'Elei Sinai - 317 days without a home," read the sign last week on the shoulder of Route 4 at the Yad Mordechai Junction. Behind the sign, on a five-dunam stretch of dirt and weeds next to the gas station and restaurant at the junction, stands the protest tent camp where approximately 30 of the 84 families uprooted from the Gush Katif settlement of Elei Sinai have been living for the last 10 months since disengagement.
"We walked out of Elei Sinai [about 6 km. away] on August 21. It took us about six hours because we stopped along the way," said Yossi Barbi, 50, a hearty, down-to-earth personnel company employee sitting out a day off in the big tent that serves as the camp's kitchen, dining room and TV room, and which is covered with netting against the ferocious summer heat. "We thought we would be here for a couple of days, that somebody would realize that they couldn't just leave us like this."
That was 10 months and many promises ago.
The tent dwellers at Yad Mordechai are the only evacuees among the roughly 9,000 from Gush Katif and northern Samaria who are living in tents, but they are by no means the only ones who haven't found a permanent housing solution yet; a recent report to the Knesset found 92 percent of the victims of disengagement to be in that boat. The ones at Yad Mordechai, however, may be the most determined. And when it comes to where, how and with whom they want to live, they may also be the most picky.
Given that they set up camp on the bare ground next to a freeway intersection, the families have kept the community in excellent shape; it looks sort of like a small, very well-disciplined army outpost. They live in large tents, with each family having its own smaller tent or cordoned-off area. Nevertheless, "Moshe," an off-duty IDF major among them, says, "There's no privacy here."
They have a walk-in freezer next to a caravan with stoves, microwaves and lockers for a kitchen.
"Oh sure, the government came here and asked how much money we needed," a woman on kitchen duty said in sarcastic reply to my question if the group had gotten any financial aid. "Not one agora," she added, without sarcasm, before going out to lay tablecloths on the long tables in the communal dining room, next to the carpeted den with a TV set, newspaper rack and chairs all around.
Asked what he disliked worst about the camp, Assaf, nine, playing Monopoly at a table with a couple of friends, replied, "The heat." Asked what he liked best, he said, "Going into the [walk-in] freezer."
Said Barbi, "The summer is harder than the winter," recalling that they got through the rains with umbrellas and tarps, while even the air conditioning pumped by generator through the big white "residential" tents hardly diminishes the July heat in the western Negev, made all the more intolerable by the proximity to the Mediterranean.
ABOUT 20 minutes before I arrived, a Kassam fell on the other side of the highway, some 200 meters away.
"It didn't even faze us, there have been so many," said Moshe, the brownish smoke from the crash still visible in the distance. "They're firing from Elei Sinai," he added; a few days later, the IDF went into the ruins of Elei Sinai and those of neighboring Nissanit and Dugit to "clean out" the Kassams and their launchers.
"We said this was going to happen, and we're still waiting for the people in charge to admit they made a mistake," said Barbi.
Since that August 21 when Elei Sinai was disbanded, the 84 families have split into four groups, all staying nearby. One is at Kibbutz Or Haner, waiting for their homes to be built in the community settlement of Bat Hadar, near Ashkelon. Another is in Kibbutz Karmiya, who've agreed to move to new homes to be constructed at Moshav Talmei Yaffe. A third is scattered throughout the south, hoping for the government to build them a new neighborhood near Michmoret beach in the Hadera area, which is extremely unlikely because that is a very expensive, highly preferred piece of land; the government is interested in building for the evacuees in the "national priority areas" of the Negev and Galilee.
And then there is the unsettled community at Yad Mordechai. Their complaint is not against SELA, the disengagement administration run until the beginning of this month by Yonatan Bassi, who made way for Zvia Shimon, a former senior member of prime minister Ariel Sharon's bureau.
"Yonatan Bassi is a good guy," said Moshe. Bassi came to say good-bye to the tent dwellers the previous week; they gave him a kippa with Elei Sinai's symbol on it.
In fact, Bassi was instrumental in clearing the bureaucratic obstacles in the government to getting the Yad Mordechai contingent into the beautiful, beachfront Palmahim kibbutz - as permanent members. The two sides had carried on a courtship of many months, with the kibbutzniks coming to the tent camp for a barbecue over Shavuot, and the former settlers going to Palmachim for a tree-planting.
But recently the kibbutz held a vote on whether to take Yad Mordechai families in as new members, and while it passed by a solid majority, it did not get the necessary two-thirds vote. In the view of the nay-sayers, the government was not being generous enough in the additional land it was prepared to allocate to Palmahim for the new members.
This has left a rather bitter taste in the mouths of the residents of the tent camp.
"I'd be very happy to hear that Palmahim had gone bankrupt," said David Fema, 19, despite the attempts by others at the table to moderate his comments.
I asked why it was that all the 9,000 other evacuees had found at least temporary accommodations - in "caravillas" at various sites, in kibbutzim, in moshavim or in rented homes in Sderot, Ashkelon and other places. At first, the answers that came were fairly self-congratulatory.
"Because we're not willing to split up our community," said Barbi.
"Because we're not willing to accept a temporary solution," said Moshe.
But when I asked why they hadn't joined up with other groups from Elei Sinai and at least gotten roofs over their heads, the choosiness of the tent-dwellers became clear.
They didn't want to go with the group at Kibbutz Or Haner because they didn't want to move to Bat Hadar.
"Bat Hadar is open to anyone, it's like living in any neighborhood in a city or suburb," said Barbi. "We want a closed community, either to ourselves, in a kibbutz or in a moshav."
They don't want to join the group, now dispersed, living in rented family homes, that is aiming quixotically for a new community at Michmoret, because they want to stay in the same area - the western Negev.
"Even Palmahim is a long way for me," said Barbi. "I'd have to find a new job, and so would my wife. It would require a complete switch."
Then why not go live with the former Elei Sinai settlers at Karmiya, who will be going to live at Talmei Yaffe? After a little prodding, Moshe admitted the Karmiya group included settlers from Dugit and Nissanit, and the folks at Yad Mordechai wanted to live together only with people originally from Elei Sinai.
"The best arrangement would have been if all the 21 settlements [in Gaza] would have stayed together in 21 new communities," said Moshe.
What about joining a West Bank settlement?
"We're not fanatics," said Moshe.
"Why do you call them all fanatics?" insisted Barbi.
"Okay, only 50% are fanatics," Moshe said dryly.
"Not even 1%," maintained Barbi.
Both agreed, however, that Judea and Samaria were missing the key ingredient that Elei Sinai had.
"We were 800 meters from the sea," said Barbi. "The sea is the most important thing."
"Maybe the government can bring the sea to Judea and Samaria?" Moshe suggested.
Avi Farhan, unofficial leader of the dispersed group of ex-Elei Sinai settlers who have their hearts set on Michmoret beach, said that what's happened with his former neighbors has happened "to just about every settlement - there have been divisions and disputes caused by the trauma of disengagement."
The mitosis of Elei Sinai into four separate groups, said Farhan, now renting a house in Sderot with his family, their belongings stored at a friend's kibbutz, came because of ideological differences - whether or not to negotiate a deal with the government, whether or not to "go to war over your home."
At Yad Mordechai, however, the tent-dwellers say this is not so, that what split the 84 families up was simply different preferences over where they wanted to live.
"There's no bad blood between us," said Barbi, noting that members of all four groups came to Yad Mordechai for a Mimouna celebration.
THE CAMPERS may be living rough, but they're not poor. They've kept the jobs they had when they lived in Elei Sinai and their cars and vans are parked at the edge of the area. The younger kids go to school at Kibbutz Sha'ar Hanegev, the older ones to high school in Ashkelon.
"We've gained weight since we came here," Barbi explained, "because whoever's on cooking detail doesn't want to make a bad impression, so they cook the dishes they do best."
Their schoolmates and workmates often don't know what to make of them - that they go home to tents instead of regular homes.
"They think we don't really sleep here, that it's a show. I tell them, 'Come over any time of the night you want, and you'll see if we sleep here or not," said Aharon Fema, 44, an insurance salesman and David Fema's father.
"I have left-wing friends who disagree with the settlements but understand that what we're doing here doesn't have to do with right or left, and I have other friends who tell me, 'Kol hakavod.' But mostly they just seem amazed that we're living like this," said David.
They've had visits from a whole array of politicians, from Labor on the Left to National Union on the Right, and all pledged their sympathy and solidarity, for what it was worth.
I visited a few days into the current conflagration in Gaza. The protesters' views tend to be extremely hawkish.
"They have to erase Beit Hanun," said one of them.
"What is this that they dictate terms to us. They have to know that either they give us back our soldier [Cpt. Gilad Shalit] or we destroy a city of theirs," said another.
"The Chechnyans once kidnapped a Russian diplomat, and the Russians killed the kidnappers' families, and the kidnappers gave back the diplomat," said one other.
They also feel that the center of the country has abandoned not only them, but also the people in Sderot and anybody else near the border.
"People in the center don't know what a Kassam is, what a settlement is, where the border is," said Moshe. "It doesn't affect them so they don't care. The Kassams can hit Sderot, Ashkelon, even Ashdod. They won't start to pay attention until they get to about Rishon."
ON THE SIDE of the walk-in freezer, a pair of large aerial photos of Elei Sinai are tacked up.
"Elei Sinai was the most beautiful place in the country," said Barbi. "For 20 years, I didn't lock my house, I left the keys in my car. People can't understand that."
Since the deal with Palmahim fell through, the tent campers at Yad Mordechai are back in negotiations with Kibbutz Nahsholim, on the beach south of Haifa, to move in with them.
"When they give us something to consider, we'll consider it," said Barbi, by now a seasoned negotiator.
For all the difficulties of living off the edge of a highway, and for all the stark comparison between their home today and their home in Elei Sinai, the people here say there have been benefits as well.
"I've gotten to know people better here than I knew them in 23 years at Elei Sinai," said Moshe. There have been tiny irritations - the noise of someone's TV or radio that keeps the next tent awake, the children running in and out of everyone's midst all the time, the lack of privacy.
"This has brought us closer together. We're here for a common goal," Moshe asserted. "The settlement of Elei Sinai was destroyed, but in the end it's not the walls of the houses that are important, but the community. You can tear down a house and rebuild it anywhere, but you can't do that with a community of people."
Asked if he was optimistic that in the end, this community would stay together in the western Negev with a beach nearby - in a place that at least recalled Elei Sinai - Barbi smiled and replied, "If we didn't believe that, we wouldn't be here."