Living pragmatically ever-after

Former Gaza residents optimistically look toward a brighter future.

living prag 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
living prag 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Of all the images of the disengagement that still flood my mind, the ones that are most common are the ones in which people are crying. Settlers and soldiers alike - just crying, struggling to absorb what was happening. And a year later, many are still crying, still struggling to accept the finality of it all. But those images, and those reactions, were by no means the only ones. As David Saadon, 40, reminded me this week, not everyone cries. Comparing the disengagement to a funeral, the Elei Sinai evacuee explained that "Most people wail and cry. But there's always that one person at the funeral who doesn't shed a single tear. Now, that doesn't mean that he isn't hurting. It's just that everyone expresses their pain differently." People like Saadon - an 18-year veteran of Elei Sinai who represented the northern Gaza settlement in the regional council - channeled their pain into something productive. Whereas many of the Gaza Strip settlers fought the disengagement plan tooth and nail, David got to work on a plan for the day after. "When prime minister Ariel Sharon announced his intention to carry out the disengagement plan, the writing was on the wall. I said, 'This battle is already lost,'" he recalled this week from his office at the Ashkelon municipal soccer stadium, where he works as general manager of the Hapoel Ashkelon sports club. "I didn't want to be left at the last minute without any solution. So I contacted the Sela disengagement authority and we started to plan the development of a neighborhood from the ground up, inviting friends to join us." From among a handful of options, Saadon and the small group of families he had gathered from Elei Sinai and the neighboring settlement of Nissanit chose to move to an Ashkelon residential project called Bat Hadar. They worked with Sela to change the zoning of the area and pave the way for construction of 49 new single-family homes. After all the bureaucratic snags, Saadon hopes the houses will be ready within the coming year. In the meantime, his is one of the 22 families from Elei Sinai that have spent the past year at Kibbutz Or Haner, just east of their former home. The kibbutz is compensated by the government for the 90-square-meter "caravillas" that the families rent, and the families have a place to stay that is very similar to the atmosphere of Elei Sinai. The kibbutz members have received the settlers fairly warmly, said David, including welcome presents of a cake and a potted plant for each family upon arrival. More important, though, was the continuity that Or Haner provided for those awaiting the completion of their new homes in Bat Hadar. "The idea was that our children would be able to move together, that they would stay in school together, that their lifestyle would remain more or less the same. I think this really helped," he said. "There were fewer crises, because there were fewer changes to adapt to. I can say that my kids have had an easy time of it - at least, as easy as can be expected. Yes, of course there have been problems here and there. But they are minuscule compared to what could have been, and compared to what's really important. "In fact," Saadon added, "If I were to imagine a utopia after what we went through, I'd have to say that we have come as close to it as we could." Clearly, Saadon's point of view is not that of the majority. For a Gaza Strip evacuee to speak of utopia - and not in terms of what he lost but in terms of a year of temporary housing and hassles - is unheard of. But Saadon is no wide-eyed dreamer, and he has not been spared the hardships that have embittered so many others. Saadon lost the fish farm business that he built in Elei Sinai, and he is still in the midst of trying to reestablish it. He and his wife had to calm their two sons, who had spent all their lives in Elei Sinai, while packing up the family's belongings a month before the evacuation, without even knowing for sure where they would go once the soldiers came to turn them out of their home. He knows the same frustration that others feel, and he has suffered the same loss. Saadon has just taken it all in stride, like the mourner who doesn't shed a tear. "Listen, I lived in Elei Sinai for 18 years, and I was an elected official of the community for seven of them. I founded, I built, I did things. So losing it all hurts," he said. "But if I sit and immerse myself in that pain all day long, what will become of my life? I'm not prepared to stop living." Saadon prefers to look ahead, to see the positive in everything. "To me," he said, "It's better to look forward to tomorrow than to pine for yesterday." SHOSH MARK does not drive the road along the northern Gaza Strip, past what was once Elei Sinai, though it is only minutes from her Ashkelon apartment. She feels no urge to look across the fence at the place she called home for 17 years to see it in ruins and envision it as it was before. "Some of my friends took pictures of their homes after they were destroyed. They have pictures of mine as well, but I don't want to see them," she said. "On the day we left Elei Sinai, we left our house in one piece. We didn't destroy anything, we didn't break anything. I closed the door and locked it, leaving the key on the windowsill as usual, and I just walked away. I didn't even look back. I don't want to. I want to look forward." Not everyone from Elei Sinai approached the disengagement with that attitude, even though it was considered one of the most "pragmatic" of the Gaza settlements. Some of the families went so far as to refuse compensation and temporary housing, instead setting up a tent city in protest next to nearby Yad Mordechai. "Some of my friends were there in those tents," said Mark. "They accomplished nothing. It's painful to see." Some families from Elei Sinai went to Kibbutz Mefalsim, to Talmei Yaffe, or to Kibbutz Or Haner with the Saadons. Still others, like Shosh and her husband, chose to rent an Ashkelon apartment - theirs costs $300 a month more than the compensation they have received from the government - for the past year. At least, she said gratefully, they were not torn apart like other couples they know, who differed over whether to fight the evacuation or to plan for the move. "From the moment they said there was going to be an evacuation and that Elei Sinai was going to be part of it, I said, why fight?" Mark recalled as we drove through Ashkelon to see the neighborhood-in-waiting at Bat Hadar. "Against whom could I fight?" she asked rhetorically. "Against the government? Against a law passed in the Knesset? I'd be like Don Quixote." "No," she continued, "We decided to choose life, to continue our lives as normally as possible." How is it possible, I asked, to wall off a part of your life when every photograph of the past 17 years is connected to that place? "You know what?" she answered. "Since I left Elei Sinai, I haven't opened a single photo album. I haven't watched a single video, nothing. I have simply turned the page. And I am not returning to that page again. "There's no point in crying about the past," Mark continued. "My father was a Holocaust survivor. He came here by himself. He left behind his entire family - his parents, his seven siblings, his cousins - and he started over here, building a family and a life. He didn't live in the past. And I don't want to either." To say that most of Shosh's former neighbors do not share her feelings would be a severe understatement. Before the disengagement, families who invited lawyers and government appraisers to come to their homes were called traitors to the cause, defeatists who weakened the morale of those who attempted to fight the disengagement. The Marks were no exception. "Oh, they called us traitors, they called us pitzuimnikim (compensationists), they called us all kinds of names," Shosh said, still stung. "But today, some of those people are telling us, 'You were right, you were smart to act like you did.'" Even now, though, there seems to be a certain expectation when it comes to evacuees' relationship to their former homes. Is it possible, I asked Shosh, to refuse to cry and wail and put on a bitter face, and not be treated as if you have betrayed the cause and the hallowed memory of the Gaza settlements? It's a question that is difficult to ask directly - and a question that, apparently, is difficult to answer directly too. Mark would respond only circumspectly. "Until now,' she said, "I have refused to be interviewed, or even to talk openly about these things with people outside the circle of the evacuees, outside my circle of friends. What I express, you see, is something that very few people want to talk about. But I'll tell you something: People are getting a second chance at a normal life. We have an opportunity and we have to grab onto it with both hands, and hold on tight." Mark takes an Ecclesiastes-like view of her time in Elei Sinai: For 17 mostly idyllic years it was a time to plant. The disengagement was a time to uproot. These days, she believes, are a time to plant again. Of course, the 49-year-old school teacher is no longer a young woman raising her children; the planting this time will entail a different kind of labor and produce a different kind of fruit. But Shosh is okay with that. "Yes, we can build again," she said, without a hint of false confidence. "And you know what? What we create now may turn out to be even better than what we had before."