Israeli Gaza evacuees remain traumatized 15 years after Disengagement

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: The Disengagement began on August 15 in the Gregorian calendar, but in the Hebrew calendar, the events occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Tisha Be’av fast.

ISRAELI SECURITY FORCES evacuate an opponent of the Disengagement plan from Kfar Darom in the Gush Katif settlement bloc in August 2015. (photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
ISRAELI SECURITY FORCES evacuate an opponent of the Disengagement plan from Kfar Darom in the Gush Katif settlement bloc in August 2015.
(photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
“Mother, what home are we returning to,” Batsheva Malka’s younger children would ask as they drove on the roads in southern Israel in the immediate aftermath of the 2005 Disengagement.
“They always asked this,” she said.
There were many times, when she herself would look out the car window and realize that she was near the Kissufim crossing, on her way to a home that had been destroyed.
“The car simply automatically went to Kissufim,” she said.
The small dark haired woman, a mother of five, is one of some 10,000 settlers the government evacuated from 25 settlements 15 years ago as part of the 2005 Disengagement Plan. This included the complete demolition of 21 communities in the Gaza Strip and the complete withdrawal from that area, as well as the destruction of four communities in Samaria.
This week, she recalled for The Jerusalem Post the moments that led up to those tumultuous days as well as the aftermath.
According to the Gregorian calendar, the Disengagement began on August 15, with the first evacuation occurring on the 17, including from the main settlement Neve Dekalim. But on the Hebrew calendar, the events occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Tisha Be’av fast.
It is this day the evacuees most often link with the evacuation. 
IT WAS NOT exactly the storyline that Malka first imagined when she and her husband moved to the Gaza settlement of Neve Deklaim from Beersheba in 1988.
Back then, the community was only five years old. She herself was a young mother, with only two of her five children, ages eight months and two years.
Her sister already lived there, and the couple, who had only been married for four years, sought to leave the city.
“We fell in love with it when we visited and we said this is the time to do this,” Malka said.
“It was quiet, pastoral, wide, green, with amazing scenery and the kind of soul calming silence that can’t be found anywhere else,” she recalled.
Initially they traveled everywhere in Gaza, into the nearby Palestinian cities, to the other Jewish settlements, into southern Israel, without any fear.
But then, just as their roots and love of the place grew, so did the danger.
Malka recalled how one of the “before and after” moments for her, was the May 1992 death of Rabbi Shimon Tzvi Biran in a stabbing terror attack just outside the gates of the Kfar Darom community.
Biran was on his way to the Torah and Land Institute where he worked, and where she was a nursery school teacher. Malka recalled how she had pulled into the parking lot while medics were still trying to revive him.
Then there was the 1993 Oslo Accords, which sectioned off portions of the Gaza Strip. The roads became more dangerous and a bypass route around Palestinian areas was built.
She recalled how particularly with the Second Intifada, there were terror incidents, as well as rocket and mortar attacks.
One in particular has remained in her memory, a mortar attack against the former settlement of Atzmona in April 2001, which critically wounded a 10-month old baby. His mother was hanging up laundry at the time of the attack with her baby by her side.
Malka said she herself had a small son, and she thought, “does this mean that I can’t even sit in the yard?”
Friends and family were afraid to visit, she recalled. When her son had his bar mitzvah that year almost no one came, not even all the relatives, so they celebrated instead mostly with neighbors.
There was this tension between wanting to leave to escape the violence that seemed like a kind of Russian roulette, but feeling so rooted to the place and her neighbors that such a move seemed impossible.
“We would have had to leave everything,” she said, listing the jobs, the friends, the schools.
The relocation task seemed so monumental, that when she sat in her living room and first heard former prime minister Ariel Sharon speak of a Disengagement plan for Gaza in December 2003, it seemed as if he was disconnected from reality.
It was a disbelief that lasted until almost the very end, through the Knesset Disengagement vote, the closure of the Kissufim crossing and the prayers in the Neve Dekalim synagogue.
As she looked out at the worshipers, she still thought that it was Sharon who was dreaming. “The rabbis said it would not happen,” she said.
Then on Monday, just 48 hours later, they saw the massive amount of soldiers, column after column, enter Neve Dekalim, and suddenly she and her husband knew that the evacuation was real.
“I never imagined those kinds of numbers,” Malka said, as she recalled the police with their dark sunglasses and bulletproof vests.
“It was scary. I told them don’t come to my house, we are leaving on our own.”
Her husband left the house, drove to the Disengagement Authority and convinced them to give the family a modular home in the temporary housing site that had been set on land in Nitzan, located by the sea between Ashdod and Ashkelon.
They ordered a moving truck, packed and left. The older children wanted to demonstrate, but she refused to let them, fearing their arrest.
Instead she let them take out their anger and frustration by scrawling on the walls of the house and breaking the windows.
The “we hugged each other, we cried and we drove out after the moving truck,” Malka said.
They arrived in Nitzan, totally broken, she recalled. “My husband lay on the floor and just stared at the ceiling,” she said. Family members came and brought pizza.
“It was like returning home after a funeral.”
That feeling lasted for days, as visitors arrived, “they came with food to comfort and left,” she said.
The family went on vacation to a hotel for a few days, and returned, but it was initially impossible to function, Malka said.
Two American volunteers arrived to help them set up their homes and stayed for a week, sleeping on mattresses.
Her husband had worked for the Hof Azza Regional Council and was now out of a job.
Then the IDF moved the bodies out of the Gush Katif cemetery and she and her husband attended a spate of funerals for the reburials.
Even cooking was an issue, said Malka, who explained that she didn’t want to use the kitchen, because she didn’t want it to be hers. In Neve Dekalim, they had a home of 250 m., now they had to reorganize their lives in a small home of 90 m.
“My husband said, ‘just try cooking rice,’ It was as if we were in a vacation rental that I didn’t like,” she said.
“I hadn’t yet realized that we weren’t returning,” Malka said.
Slowly, Malka said, she realized that what needed to happen was for everyone to get back into a routine. Luckily, she was able to teach in a nursery school in Nitzan. Her husband began to take classes in gardening.
Her older son was on break from the army and didn’t want to return. “I called his commander” and asked him “to come and use all his charms” to help him return. Within two hours, five jeeps of soldiers with his unit arrived at the house. They sat with him, drank beer, spoke and ate. His commander said, “we want you, we missed you.”
Days passed, and then one morning her son woke up, put on his uniform and returned to the army.
Her daughter went to a school in Ashkelon that had been set up in a hotel for the Gaza evacuees.
But then when everything seemed like it had been put back on track, she allowed herself to fall apart. She didn’t want to pray on Yom Kippur, she kept crying and sought psychological help.
“Every Thursday day I would go and cry for two hours” going through what seemed like two rolls of toilet paper with every visit.
“I was there until Passover,” Malka recalled.
What passed were five “terrible years, that I would erase from my memory if I could,” she said.
She couldn’t talk about Gush Katif without crying until she moved into her new permanent home, just a short distance away from where her modular one has stood in Nitzan.
Here, life began to return to normal for her family. Her neighbors are Gaza evacuees, many from Neve Dekalim.
Although she is still emotional when she speaks of Gaza, she is not among those who dream of a return, noting that she believes that such a thing is impossible.
“Back then I didn’t understand the situation the way I do today,” she said. Had there been no Disengagement, the escalating Palestinian violence against Israelis in Gaza would have made their continued situation there untenable.
She recalled one incident just prior to the evacuation when she had gone to visit a friend with her young daughter, then three.
“We were walking back when there was a barrage of mortars,” she recalled. She ran for the first home she could see and stayed there for more than an hour until she felt safe.
“We could not have survived there,” Malka said.
HER NEIGHBOR Tzvia Ohayon, also of Neve Dekalim, said that she would go back, but only “If you could promise me, I could return to exactly what it was, with what I had. It can not be restored,” Ohayon said sadly. “It was a Garden of Eden. We would not have left,” Ohayon said.
Instead her home has become a testament to Neve Dekalim, starting with the steel carvings of two palm trees onto her front door and the small mosaic of a Gaza home and two palm trees by the front bell.
A photograph of her former Neve Dekalim home hangs on the wall by the stairwell, underneath another photo of the rubble that was left after the IDF demolished it. A separate photograph states: “We will never forget or forgive.”
They drove away of their own accord the morning of the evacuation to ensure they would be free to attend her husband’s sister’s wedding that night.
“I thought it was the end of the world,” then one week later her nephew, an IDF soldier, was killed. The mother of three said that at the time she thought that the only thing they had to worry about was finding a new home. “But it was so much more,” she said, as she reflected on how many couples divorced, how many people feel ill due to the stress.
Anita Tucker, formerly of the Gaza settlement of Netzer Hazani, said that she continues to dream of returning.
“At the right time, I hope that we can build there again,” said Tucker, a mother of five.
A Brooklyn native, Tucker and her husband Stuart, of Cleveland, first moved to Netzer Hazani in 1976, just three years after the community was created.
Their children loved the sand dunes and wanted to turn to farming. 
Tucker was among those who believed that the withdrawal could really occur, particularly after the compensation legislation passed the Knesset.
In the year-and-a-half from declaration to execution of the Disengagement Plan, Tucker poured all her efforts into protests and speaking to the media.
“When you see something that is not right, even if it’s legal, you have to get up and protest,” Tucker said.
“I had hoped something would change. I was sure that they would all wake up and see that it was an inhumane thing to do.”
As part of that protest, she did not pack. On the day the soldiers arrived at the doorways of the Netzer Hazani families on August 18, neighbors lit their two story home on fire.
“She [the neighbor] took her furniture out, put wood in and set it on fire and the flames went up high and you heard the ceramic tiles crack,” Tucker said.
The neighbor yelled at the soldiers and said, “my dear soldiers, you came to destroy the house but I am destroying it myself because I want you to understand that the values and the spirit that built this place can’t be destroyed.”
While Tucker was occupied by her neighbor’s fire, she saw out of the corner of her eye, 15 uniformed air force officers marching toward her own home in five rows of threes.
Her adult daughter Mia Levi managed to sway them to sit with the family in their dining rooms to hear what the family wanted to say.
“You have to tell us what is in your heart and we have to tell you what is in your heart,” Mia told the officers.
But when the family spoke, the soldiers appeared unmoved. It was night already, and all the lead officer said was that the family had to leave by midnight.
Tucker recalled that from somewhere deep inside she screamed and yelled, but “not a muscle moved from their face,” she recalled.
Then Levi pushed an officer and Tucker into her bedroom.
According to Tucker, her daughter Levi said, “my parents slept on these beds for 30 year, you are going to give my mother something from your heart for her to take out with her.”
Tucker recalled that she then looked the soldier in the eyes and burst into tears.
It was a scene that was repeated with the other officers, except for the commander, who simply told her that at midnight they had to go.
When the family finally left, they took only what they could carry in their hands. Tucker took her laptop. Her husband forgot his tefillin; upon returning briefly he found that same commander still in the dining room crying.
“I knew that we had a State of Israel and we had a lot of work to do so the country could look different then it did that day,” Tucker said.
They joined their Netzer Hazani neighbors on an IDF bus that took them to the Western Wall, dropping them off there in the pre-dawn hours.
The families had breakfast at Yeshivat HaKotel, and then were relocated to Hispin in the Golan. From there, the Tucker family went to Ein Tzurim, moving into a newly created community of Netzer Hazani only seven years ago.
Many of the Gaza evacuees relocated to 22 new intentional communities, of which 11 were totally new and the remainder was attached to already existing communities. There are still some 50 families who have yet to be relocated.
But even though she has a new abode, Tucker said, she “yearns for home” and that on Tisha Be’av she thinks of the good and the beautiful things that had existed in the Gaza communities that were located “so close to here,” she said.