Former prime minister Ehud Olmert's government failed to resettle the Gaza Strip evacuees and it is now up to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to restore the sense of urgency and treat the program as the high priority national mission that it is, the state commission of inquiry into the government's handling of the evacuees declared, in an interim report released on Tuesday. Although the commission also assigned responsibility to a "substantial" portion of the former settlers for the delays over the past four years in efforts to move them into permanent homes and communities, the panel members said that the overall responsibility for the rehabilitation program lay with the government. The panel, formally known as the State Commission of Inquiry into the Handling by the Authorized Authorities of the Evacuees from Gush Katif and Northern Samaria, is headed by retired Supreme Court justice Eliahu Mazza. The other members are Shimon Ravid and Prof. Yedidya Stern. It was established by the Knesset State Control Committee in the wake of two reports by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss criticizing the slow progress in resettling the evacuees within the Green Line. "In the commission's opinion, responsibility for the fact that even after four years from the time of the evacuation, the rehabilitation of the evacuees is not even close to completion does not lie with the [government] authorities alone," the members wrote. "A substantial number of evacuees themselves, as well as some of the communities that were to absorb them, contributed in no small way to the problem. Nevertheless, in the commission's opinion, the authorized branches of government are primarily responsible for dealing with the current situation and changing it." At a press conference to present the interim report, Mazza explained that its primary function was to present guidelines for finding solutions to the main unresolved problems in the rehabilitation of the evacuees. This approach was different from other commissions of inquiry, most of which deal with events in the past. Such interim reports often single out individuals as responsible for failures, and the second half of the investigation is usually devoted to giving those individuals the chance to defend themselves before the commission issues recommendations on how to deal with personal and structural failures. This commission, Mazza explained, identified specific problems that had arisen with the implementation of the resettlement program in the different areas involved, including finalizing the move of four separate groups of evacuees whose members want to live together to their new locations, the construction of permanent homes, and the construction of public buildings, including schools and synagogues. For most of these matters, the commission set deadlines for resolving the problems, the earliest one being November 15 and the latest December 31. Above all, however, the commission said there must be a drastic change in the attitude of the government and the government ministries regarding the mission of resettling the evacuees. "The government must immediately restore and place the rehabilitation of the evacuees as the top national priority," it wrote. "This is the duty of the government, which, in order to advance security and diplomatic goals, inflicted injury to a large number of people. The state must hurry. This is a question of human rights, of basic human decency and of Jewish morality." The detailed recommendations of the commission included the following:
There were still four groups of former settlers who wanted to live together that had not signed an agreement regarding the terms of the move to their permanent location. The commission gave the parties until December 31 to complete their negotiations and sign the agreements.
If they failed to do so, the commission said it might take it upon itself to decide the terms of the move, or it might determine in public which side was responsible for the failure to reach agreement.
The commission ordered the director-general of the Prime Minister's Office to report by December 31 on the progress made in getting the evacuees to build their permanent homes.
As of August 2009, 926 of the 1,134 families who had opted for communal living had received their plots of land, but only 250 had begun building their homes. The rest had not done so because they did not have enough money, for psychological reasons or because they hoped to obtain better terms if they waited.
The commission ordered the government to develop strategies for dealing with each of the three categories, including financial help for those who could not afford to build.
The commission gave the government until November 15 to develop a plan for removing every temporary housing unit vacated by an evacuee family after it moved into its permanent home. Otherwise, squatters would move into the empty housing and it would be difficult to remove them afterwards.
It pointed out that only recently had the government made the Finance Ministry responsible for this matter.
The unemployment rate for job-seekers among evacuees was 16.2 percent, around twice the national rate, compared with almost no unemployment for the same population when it lived in Gaza, the commission found.
The commission made a number of recommendations to reduce unemployment and ordered the director-general of the Prime Minister's Office to report by December 31 on the decisions that had been taken in the meanwhile.
"We are happy. Today we received the proof," said Doron Ben-Shlomi, head of the Gush Katif Settlers Committee, in response to the interim report. "It is a good thing that the committee was established."
Ben-Shlomi said he was not interested in looking backward to find those responsible for the government's failures, but to look ahead toward turning the evacuees' recovery into an urgent national mission and resolving the problems listed by the commission.
"We need to move forward," he said and called on Netanyahu to implement the report in full.
Meanwhile, the Disengagement Authority (SELA) issued a statement: "In the last four years, the SELA Administration, as the government's executive arm, dealt with the establishment of 23 settlement points and conducted negotiations with 1,400 families evacuated from Gush Katif.
"SELA planned settlements, negotiated with authorities and private entrepreneurs, built infrastructure, dealt with bureaucratic difficulties and provided social and psychological assistance to help the evacuees deal with problems caused by the evacuation.
"SELA kept its promises. It built infrastructure on an unprecedented scale and distributed all the compensation funding promised by law and even more," the statement read.