Few Gush Katif farmers have new land

Settlers, officials say law does not fully compensate for greenhouses.

gaza hothouses 298 88 ap (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
gaza hothouses 298 88 ap
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Six months after the disengagement from Gaza, none of the 130 farmers from Gush Katif who have settled for the time being in Nitzan has received new plots of land in Israel as they and the government trade recriminations over who is responsible for their plight. However, both settler leaders and high-ranking government officials say that the Disengagement Law did not provide for full compensation for farmers' greenhouses and that if the farmers want to build them again they will have to make up the difference, which amounts to 20 percent to 40% of start-up costs.
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As with the ongoing problems between the evacuees and the government where housing is concerned, both sides offer strikingly differing statistics to represent their case, with the two sides not even agreeing on how many active farmers were in Gush Katif at the time of disengagement. While around 1,500 of the 2,100 Gaza evacuees who were made unemployed as a result of disengagement have yet to find work, the situation of the farmers is particularly acute because as they were self-employed, they have not received any unemployment benefits and have used the compensation money they were given to build new homes to feed their families. Farmer leaders in Nitzan charge that the government has abdicated its responsibility to them in two areas: finding them new land to plant crops on and compensating them for the greenhouses they lost in Gush Katif. "The state hurt the farmers twice," said Yoram Musavi, a farmer from Bedolah and the leader of the Forum for those Injured in the Disengagement. "It hurt their soul and their family, and then took from them what was theirs and didn't give it back." According to the Committee of Gush Katif Evacuees, only 18 out of 220 active farmers have received new land. However, according to Agriculture Ministry director-general Yossi Ishay, the government has made and continues to make a good-faith effort to find every farmer from Gush Katif a permanent plot of land, and already around 100 are working on land they have permanently settled in communities around the country. Solutions for all of the 450 farmers were made available by the government, he said, with at least 16,000 dunams (4,000 acres) offered to Gush Katif farmers in the Negev, and hundreds more offered around Mavki'im and in northern Galilee. The particular problem of the Nitzan farmers, Ishay said, stems from their refusal to accept either of the two alternatives offered to them under the Disengagement Law: plots of land in the Negev or additional compensation money. "In Nitzan, they chose something in the middle," Ishay said. "They wanted to live in Nitzan and they wanted to get farming land close by." Both sides said that farming land around Nitzan is far more expensive than in the Negev. Nevertheless, the state recently purchased a 2,200-dunam plot of land from Kibbutz Zikim near Ashkelon for the Nitzan farmers for $300,000 per dunam. And despite the price, the state is ready to purchase more land once the farmers from Nitzan accept the first plot, Ishay said. However, while he said that land offered a permanent solution for 60 farmers, Musavi said 600 dunams of it were not suitable for crop production, thus limiting its use to 35 farmers. Additionally, since the state compensated the farmers for only 60% of the value of their greenhouses, even if they wanted to take the land, they were not financially able to build new farms. "If the state takes from you 100% it needs to return to you 100%," Musavi said. While Ishay did not dispute that the settlers were not receiving full compensation under the Disengagement Law, he said the compensation amounted to 70% to 80% of the greenhouse value, depending on the farmer, rather than the 60% Musavi claimed. "It's not about fair or not fair, it's about the law," Ishay said. When asked whether the Disengagement Law should be amended, as the Gush Katif evacuees are demanding, Ishay said that, according to his understanding of the situation, "the government does not want to change the law. If you have to change something, you have to change another thing and the government doesn't want to get into that," he said. To make up the difference, Ishay suggested the farmers use the money they received from selling their greenhouses to the World Bank just before the disengagement. Under that agreement, farmers received $3,000 to $4,000 per dunam for their greenhouses which were then transferred to the Palestinians after the disengagement. Musavi rejected that suggestion, citing Israeli property law as stipulating that the farmers were entitled to full compensation from the state itself. "It doesn't matter if the bank came to buy the greenhouses. According to the law of the state, if the state takes land it needs to give it back." On Monday, Musavi's group picked up high-level government support for its demands as Knesset Speaker MK Reuven Rivlin (Likud) sent a letter to the Legal Forum stating that the government had not done enough to ease the suffering of Gush Katif evacuees. "It seems that it was a failure of the government, which did not do enough to appease those evicted from their homes," wrote Rivlin. He went on to say that the government had abandoned the evicted families. Sheera Claire Frenkel contributed to this report.