Bassi disengages

The man vilified by settlers for overseeing their evacuation is now removing himself from the fray.

bassi walking 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
bassi walking 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Death threats and slurs met Yonatan Bassi when he was appointed head of the government's Disengagement Authority (Sela) in July 2004, with the mandate of overseeing the resettlement of Israelis living in 21 communities in Gaza and four more in northern Samaria. Schoolchildren even taunted his young grandson that Bassi was "a Nazi." After former prime minister Ariel Sharon, Bassi was the face most associated with last summer's withdrawal. Some settler leaders were so upset with him that they they made a direct appeal for the prime minister to intervene, arguing that Bassi was hindering and not helping their efforts to rebuild their lives. But when Bassi, 58, announced that he was stepping down from the post last February, a dozen evacuee leaders begged him to stay. In a tearful ceremony in Jerusalem on Sunday marking Bassi's departure and his replacement by Tzvia Shimon, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert praised his "exemplary courage" and deep commitment to the state. "There are not many people like him in this country," Olmert declared. On his final day in office last Thursday, Bassi spoke with The Jerusalem Post about the frustrations he experienced as he worked to relocate 1,750 families, many of whom refused to talk to him. The dangers of being ostracized for those settlers willing to discuss relocation were so great that even now, as he described clandestine meetings with them, he hesitated to publicly disclose the names of those settlements whose leaders dared to meet with him prior to the pullout last August. As former Agriculture Ministry director-general from 1992 to 1996, a member of the religious kibbutz, Sde Eliahu, a father of six and a grandfather of nine, Bassi had a similar background to that of settlers in the mostly religious and agrarian communities. Yet he was a strong advocate of disengagement, born of his deep belief that it strengthened the Jewish and democratic nature of the state. Still, when speaking with the media, he focused mostly on process, noting that he did not create policy, he was merely implementing it. It was a task he took to heart as he maintained a stoic and calm appearance throughout his tumultuous two years in office. Sitting behind his desk in his Jerusalem office, he told the Post that he was proud to have completed this phase of resettlement. Most of the evacuated families were now in temporary accommodation, he said. And most had identified communal sites for their permanent homes. What accomplishments are you proud of? What could have been done better? The most important thing is that we have finished the program of resettling them [the evacuees] inside Israel in the same communities as they had been in before. I feel very good about the fact that 77 percent of the evacuees have received compensation for [the value of] their homes and that all of the families have left the hotels where they were housed, excluding 20 or 30 families who will leave hotels in the next week. Initially I thought it would take two years for them to receive compensation. Now we have paid them a total of more than NIS 1.5 billion. I want to emphasize that you must find a solution in cooperation with the evacuees. As you know, even a day before August 15 [the official start of the evacuation], most of them were sure nothing would happen. If we'd had half a year before the evacuation [to work] together with them, many things could have been better. I'm not blaming them. I understand very well that from their standpoint, the way to maintain their strength was to be united, which meant to be against the government of Israel. I spoke this week with people who live in Nitzan [the largest government resettlement project] and in other places. They told me they are very angry with the former head of the Hof Aza Regional Council, Avner Shimoni, who didn't believe disengagement would come to pass. Shimoni assured [people, here] in my office: 'In the past, many people told me we are going to be evacuated and nothing happened.' To be honest with you, even a few weeks before the evacuation, the Americans and the Europeans were sure nothing would happen. So he was in good company. You were sure it would happen? I'm not a politician. The Knesset decided to evacuate them. I told them that if at the end of the day the Knesset decided against it, I would go home. My job was to do everything to help them through a difficult process in a manner that was efficient, but also sensitive. At the time, they didn't want to be near me. Now things have changed. Most of them are very good friends of mine. In the last week, I made a long tour of 22 [evacuee] communities all over Israel. They understood that the [Sela disengagement] authority was not against them, but with them. What made the difference in the relations? At the start, they were very angry with you. They went to the prime minister and told him that you were the problem. August the 15th happened. This was the largest change. Afterwards they understood that they needed to lean on someone's shoulders. Also I think they were insulated in Gush Katif. When they were spread all over Israel after disengagement, they were more open to hearing other voices and to knowing that things were not as they seemed to be in Gush Katif. Gradually, they felt closer to the authority. Last night I was with the families from [the former northern Gaza settlement of] Elei Sinai who now live in tents in Yad Mordechai. Tears came to my eyes when they said we were the only ones who were together with them during these 10 difficult, long months. They gave me as a gift a white kippa with the symbol of Elei Sinai. They said, 'Now every Shabbat you must go to synagogue with this kippa on your head to remember us.' Did you understand from the start that they wanted communal solutions? Based on the example of Yamit [the Sinai settlement that was evacuated in 1982], people initially believed that the solution was strictly a matter of compensation. There are 152 paragraphs in the Disengagement Law and only one paragraph, number 85, addresses the solution for a community. All the others speak only about individual and family compensation. Now this small paragraph is at the heart of our work. Most of the people here are not involved in compensation, but in finding communal solutions. I understood this from the first month I arrived here two years ago in July. We pressured [former] Justice Ministry director-general Aharon Abramovitz to expand our capabilities so we could compensate kibbutzim and moshavim that would accept people from Gush Katif. In the beginning, they said it was prohibitive, and in the end they decided that nothing would happen without it. It is one of our most important tools when we negotiate with kibbutzim and moshavim. If you understood their needs from the beginning, how did they all end up in hotels? Why did you not plan communal solutions for them for when they left Gush Katif? Look at what happened with [the Gush Katif settlement of] Atzmona. In December 2004, after they decided not to speak with me, I went to Kibbutz Holit, which is six kilometers away from them, on this side of the border. I chose it because it had a dairy farm and green houses and infrastructure. I asked the 34 kibbutz members if, with the help of compensation, they would leave the kibbutz so the Atzmona families could move in after they were evacuated. They asked me one question: 'Do you have any agreement with the people from Atzmona?' I said, 'No. They do not want to speak with me.' They said, 'So why are you confusing us? Return when you receive a positive answer from Atzmona.' I went to the Lands Authority. [Its director-general at the time] Ya'akov Efrati and I decided to invest NIS 600,000 to rezone Kibbutz Holit so that it could become a moshav like Atzmona. To make a long story short, on August 22 when people were taken away from Atzmona, they said, 'We are not going to Holit. Our decision is to go to Yated [also in the Negev], because we don't want someone to say that we spoke with [the authority] before disengagement.' Think of what would have happened if instead of bringing them to hotels I had invested resources at kibbutzim that afterwards remained empty because people decided to go elsewhere? The leaders of the communities were not courageous enough to speak with their own people. I have many examples showing how deep the gap was between our conversations with these leaders and what they said to their own people. They were afraid of them. I still hear people say even today that they didn't know what would happen to them until the day they were evacuated. You can't make a decision without them [the settlers]. You must do it with them. Since they didn't want to make a decision [prior to disengagement], we didn't have any other alternative but to take out hotel rooms. After [disengagement], we brought them solutions based on what they, not we, wanted. That's why I am not sure there was any other solution, even in hindsight. In December 2004 I toured the Negev with the secretary of one of the settlements looking for housing alternatives. I said, 'Go home. Speak with your people and come back with a solution so we can prepare it for you by August.' He went home and got the cold shoulder. Still, you built Nitzan without really knowing that people wanted it, so why not follow that model earlier? We took a chance for 20 percent of the settlers. What would have happened if we had invested in 1,000 caravans and half of them had remained empty? I can just imagine what the state comptroller would have said about people like us who waste money. We are very proud that we had no white elephants during disengagement. Ilan Cohen [the former director-general of the Prime Minister's Office] did think of [creating an additional site in] Ein Tzurim, but people said to him, 'No one will come here. It's a shame to waste it.' Why wasn't more done to relocate all 4,000 dunams of the Gaza hothouses? Arik Sharon said, 'I want you in April 2005 to rebuild your greenhouses inside Israel. I will bring you land and water. I will do everything.' They decided not to do anything at the time. In the last three months, hundreds of dunams of new hot houses were built. They lost a season, but at the beginning of August they are going to plant. But a number of them are not making that choice because the compensation offered them didn't allow them to recoup their losses. Until now, only a third of the farmers have asked to be compensated. Most of them did it only last month after we pressured them to do so. How can you compensate someone who doesn't ask to be compensated? Did you expect the settlers to cling to their belief that disengagement would not occur until the very end? I thought things would move ahead after the Knesset vote [passing the disengagement bill in March 2005.] But nothing happened. If anything, they were more resistant to the idea. When did you decide to put them in hotels? We prepared the alternative of hotels from the beginning. We also rented 850 apartments. No one wanted them. But hotel managers have said that in some cases they were approached just that day. If you thought they were going to hotels, why was it still being arranged at the last minute? In the beginning we spoke of [disengagement lasting] three months. Then the IDF set the timetable [for the evacuation]. We spoke with them and they said it would take four weeks. They did it in four days. So there was a big gap between their schedule and what actually happened. We prepared hotel rooms, but at the end of the day we had to double the number on three separate occasions. It was mid-August, and all the hotels were fully booked when we got the final plan from the army. What did you think about the State Comptroller's Report which said that the authority was inefficient and underestimated their needs? In the beginning the comptroller checked to see if we followed the law. Slowly, when he saw that we did, he went in the opposite direction. He said that even though you did it according to the law, you did it too slowly. The investigation, with all due respect, is not acceptable to us. There was no budget until the end of March and the Knesset Finance Committee was against us. If you remember at that time, the [Likud] rebels were the majority in the Finance Committee. What alternative did we have but to wait until the budget was approved? So to hear afterwards from the comptroller that we were working slowly was ridiculous. Based on your experience, is there advice you want to give the government about its realignment plan [to evacuate settlers from West Bank communities]? Our responsibility is only for disengagement. But I do not believe that 70,000 people can be evacuated according to the same program carried out in the Gaza Strip. We have to do it over a long period, six or eight years. We have to do it district by district. If the prime minister would ask me for my opinion, I would tell him, 'Do it slowly, slowly.' Don't you run the risk that people would again refuse to believe they will be evacuated? I know the leadership of the West Bank's six regional councils has begun to speak about preparations for it. There is no doubt that the leadership understands that if things happened the first time they could happen again. Okay, they will do everything to postpone it. But they have learned from the experience of Gush Katif to be prepared if they are evacuated. Now that almost a year has passed and the IDF is reentering Gaza, do you think disengagement was the right move? From the security point of view, I never thought things were going to be better [after we left Gaza]. Missiles fell on Sderot before disengagement. So I do not see any connection between the two. The success of Hamas [in the January elections] also has no connection with disengagement. I think that leaving Gaza was one of the most courageous decisions ever made by the State of Israel. I am sure that Israel is a better democracy now than it was a year ago. Did you expect the kind of personal attacks you experienced? I thought there would be some resistance. I did not expect the hatred. Do you feel that period of verbal assaults is over? Ninety-five percent What about within your own community on your kibbutz, Sde Eliahu? Things are returning to normal. How has your family dealt with it? They feel better. You can imagine how it was a year ago. How did you explain it to them? My grandson is 12 years old. He is in sixth grade. He wrote about his grandfather for a school project on family roots. He said, 'I admire him. I think he made the right decision. I am proud to be his grandson.'