Exile in Israel

Two years on, most former Gush Katif residents are no closer to a permanent home.

exile in israel 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
exile in israel 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Most of the families who lived in Pe'at Sadeh, the most conciliatory of the 21 former settlements in Gaza, live today in what looks like a big construction site at the edge of an old moshav near Ashkelon. Some of the relocated settlers are finally beginning to construct new houses; the street built for them on the outskirts of Moshav Mavki'im is marred by huge craters and piles of debris left by bulldozers, tractors and cranes. Meantime, the 17 families who left Pe'at Sadeh peacefully and moved to Mavki'im on August 16, 2005, just before bulldozers tore down Gush Katif, are still living in "caravillas." These are 90-square-meter bungalows, but they represent not a step down, but a very steep plummet from the spacious homes and gardens that most Pe'at Sadeh residents were forced to leave. In the crowded caravilla she shares with her husband and five children, Shulamith Mazaltarin is asked how, on the day she left Pe'at Sadeh, she expected to be living two years later. "I expected that by now we'd have the same life we had back there, only in a different place," says Mazaltarin, 40, a housewife with a crinkly-eyed smile who moved with her husband Ya'acov to Pe'at Sadeh shortly after they finished army service. The family's caravilla is less than one-quarter the size of their home in Gush Katif, but she says this is only the most visible change in their lives. "We lost our home, our community, we lost money, we lost friends, we lost our quality of life," she says. She doesn't know when they'll be able to build their own home because they sank the bulk of their compensation money into a new hothouse farm, but the tomato crop failed and now they're deeply in debt. "Since then my husband's been trying to start the farm up again," she says. Still, the Mazaltarins at least have hope of bringing in an income soon, after the next harvest; by contrast, many of their ex-Pe'at Sadeh neighbors, especially those who invested their compensation money into building new houses instead of new businesses, sit at home with no work. "I'm worried what's going to happen in the future with all these people unemployed," she says. "A lot of tension is building up." And the people from Pe'at Sadeh have it better than just about any other former community. Because they reached a pre-disengagement pact with the government about relocating, they moved onto land at Mavki'im that they own, so they won't have to move again if and when they build their permanent homes. Not so with most of the other settlers - they're still living in caravillas on land that doesn't belong to them, they still haven't reached agreement with the government on where their land will be and they will have to move their families once again when such an agreement is finally reached. Two years after disengagement, the general situation of the roughly 9,000 evacuees is fairly well-known: They remain unsettled on the Israeli side of the Green Line, and they blame the government for abandoning them and lying to them the whole way. However, it is not well understood who is to blame for the settlers' predicament: the government, as the settlers claim, or the settlers themselves, as the Disengagement Authority (Sela) claims. Sela coordinates the government's resettlement efforts and is the sole "address" the settlers can turn to. WHEN ISRAELIS recall the wild, wailing, at times violent opposition the settlers put up against disengagement, many assume that Sela officials are probably right - the settlers are creating the difficulties and delays with their own stubbornness, self-righteousness and anti-government spite. Yet if this assumption isn't totally mistaken, it's by and large mistaken. The 22 families who lived in Pe'at Sadeh (17 moved to Mavki'im, five elsewhere) were not stubborn. They were the first of the settlers to agree to move. They signed a memorandum of understanding with Sela on December 19, 2004 to relocate to the other side of the Green Line. That was more than 2-1⁄2 years ago, eight months before disengagement. Since then, the most visible change in Ya'acov Mazaltarin is the Marlboro he's smoking. On his desk are two fresh packs to carry him through the rest of the day. "In Pe'at Sadeh, I didn't smoke," he notes with a thin, cynical smile. Stocky, tanned, unshaven, Ya'acov sits in the mobile home he uses for an office next to his hothouse farm, where he's growing peppers this season. On his pinboard is a photo from January, which shows him standing in the hothouse, ankle-deep in water, surrounded by rows of cherry tomatoes ruined by the winter flood. The flood, he says, was the fault of the government, which was supposed to install a drainage system, but didn't. "They're only putting it in now," he says, "they" being one government agency or another. "We warned them over and over last year to get the drainage system in before the winter rains, and they always said, 'Don't worry.'" Several ex-Gush Katif farmers lost much of their crop because of the flood; Ya'acov says he lost 70 percent of his. This is the basis of one of several lawsuits he's filed against the government over post-disengagement financial disputes. Saying he's received about one-third of the compensation he's due, Mazaltarin is pinning his hopes on these lawsuits to get his family back on its feet. "In Gush Katif I built a home, I supported my family very nicely, and now I'm living in a transit camp, I've got a losing business and we're going through our compensation money," he says, his voice rising. "We thought that after we moved here, the government would start doing what they promised us, but for two years it's been nothing but bureaucracy, obstacles and delays. Whatever we've gotten, we had to fight for. Our situation is terrible, it's not even close to the way it was in Pe'at Sadeh." THE SETTLERS are not living in poverty today, but their standard of living has crashed. So has their productivity and self-confidence as breadwinners. "I feel useless not having a job to go to every morning," says Motti Levy, 44, who was Gush Katif's lifeguard before trying to become a farmer at Mavki'im, where he, too, lost his tomato crop in last winter's flood. These are practical, hard-working people; whatever their bitterness over losing their homes, once they arrived over the Green Line they did not deliberately bring their families to grief out of spitefulness or greed. Although they haven't been easy for Sela to work with, the exiles cannot be blamed for their current troubles. Even those who were extremely stubborn in the face of disengagement, who had to be dragged out of their houses literally kicking and screaming, tried the best they could afterward to reestablish themselves. But the government made it very hard for them. "When we applied for compensation, I had to bring two documents to prove that I was my parents' son. I brought a class picture of mine from the first grade and they said it wasn't enough," recalls Pniel Tashnady, 25, a college student and son of one of the leading families of Neveh Dekalim. They now live in Nitzan, the giant, desolate caravilla project just off Route 4, on the other side of Ashkelon from Mavki'im. More than 500 Gaza families are there. Lined up on the streets, the bungalows are all squat and square with red-tile roofs; the only difference between them being the color of the walls, which are lighter or darker beige. The sand creeps up to the "lawns," which are strips of thinning grass. Sand lots are everywhere, and the trash is noticeable. Tashnady proudly recalls that it took soldiers nine hours to pull him, his father, mother and five brothers and sisters out of their Neveh Dekalim house before it was knocked down. Afterward, however, the family, led by the father, Ephraim, who for 25 years had been principal of Gush Katif's largest secondary school, tried to rebuild their lives. The mother, Chana, a teacher, recalls searching for documents to prove that they'd really lived in Gush Katif as long as they claimed. "I started opening up boxes we'd stored in a container, which had rats running around it, and I found an old identity card of my husband's that showed our first address in Gush Katif," Chana says, sitting in her cluttered new home. "I took the ID card to the [government] committee and the chairwoman told the secretary to make a note that it was very old and yellowed. She asked me, 'Do you and your family hoard things?' She wanted to see if we were a family of crazy people. I looked at her, and I said, 'What you're saying is that only a family of crazy people would be able to prove to your committee that they were telling the truth.'" The country may have been divided over disengagement, but there wasn't much argument that the settlers were the victims in the deal and that the government was morally bound to give them back their lives, to the extent possible, as quickly as possible. Today, two years after disengagement, 38% of the settlers in the labor market are out of work - about three times the national average. And this is according to Sela's own figures, which the settlers claim are doctored to make their situation look better than it is. Of the 1,750 families, only some 40 have started construction on houses, also according to Sela. The Gush Katif farmers are in particularly bad straits. The government promised to compensate them for their hothouses and give them land where they could build new ones. The upshot is that a few weeks ago, they set up a protest tent in Jerusalem near the Supreme Court, saying they're still waiting for that land and those hothouses. "Look at that guy over there. He's about 60, he's got a family and what can he do but farm? Where's he going to get another job?" says Avi Salimi, a former Gush Katif farmer sitting outside the tent. Now living in the Nitzanim caravilla camp, Salimi, 48, counts himself lucky because although he's not farming, he's bringing in money from his civil servant's job. He says there were 400 farmers in Gush Katif. A Sela official insists there were only 160, and that the rest didn't work as farmers but only leased out their hothouses. However, both Salimi and the Sela official agree on the number of evacuees who are farming today: about 50. Pointing across the lawn to the Prime Minister's Office, Salimi says he was one of a delegation of Gush Katif farmers who went to see Ariel Sharon in April 2005, four months before disengagement. He recalls: "Sharon told us, 'Don't worry, Israel won't abandon you. Within a year you'll be harvesting watermelons in the greenhouses the government will build for your new farms.'" SO WHAT went wrong with the resettlement effort? Why are the lives of the evacuees, two years later, still so up in the air? Why is their standard of living - not to speak of their morale - still so hopelessly remote from what it was before? There are all sorts of possible, partial answers; the full answer may include them all. For one thing, it may be that expectations were simply too high - that resettling 1,750 families in new homes, while keeping them more or less together with their original neighbors, and with incomes comparable to what they earned, is just not a realistic two-year goal. "The idea that in two years, people who came out of Gaza not knowing where they wanted to live would have all picked out their land, and the land would have all been developed, and they all would be living by now in the new houses they'd built - this is the biggest bunch of nonsense I've ever heard," says a Sela official. He says he himself estimated a time frame of three or four years - if things went fairly smoothly, which they haven't. But this is not the way the government was talking before. All along, the authorities led the public to believe that resettling the evacuees would be carried out as a matter of course, that while it was a very complex and expensive challenge, it would be met. Yet in contrast to the IDF's clockwork evacuation, the government resettlement of the evacuees has been running way behind schedule from the beginning. "After they dragged us out of our homes, they put us on a bus to Jerusalem and gave us rooms at the Gold Hotel," says Chana Tashnady. "They said we'd be there for 10 days, and then we'd be moving into a mobile home here in Nitzan. We lived in that hotel room for over nine months waiting for a mobile home to be ready." A second possible explanation for the mess the settlers are in is that the resettlement program was just fundamentally ill-conceived - that the government didn't give the families nearly enough money, and that it created such a huge, labyrinthine bureaucracy, forcing the settlers to jump through so many hoops, that the system was guaranteed to fail. The State Comptroller's Report on resettlement activities last year, published May 9, offers a glimpse at the financial and bureaucratic problems that have been weighing the effort down. It says the cost of resettling the evacuees was badly underestimated, causing Sela to continually fall short of funds for the settlers' compensation payments. Had the resettlement project been budgeted properly, it "would have allowed more efficient supervision of funds," the report concluded. Officials from Sela's Budget Division told State Comptroller's Office investigators: "The decision-makers, starting with Ariel Sharon... reached their decisions mainly on the basis of national, defense and political considerations, so budgetary considerations were deemed of secondary (if any) importance." THE MONEY problems weren't Sela's fault. As the settlers' expenses and financial needs mounted and the budget kept falling behind, Sela couldn't simply write out checks; the money had to come from the Finance Ministry. "We would ask Sela, 'Where's the money?' and they'd always say, 'The Finance Ministry hasn't given it to us,'" notes Ya'acov Mazaltarin. I asked to interview a Finance Ministry official, but the ministry refused, referring all questions to Sela. There is an unreconciled dispute between Sela and the settlers over whether they're receiving enough money to build houses like their previous ones. Compensation was granted mainly according to how large the houses were, and the settlers complain that Sela only paid them according to the size of their homes on paper, which was much smaller than their actual size on the ground. "In Gush Katif, everybody added on to their houses as much as they wanted, they didn't worry about getting building permits, they didn't worry that anybody would demolish their balcony or something, like they do in Jerusalem," says Chana Tashnady. On paper - the property tax bill - her family's home was 240 square meters, but they built on an extra 80 sq.m., and after disengagement, they received compensation only for the 240 sq.m., she says. For many other Gush Katif homes, the difference between the official and unofficial size was much larger. Ya'acov Mazaltarin says he invested about NIS 1.5 million in his Pe'at Sadeh home, and got only NIS 800,000 in compensation. Motti Levy says he got NIS 900,000 for his Pe'at Sadeh house, and estimates it would cost him NIS 1.6 million to build its equivalent at Mavki'im. Chana Tashnady insists the government is cheating the settlers by not giving them back the equivalent of what it took from them. "I don't want money," she says defiantly. "The plans of our house in Neveh Dekalim are still on file. Let the government take the plans and build me the same house right here." A Sela official, however, gives the exact opposite version of how the settlers were compensated for their homes. "If a settler was only paying property taxes on 70 sq.m., but on the ground he actually had 250 sq.m., we compensated him according to the actual size. This was a policy decision we made," he says. In principle, he adds, the former homeowners should be getting enough money to build houses like they once had. ASIDE FROM disputes over compensation for lost homes and businesses, the settlers say the money they got for relocating didn't even come close to covering all the moving expenses they incurred. Tashnady says that between having to store their mountains of belongings in containers during their stay in Jerusalem, then having to transport those containers to their backyard in Nitzan, along with the countless unexpected costs of uprooting a family of eight, they ran up NIS 40,000 in moving expenses that came out of their own pockets. There is no end to the financial disputes between the settlers and the government, and there may be no end to the settlers' lawsuits. "The lawyers are getting rich off disengagement," says Avi Salimi at the farmers' tent camp. "The lawyers, the hotels, the construction companies, the media - everybody else got rich off disengagement, and we got screwed." Aside from being short on its budget, another inherent problem with the resettlement program is the extraordinary bureaucracy involved in deciding how much compensation each settler is entitled to, and the time and effort this costs both the government and the settlers. The State Comptroller's Report looked at just one very small part of that bureaucracy, and a reader comes away wondering what sort of Kafkaesque ordeal these people have been through since disengagement - and how much is still ahead. What the report examined was the property value assessments for "special cases." In figuring out the compensation for homes, businesses and other property, the government set a standard rate per square meter. But if a settler thought the construction on his property was of higher-than-standard quality, he could ask for - and automatically receive - a "special case" assessment. Afterward, he would be paid according to whichever assessment was higher. By October of last year, there were 670 requests for special-case assessments. Sela called on 20 assessors from the Justice Ministry to do the work. First they had to look at master plans, blueprints and other relevant documents - but just getting the documents often took months. One reason, according to the report, was the confusion between Sela and the assessors over who was responsible for getting hold of the documents. Then, after the documents were obtained and the property assessed, there was further confusion between Sela and the assessors over who was supposed to sign off on the assessments. "Thus," the report stated, "there were instances of assessments based on factual errors being submitted to the Compensation Eligibility Committee, and the settling of those [settlers'] claims was delayed. It was also found that the review of the assessments took too long; the processing of the assessments was faulty even though Sela needed them urgently, and because their readiness was delayed, the payments to the claimants were also delayed." Evidently, the government has dealt with the settlers about like it deals with welfare applicants, the unemployed or anybody else asking it for money: It decides each individual claim according to endless rules and regulations; it puts each claimant through the bureaucratic wringer. The disengagement bureaucracy, however, has turned out to be especially unwieldy, so the resettlement effort has basically been one long, ongoing glitch. And the people stuck in the wringer aren't ordinary applicants for government aid; the government forced them into this position, absolutely against their will. However, the settlers are not absolutely blameless in this ordeal, either, according not only to Sela officials, but to the State Comptroller's Report as well. Examining the special-case property assessments, the report concluded that while the government was disorganized, the settlers were often uncooperative. "Property owners didn't always cooperate with the assessors in finding the necessary documents. Master plans for the property weren't always accessible because the Gaza Coast Regional Council frequently didn't cooperate. In preparing hundreds of special assessments under these conditions, the government assessors and [Sela's] Assessment Department were given a mission that required investment of considerable effort," the report held. WITH PITY or exasperation, Sela officials depict the settlers as hard cases who quibble over everything, refuse to compromise, refuse to cooperate and then blame Sela for everything. "Our role is to be the guilty party, even for the hot weather," says one official. Even allowing for Sela's institutional bias, and even though the example of Pe'at Sadeh shows that the most cooperative settlers also got badly treated, it is unlikely that the evacuees are, as they claim, completely blameless in this saga. They've been through an awful trauma, their lives are still in flux, they're bitter and they hold the Israeli government responsible for everything. Given this perspective, chances are they haven't been the easiest clients for government bureaucrats to deal with. And as for the settlers' financial difficulties, these can't be pinned entirely on low compensation and a drop in income; part of the problem is that the evacuees lost the financial incentives they received from the government while living in the Gaza Strip. "In Gush Katif they paid NIS 150 a month for daycare, in Israel it costs 10 times as much," notes a Sela official. "They got breaks on property tax, on school expenses. They were on a national mission, they were true Zionist pioneers, and they took Kassams and mortars for their trouble, so they definitely deserved all the financial breaks they got. But now they don't have those breaks anymore, and it's harder for them. They've arrived in the State of Israel." There is another possible explanation for why resettlement is going so poorly: because it's the sort of mass-scale, hugely expensive public project - such as looking after the residents of the North during last summer's war - that may just be too much for the privatizing, budget-cutting Israel of today. Government seems to be failing in this country, or at least that's the public perception. Maybe what's happened to the settlers is part of a very large pattern - although, in the government's defense, it had 9,000 devastated, homeless evacuees on its hands and then, 11 months later, it had the Second Lebanon War. This would have been a tall order for any country. A Sela official says the resettlement's difficulties are due to its high ambitions. "We agreed to allow the settlers to stay together, to relocate as communities, which is an enormous challenge for us," he says. Some 1,400 of the 1,750 families have chosen the communal route. Relocating the 200 families who preferred individual solutions turned out to be a much easier job. "We haven't been hearing such complaints from these people," the official notes. Finally, another Sela official offers the following explanation for the failures of resettlement: that it hasn't been a failure at all, that it has actually been going quite well. "Compared to other bureaucratic processes in Israel, this one is moving very fast," says this official. "If the settlers would cooperate more, we could move even faster." I ask him if he thinks the government has failed the settlers in any way. The official can't come up with anything specific, but admits: "Of course, in a bureaucracy you can always do better. The job we've been doing until now is excellent, but we could always be more excellent." ALONG THE streets of Nitzan, there are many public memorials to the "old country": a Neveh Dekalim road sign, the "Katif Community Center," the "Orange Gallery," orange flags and posters for a upcoming rally marking two years after the hurban, a term meaning "destruction" usually associated with the First and Second Temples. "A lot of people here are in psychological treatment, a lot are on medication," says Pniel Tashnady, who is moving out with his fiance after their upcoming marriage. "For awhile we had a problem with vandalism among our youth, which we never saw before, and I don't think there's a boy or girl here who hasn't gone down in their schoolwork," says Ya'acov Mazaltarin in Mavki'im. Nitzan is the largest community of evacuees and Moshav Mavki'im is the first. But there are other enclaves in Bat Hadar, Talmei Yaffe, Ein Tzurim and about 20 more caravilla projects, kibbutzim and moshavim in the South. Even if all these settlers had houses and incomes today similar to what they lost, they would probably still be in at least a mild depression. The youth, who used to be gung-ho to volunteer for IDF combat units, now talk about avoiding army service altogether. "We were brought up on Eretz Yisrael, to live in it, to defend it," says Pniel's sister Bracha, 26, an architect who lives in Jerusalem. "But now I think the question hanging over every one of us is: What's keeping me here?" "Only faith," says Chana in a faraway tone. Two years after their tumultuous expulsion, the evacuees feel as if they didn't just lose their homes, they lost their country. The healing process hasn't even begun. For them, or for many of them, such a process may be impossible, but it clearly can't begin as long as their lives remain so unstable and uncertain. Moving into permanent homes and finding satisfactory work will likely take the 9,000 dispersed settlers, as a whole, at least another year, maybe two, maybe more. But if they're waiting, as Shulamith Mazaltarin put it, for "the same life we had back there, only in a different place," they'll probably be waiting forever, unjustly, and they'll always see themselves living in exile in Israel.