The homes are painted encouraging shades of yellow. There are patches of verdant grass and playgrounds with brightly colored slides and swings. The sidewalks are paved with attractive reddish-brown stone. But even as the sun peers through the clouds and the rain takes a break, there's no mistaking the pall that hangs over the Nitzan "caravilla" neighborhood where 460 families of former Gaza residents are marking six months since their enforced evacuation.
This is a community in mourning. A community bereaved.
Pnina Hachmon, who found herself plucked from running Hof Ashkelon's kids' summer programs last July to set up and maintain the site on behalf of the council, speaks encouragingly about falling unemployment levels, and prefabs that have so far proved surprisingly resilient amid the winter storms, and 20 buses a day transporting children to 27 schools from Yavne to Beersheba.
But Hachmon lives in Bat Hadar, just outside Ashkelon. She is not one of the Gaza dispossessed.
Her secretary, Rahel, is the authentic voice of the Nitzan neighborhood - determinedly fielding calls and walk-in queries from the 3,800 new "locals" about everything from kindergarten registration to phone-line difficulties, trying to keep the prefab door from banging open and shut with a crash that rocks the office, and detailing her personal variant on the trauma that afflicts everyone here.
A mother of five who lived in secular Nisanit, in the north of the Strip, for 11 years, she and her family, like many - perhaps most - of the Gaza settlers, truly did not believe that disengagement was going to happen. "I was sure that, even at the last moment, the government would reconsider," she says. She signed up for a home here, two weeks before the scheduled pullout, only because "I had to be sure there'd be a roof over my children's heads if worse came to worst."
It did - and the blow, again as for so many Gaza families, was all the graver because of their resolute disinclination to believe it would fall and because of the government's delinquent planning. They were shifted to a Beersheba hotel and then to one in Ashkelon before their prefab was ready for occupation. In those first six weeks of post-pullout chaos her husband was hospitalized with anxiety attacks. By the time he was able to return to his job at a security company, they'd found they could manage without him. Now he's on a government-funded "project manager's course," says Rahel sadly. "Nothing will come of it. There'll be no real job. It's just a way of passing the days."
A few paces along from Pnina and Rahel's office, Yaffa Nahmani, formerly a resident of Gush Katif's largest settlement, Neveh Dekalim, runs a privately funded job-finding service and disputes the assertion that unemployment here has fallen much below 80 percent.
A mother of two whose parents also live at Nitzan, and also lived at Neveh Dekalim where they ran the supermarket, she broadcasts a message of despair even clearer than Rahel's. "People in the middle of their lives were just torn out, and for no reason," she protests, with a passion that flares, as though the pullout had happened yesterday, but then rapidly subsides into bitterness.
"They said leave and there'd be no rocket fire," she says dryly. "It's been the opposite. Now the rockets are falling on Ashkelon, and nothing is done. So much for the security argument."
(Rahel had told me, "It's only a miracle that the power station hasn't been hit so far.")
"Demographics?" Nahmani goes on. "So move the Arabs to one of the other Arab states. It would cost a lot less than the pullout did."
Like many of her relatives and friends, Nahmani does not intend to vote in next month's election. "I've lost my faith in our leadership," she says. "I don't care who gets chosen. Whoever it is, all they'll care about is their job, their fame, their status. They won't care about me."
Does that mean she no longer cares about the fate of her nation? "No, it's not that," she answers wanly. "That pains me a lot. But I'm grappling with my personal loss."
FACE UP on the grass by the front door of the Shaked "caravilla" is the road sign that used to direct visitors to their former settlement: Rafiah Yam. "We'd go back tomorrow if we could," says Orna Shaked, inviting me into her spotless 90-square-meter prefab, its floor newly cleaned, the chairs lifted onto the table, seats down, while the floor tiles dry.
Ami Shaked was a high-profile Gaza settler. He set up and headed the Gaza Coast Regional Council security apparatus. He shot and killed the Palestinian terrorist who murdered Jerusalem couple Rahel and Dov Kol as they headed home from a Shabbat at Ganei Tal late last July, three weeks before the pullout. "It was a miracle that he escaped that incident with his life," says Orna. "He was injured three times by terrorists in other attacks. He worked all hours of the day and night. He gave everything for the public good. And now he is nothing. He sends out his CVs. Nothing."
Orna worked in agriculture, growing tomatoes and eggplants and sweet potatoes and cucumbers. Now she is being offered jobs "as a chambermaid, as a salesperson in a shop. There's a limit," she says, "to what a person can take."
The Shakeds got a million shekels in compensation for their house, and will get more for the lost land, she says. She knows that, when she cites sums like that, the notion of her suffering now will resonate less. But if they cannot rebuild their lives, she says, the money will run out. And they've not been able to make any kind of new start so far.
"We were the victims of political games," Orna says helplessly. "What Labor and Meretz wanted, the Likud did."
Why did Ariel Sharon change course so dramatically? "To deflect attention from the corruption allegations swirling around him. He didn't believe those security and demography arguments. He was there at the founding of our yishuv. He was in the Gush a lot. He couldn't have believed the pullout was good for the state."
Shaked says she feels they were betrayed twice over. "We didn't sneak into Gaza. The state sent us. And for years we were the punch-bags. And we stood firm. If a neighbor got murdered or there was an attack on a bus, of course it scared you, but you moved on. And then the state decided we were no good." First betrayal.
"We had real lives there. We raised children. We had a business. The government wanted us out so much, but now nobody cares what has become of us. Why didn't the government prepare for us?" Second betrayal.
Orna Shaked has a message for families today who are where hers was 18 years ago, looking to settle beyond Israel's sovereign borders for ideological reasons: "Don't do it," she says. "They'll pull out of there, too. And the suffering is unbearable."
But for those Israelis living in Judea and Samaria already, she has another message: "The confrontation at Amona," she says, "shows we should have made more fuss. Then they wouldn't have forgotten us. Ami collected the weapons [from settlers prior to disengagement]. He helped spread a mood of non-violence."
She pauses, caresses the black hair of her baby who has just awoken from an afternoon nap, and rethinks. "Obviously I wouldn't want a soldier hurt," she sighs. "It's terrible that we are hurting each other and the Palestinians celebrate. So what I said about resisting, I said in anger and impotence: We didn't confront the soldiers and now we are forgotten."
The eldest of her five children, two weeks old when they moved to Rafiah Yam, has been in the army for four months now. She was supposed to have been drafted in early August, but that got postponed, for obvious reasons. She was supposed to serve in a combat unit, but decided she didn't want to, for obvious reasons.
"She is embarrassed to wear her uniform," says Orna, still stroking the baby's hair. "People here won't say hello to her when she's wearing it. So now she takes it off on the way home. She doesn't want to serve at all. We're making her do it. We ask her: 'What? You want to join your parents, sitting at home unemployed?'"
AND THEN, at the Hazut home at the southern side of Nitzan, the pall of grief lifts.
From the outside, of course, it looks no different - same prefab, some ivory clean shutters. But inside - a happy maelstrom of shopping bags and pots steaming on the stove and a bustling Yaffa Hazut, newly returned from the grocery store, trying to get too much done in too little time because she's one of 10 siblings and nine are married and the last, her 42-year-old sister, is getting engaged today!
"If you'd have called ahead, I'd have told you I couldn't possibly talk to you," she says gaily. "But since you're here... You want something to drink?"
You cook, I tell her. I'll sit here and ask you questions.
The Hazuts, she tells me, somehow coherent amid the fish and the bubbling vegetables, moved to Neveh Dekalim 19 years ago. "We moved for the quality of life. The ideology came afterwards. And the next generation" - the five kids - "with them it's even stronger."
Relatively speaking, she says, they've been lucky. Her husband was able to reestablish his factory, making doors and windows for the "secure rooms" mandatory in new homes, at the Ashkelon industrial zone, "although of course there were heavy losses involved in the relocation. And I'm teaching in a school in Ashkelon."
But it's been very hard on the kids, "none of whom have really found themselves" at their new schools. "I can cope with anything in this cube," she says. "But I can't have my children suffering, so I'm giving up my job next month to help them with their studies."
Like Yaffa Nahmani, Hazut says she hadn't been planning to vote but that after Amona she will. "I don't want any of them," she stresses. "But I really don't want Olmert. Sharon wouldn't have risked a civil war like Olmert did at Amona."
Her son joined the protesters at the outpost last month, and she said she'd feared he would confront soldiers. "But when I saw the behavior of the cops, I was so shocked that I felt no pity. I didn't want my son hurt, but I thought that if they got hit back, so be it."
Echoing Orna Shaked, she says that if there is another phase of disengagement, "we shouldn't go quietly," even though she acknowledges it risks splitting the people.
"We're behaving like Diaspora Jews, running away," she says. "We think we have to please the United States, the European Union. 'Do us a favor, recognize us, please.' Maybe we need a real split, a real breach, so that the world will understand. Even loss of life, which I prayed wouldn't happen in Gush Katif."
In almost the same breath, without acknowledging the contradiction, she muses that perhaps the Jewish people are about to relive the biblical experience of losing sovereignty "because maybe we haven't been good enough to each other."
Don't we need the US on our side? "Yes we do, but the way to please the US is for Olmert to say 'I can't divide this people. I'll have no people left.' Most of the officers' corps is national religious. The US has an interest in our being a strong, stable nation in an unstable Middle East. So don't destabilize that nation."
Hazut swears she'd be "celebrating" the pullout, and backing full independence for the Palestinians in Gaza, if that brought an end to terrorism and violence. "But they've chosen a leadership to destroy Israel. It doesn't matter how much we relinquish, in Islam we have no right to exist. If that's the jihad, why give in? We're a tiny country. Let's hold onto our land."
She says that the families here, broadly speaking, divide into two groups - those who watch the videos and look at the photo albums of their former lives time and again, and can't move on, and those who've tried to "pull down a screen" and look to the future. She's in the latter camp but partly, she says, because she can't bear to look back. "Maybe in a year so I'll be able to look at the pictures."
She looks up from the stove. "And maybe in a couple of years we'll have moved on from here. And the next group of the evicted will be moving in."
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