all family and we miss each other so, so much."
But the nostalgia was not altogether a pleasant one. Every rock, every tree and every highway sign from which the words "Gush Katif" were conspicuously absent, brought with it a ting of melancholy that was impossible for some to shake.
"I'm trembling now being here, being reminded of everything," said Sabir Atias, 17. She recalled the night she left her house in Gush Katif, her father having "sold" it to two otherwise out-of-luck reporters for NIS 500 for the duration of its existence. "It felt like I had already moved forward and left it all behind. But when I come back here I come back to the past, and it feels like a wound that will never fully heal."
In addition to missing the friends and house she left behind, Atias said it was "the little things" of life in Nitzan that weighed on her on a daily basis.
"There are no birds," she said of caravan park built by the government in a matter of months, "I don't know why."
The point of coming to Kissufim for the ceremony was to recapture as much as possible of the life that was, said Lior Kalfa, the head of a committee organized by the former Gaza settlers to represent them. "This is the place that is closest on earth to Gush Katif," he said.
But in planting the new trees so close to the roots of the stumps of the recently felled ones, a sense of profound loss saturated the hills of Kissufim on a holiday of birth.
"Do you know what it is like to come here?" Konki asked. "We want to be over there," he said, pointing to Gaza. "Over there. Over there. Just on the other side of that hill is the entrance to our homes."
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