Gaza's settlers 15 years on: 'One day we will have to return'

A ‘Jerusalem Post’ reporter, on the frontlines in Gush Katif, recounts the surreal time of disconnect between settlers’ lost dreams and the encroaching destructive reality.

SETTLERS DANCE and sing in front of IDF troops outside the Neveh Dekalim synagogue on August 18, 2005 (photo credit: OLEG POPOV/REUTERS)
SETTLERS DANCE and sing in front of IDF troops outside the Neveh Dekalim synagogue on August 18, 2005
(photo credit: OLEG POPOV/REUTERS)
A decade and a half ago, on the last Friday night Gaza settlers spent in Gush Katif, I sat at the Vanunu family’s Sabbath table as participants spoke of the festival of thanks they would hold, in this same spot, one week later after soldiers failed to evacuate them.
As a reporter for The Jerusalem Post, I was absolutely certain of one thing: that whether it took one week or many, the IDF was intent on the demolition of the 21 Gaza settlements plus four in northern Samaria.
I made eye contact with the other reporter in the room. It seemed as if she was the only person around the table who could have felt as I did, like the small boy in the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Except that unlike that boy who was the only one to note the emperor had no clothes, I feared to blurt out my convictions.
Given that writing, recording and picture-taking are forbidden on Shabbat, we were there solely as guests, but our cynical reporter personalities still kept us apart.
It was not the first moment of disconnect during that summer, just one of the final and more striking ones.
With all political and judicial options lost to some 8,500 Gaza settlers seeking to remain in their homes, the conversation in those final weeks of July and August was not about the last-ditch stand the settlers wanted to make, knowing that the battle was lost.
Instead, the public discourse was about how the Gaza withdrawal, known as the 2005 Disengagement Plan, was simply not going to occur.
Even the few nods of reality that managed to peek through the illusionary visions of pending triumph were put forwarded in coded language. The small clothing store in the center of the former Neveh Dekalim center, for example, put a sign on its window that stated, “End of Season Sale” rather than the obvious “Closing Sale.”
I asked myself, “What season?” And then answered my own question, “The end of the Gush Katif season.”
There were moments, I admit, when even I had my doubts – not about the intent, but about the soldiers’ ability to execute their mission quickly. In my three years covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I had watched the evacuation of a settler caravan or two last all day. As a reminder of that painstakingly slow pace, on one exceedingly hot day, the IDF took some nine hours to remove a caravan from Gaza’s Kfar Darom settlement, an evacuation made more difficult by the resistance of the settlers, who did their best to block the crane.
With 21 settlements and approximately 2,000 buildings, many permanent, standing in Gaza, I suddenly feared the entire operation could take months.
Just before the closure of the Kissufim crossing, I was among many from the Gaza settlements who made one last run to the large supermarket in the shopping plaza at the edge of Ashkelon. I pushed my cart between the aisles, unsure if I was shopping for weeks’ or months’ worth of supplies.
It was a long hot summer when waves of uncertainty and dreams beat against the Gaza shore. Under the blue sky and the hot sand, reality was a dubious affair at best, depending on who was holding the conversation. Politicians who supported Disengagement, from prime minister Ariel Sharon on down, argued that it would renew the peace process and end the violence from Gaza, particularly the rocket and mortar fire, which had for a number of years had targeted the Gaza settlements and the nearby city of Sderot. Former president Shimon Peres – then vice premier and Labor Party leader – visited Gaza’s Erez crossing and spun for reporters a vision of a new reality in which Gaza and Israel would be at peace. The crossing would be a commercial meeting point between Palestinians and Israelis that would boost both economies.
IN 2005, global belief still held that the key to Middle East peace was Israeli-Palestinian peace and that the precondition for that peace was settlement withdrawal. In the days before the Arab Spring, that made Disengagement one of the more significant stories of the year and the global media flocked to Gaza to be on the ground for the first fledgling steps of that process.
Settlers hoped the Israeli public would voice their protest with their feet and flock to the Gaza border to stand in opposition to the soldiers. Thousands of right-wing protesters, including supporters from the United States, did sneak into Gaza to stand in solidarity the settlers, but not nearly enough for that vision to be viable. After that, they hoped the soldiers themselves would simply refuse to carry out this mission – that they would refuse to head to Gaza and if they did go there, they would abort their mission at the doorways of the families’ homes. Some simply placed their faith in God and planned on a miracle.
Either way, the deep faith and the public discourse around the continued presence of the settlers in Gaza made conversations in Neveh Dekalim about the last days difficult, if not impossible. People would look at me genuinely puzzled when I tried to interview them about their plans.

“What plans?” they wanted to know. I asked if they planned to leave in advance or if not, what they planned to do when the soldiers arrive at their door.
“Don’t you know?” they would respond, “The soldiers are not coming.” They were nice, but they often spoke to me as if to a small child who had misunderstood some essential element of reality.
“Can we pretend,” I would respond, “that in some off-chance scenario, the soldiers do arrive at your door and want to remove you. What will you do then?”
One setter said he could not envision that moment, but rather the one after that. If I was correct and the soldiers pulled him out, then the one thing the settler said he could promise would occur was continued Gaza violence, such that “one day we would have to return.”
REALITY DAWNS: Israel Police arrive in Neveh Dekalim on August 15, 2005. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)REALITY DAWNS: Israel Police arrive in Neveh Dekalim on August 15, 2005. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)
WHEN REALITY hit, it came hard. There was the final Sabbath, then the fast of Tisha Be’av, then the on Monday morning, August 15, the soldier arrived at the gates of Neveh Dekalim, which the settlers kept locked and blocked with their bodies, sitting on the road by the gate. Little progress was made. That night, in a scene that seemed to me out of some movie set, I sat outside the Neveh Dekalim home I was staying in and wrote my story of the day’s events.
At the top of the road, a green overturned trash can was still burning from the day’s protests. Across the road, teenagers played basketball. To my left, down the street, was the community’s mesh wire security fence. There, with no activists present, I saw the soldiers cut through the fence and march up the road in rows upon rows, hundreds of them.
The sight of those solders as they came through the community was the moment that reality dawned for many of the settlers. Looking at the vast numbers, the steady beat of their feet, I suddenly understood what it meant when a government pours all its resources into achieving an objective. On Wednesday, the IDF began to pull the settlers out of Neveh Dekalim; on Thursday they evacuated the synagogue; and by Friday, the community was mostly empty.
Overall, the destruction of the 21 Gaza communities, of which 18 were referred to as Gush Katif, took about a week.
Peace however, did not follow. In 2007, Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in a bloody coup that included ousting the Fatah Party. The rift between Hamas and Fatah has yet to heal. Israel has since fought three wars in Gaza, the last of which was in 2014. The range of its rockets has vastly expanded to the point where they can hit the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem areas.
THIS PAST Sunday, as I was driving to the community of Nitzan – by the sea south of Ashdod – to meet with Dror Vanunu, in whose Gush Katif home I had spent that final Friday night 15 years ago, the radio was filled with reports of renewed Gaza violence. While I have spoken with more Gaza evacuees than I can count over the years, Vanunu is among those that stand out. There were many reasons to remember him. He was the spokesman for the Hof Aza Regional Council, instrumental in the battle for Gush Katif, and as a result he was among the first of the Gaza settlers that I met.
But he was particularly memorable because in March 2004, some three months after Sharon formally announced his Disengagement plan, Vanunu began to build a home in Neveh Dekalim. It was an act of faith, hope and protest.
He and his wife Keren discussed the possibility that construction was a futile gesture. The young couple in their 20s had three small children. The family had lived in Neveh Dekalim since their marriage in 1996, with the intent to remain. They were renting. The land had been purchased. Geopolitics aside, they had planned to build a home at this time. It seemed logical to continue forward.
After all, Vanunu had stood, not so long before that, in the former Atzmona settlement in Gaza during the elections to listen to Sharon speak. In a moment filmed for Israel’s Channel 2, Sharon uttered his famous line in support of Gaza and against any withdrawal, noting, “The fate of Netzarim [a Gaza settlement] was the fate of Tel Aviv.”
In March of 2004, Vanunu unfurled blueprints of the architectural plan to impress upon me the extent to which he disbelieved in the reality of the Disengagement. Vanunu, like the majority of the settler community and the right wing at large, took Sharon just seriously enough to mount a massive campaign against the Disengagement, even as they believed it would never come to fruition.
As each milestone on the way to Disengagement was crossed, I would check in with Vanunu, to see if he thought the battle was lost. His answer was always the same, “I am building my home.” In that way, his home became a physical bellwether for me of the public sentiment among the Gaza settlers. Two months before the evacuation he moved into his new home and that was where he hosted me on that last Friday night.
DROR VANUNU: Two months before the evacuation he moved into his new home – and hosted the writer there on that last Friday night. (Tovah Lazaroff)DROR VANUNU: Two months before the evacuation he moved into his new home – and hosted the writer there on that last Friday night. (Tovah Lazaroff)
THIS TIME around, 15 years later, after he has served me coffee in the living room of his second home, built in 2009, I ask him all the questions I had wanted to ask then back then, about how deep his disbelief in Disengagement had really gone.
At the time, he said, belief and faith were the best path forward, and if he could chose to do it over, he would do it the same way.
“We felt we had to make an effort at normality,” he said.
It is akin to having a very ill relative, even one who is dying.
“You make all efforts to keep him alive. You pay any amount of money to keep him alive. You want him to be alive. We felt that Gush Katif was under a real danger. We felt we had to make every effort to save it.”
It was preferable to do that, he said, then to choose the “color of the tombstone.”
To best explain himself, he pulled the Book of Jeremiah off his shelf and opened it to the page where the prophet, upon the word of God, purchased land just as the Babylonians were at the walls of Jerusalem ready to destroy them. The text speaks of how in the future homes will be built in Israel, and he too lives with that dream.
“Zionism is a dream fulfilled by people who are dreamers. Sometimes they fail,” he said.
But Vanunu said he is proud of the battle the Gaza settlers fought, that they refrained from violence and adopted the slogan, “With love we will be victorious.” For months they went house to house throughout Israel, to personally explain to people why Gaza mattered.
There was something miraculous about that last Friday night, he said. Among his family and friends was also an American from New York as well as an Israeli Holocaust survivor who had come to be in solidarity with them. There were Jews from all corners at that table who believed Gush Katif was worth fighting for, he said.
Vanunu said he was among those who believed that “once the soldiers knocked on the doors and saw the families, they would not be able to [evacuate them]. Perhaps we were naive.”
When soldiers came to his home that Wednesday, his family packed a small number of bags and walked away. His wife even cleaned the house one last time.
Vanunu said he had always known violence would follow, because he believed that evacuation strengthened rather than weakened Hamas.
Prior to Disengagement, he noted, one of the Gush Katif public campaigns included a map of how far the rockets would fly once Israeli left, including its military.
They placed Ashkelon in the danger zone, but feared no one would believe them if they also spoke of Beersheba or Ashdod as targets.
Now, Vanunu said, the rockets go further than even those Israeli cities and his oldest son, now in the IDF, is stationed at the Gaza border.
In the intervening years, Vanunu stated, the combination between the way they were able to humanize their story as well the continued Gaza violence has led many Israelis to believe that the Disengagement was a mistake. The possibility of sovereignty over settlements in the West Bank, he said, is the direct result of what happened to the Gaza settlements.
“It is one of the main reasons that another evacuation will never happen,” stressed Vanunu. “There is no doubt that Gush Katif saved Judea and Samaria.”
One day, he added, he hopes that the security situation will be such that “I or my children will return to Gush Katif.”