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On his last day in office, Disengagement Authority head Yonatan Bassi, who helped oversee the Gaza withdrawal, had two words of advice for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert should he evacuate more territory: "Go slow."
Bassi told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday he believed that six to eight years were needed to properly execute Olmert's realignment plan, in which Israel would withdraw from isolated areas of Judea and Samaria and consolidate the settlers within more condensed blocs in the territories.
"I do not believe that 70,000 people can be evacuated according to the same program carried out in the Gaza Strip," he said. Given its scope, he added, one could not compare realignment with the two-week evacuation of 9,000 people from Gaza and four communities in northern Samaria.
In offering these comments, he stressed that his office had only been charged with compensating and helping to relocate disengagement evacuees. But based on that experience, he said: "If the prime minister would ask my advice, I would say, do it slowly, slowly. We have to do it district by district."
An initiative such as realignment could not even be completed during a single prime ministerial four-year term, said Bassi, as he sat behind his desk in his Jerusalem office.
As much as possible, he said, the program should be implemented through consensus and communication with the settlers involved and with the nation as a whole.
"You must do it in such a way that people will be with you," he said. Otherwise, he warned, there was a risk that many religious conscripts in the army would refuse to execute the plan.
"Think of what could happen if they are against the government's decision," he said. The IDF must address this problem.
In looking ahead to the realignment plan, he said he believed that the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip was also likely to play an important role in improving the process and ensuring that it not become a replay of the disengagement, when most of the Gaza leadership refused to make plans for the day after.
Having watched it happen once, the council now recognized it could happen again, said Bassi. "I know they have begun to speak about how to be prepared for it," said Bassi. The council had learned that it was better to be prepared, he said.
He blamed many of the problems relating to the technical aspects of resettlement on the Gaza regional council which, he said, refused to cooperate with his office and assured the Gaza settlers until the last minute that the plan would never come to pass.
"There is no doubt that if we had [worked together for] half a year before the evacuation a lot of things could have been better," said Bassi.
When he first took office in 2004, most of the Gaza settlers refused to talk to him and complained that he was the stumbling block keeping them from finding a solution. The relationship, however, underwent a sea change following disengagement. "Afterwards they understood that they needed a shoulder to lean on and they found it here," he said.
When Bassi announced this winter that he was not seeking another term of office, Gaza settlers urged him to reconsider. But Bassi, who appreciated their support, told the Post that he was ready for a change and looking forward to relaxing and resting.
He is being replaced by Tzvia Shimon, the deputy director-general in the Prime Minister's Office responsible for manpower and human resources.
This week, Bassi said he visited many of the evacuees to say good-bye, even stopping to speak with the families from Elei Sinai who were living in tents at the outskirts of the Kibbutz Yad Mordechai. As a present they gave Bassi, who is religious, a kippa bearing the name of Elei Sinai.
Bassi said he was glad that his office had compensated some 80 percent of the 1,750 families for the loss of their homes and that only 20 to 30 families were still living in hotels. Even more significant, he said, was the fact that his office had found communal solutions for most of the families who wanted to live together.
He said he had always supported the disengagement plan and had not changed his mind despite the current turmoil in Gaza.
"Pulling out from Gaza is one of the most important measures Israel has implemented since the War of Independence," said Bassi. He added that he never believed disengagement would stop Palestinian terrorism or increase security.
What it did was improve Israel's ability to be a democratic and Jewish state, he said, concluding "it was one of the more courageous decisions ever made by the state of Israel."
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