Painting the Golan orange

Three years after disengagement, 22 former Gush Katif families living in the Golan are neither forgiving nor forgetting, but moving closer to rebuilding their lives and homes.

On "Rehov Caravilla" in the Golan Heights settlement of Avnei Eitan, the old bumper stickers that say "The nation is with the Golan" have been joined by newer ones that say "We won't forgive and we won't forget." The street, known by the row of deluxe prefabs, or caravillas, that were plopped down two years ago, is home to 22 families from Gush Katif, who are marking the third year of the disengagement from Gaza, what they call their "expulsion." "They don't have enough problems, they had to move to where Syria's right next door?" wonders a former kibbutznik from across the street, where a row of bungalows built in the early '90s houses young families of modest means from all over. "They're a collection of refugees," the man says of the ex-Gazans, acknowledging that he's a refugee, too. "From the kibbutz." He came up to us on his bike to ask what we were doing after "some of the neighbors saw you writing things down in a notebook. They got a little suspicious." Not a lot happens on Rehov Caravilla; a pair of strangers walking up and down, taking notes and photos, is an event. The refugees from Gaza have been living in the prefabs for two years. (For the first year after disengagement, they lived in a hostel on another Golan settlement, waiting to move to Avnei Eitan.) The homes are painted a deep shade of orange. "They came like that, we didn't paint them," smiles Ma'ayan Yadai, one of the evacuees on the block. "Gush Katif orange is a little brighter." There is a distinct air of transience on the street, like in a trailer park. Big, ugly, red industrial containers sit in every yard, holding belongings from Gush Katif that won't fit in the four- and five-room caravillas. The fields surrounding the street are brown and yellow in the dry summer heat; a backyard hammock hangs over a carpet of fake grass that has been laid over a bed of decorative brown gravel that has been poured over the crusty dirt. It's crucial to project a pastoral image; most of the ex-Gazan families have built pinewood bungalows in their backyards for the bed-and-breakfast trade. "Tourism is the thing in the Golan. Now, in July and August, all our bungalows are booked," says Yaki Israeli, head of the local Gush Katif contingent, and formerly head of the Gaza settlement of Netzer Hazani. Like many of the relocated settlers, he still does some farming to supplement his bed-and-breakfast income. Others run jeep tours, little restaurants and other small-time tourist operations. "All of us are working, we have something to get up in the morning for," says Israeli. "But it's not a livelihood yet. There's a big difference." Sitting in Israeli's stylish living room, I suggest to him that during the first year or two after disengagement, the image of the 9,000 Gaza evacuees was of a psychologically devastated community, and I ask if, on Rehov Caravilla, this is still true. "There was a problem with psychological distress, and there still is," he answers. "Most of the people here are still in treatment - with a psychologist or social worker - or they're getting some sort of therapy like swimming or horseback riding. A few of the young people dropped out of school, some who were outstanding students in Gush Katif don't want to study anymore. A few are afraid to be alone, a few wet their beds. The mood of the people here tends to go up and down, it's very unstable. What everyone tries to do is stay busy." The 22 families came here from Netzer Hazani, Neveh Dekalim, Kfar Darom, Tel Katifa and Gadid. All are religious and nearly all used to be farmers, so they basically fit right in at Avnei Eitan, a religious moshav whose members live in large houses on the other side of a broad field from Rehov Caravilla. "We voted 100 percent to absorb them - one of the few unanimous votes we've ever had," says Yedidya Feist, a flower grower and one of the original settlers from 1978. "Some of us were involved in the struggle against the expulsion. Some of our youth were in the Gush when it happened." TO OUTSIDERS, it might seem strange that people who'd just been traumatized by forced exile would risk being put through it a second time by moving to the Golan Heights, which is once again the subject of peace negotiations with Syria. There should be no mistake: The Gazan evacuees aren't sanguine about the Golan's future. "We didn't believe an Israeli government would remove us from our homes and give up part of the Land of Israel, but it happened, and it can happen again," says Israeli in his deliberate, thoughtful manner. Yet that threat isn't something that hangs over people's heads. "The negotiations aren't going to cause anyone to move out," he says. "The truth is we don't talk much about politics." If anything, being in the Golan has made resettlement less wrenching for the ex-Gazans than it might have been elsewhere. "The physical environment is different, but the human environment is the same," says Yossi Haddad, a one-time farmer in Kfar Darom who's now trying his hand at tourism entrepreneurship. "The people here care about one another, they believe in settling the Land of Israel. Here, a life based on values isn't passé." Three years after disengagement, the community on Rehov Caravilla is doing pretty well, both economically and psychologically, compared to the rest of their former neighbors from Gush Katif. One of the reasons given is that they didn't insist on trying to recreate a community solely of ex-Gazans, such as in the giant caravilla park in Nitzan, near Ashkelon. "Here, when we open the front door, we're not just looking at people sitting on their balcony with nothing to do, being depressed. We're also with people who haven't been through the trauma, who are happy. It has an effect on you," says Israeli. On the two days we were in Avnei Eitan, we saw teenagers from Rehov Caravilla joining with others from the original settlement to take care of a group of severely handicapped children coming for a week-long summer camp. Many have joined the local Bnei Akiva branch. Residents from Gush Katif sit on the various committees that run the moshav's very active communal life. "From day one, the people in the Golan in general, and in Avnei Eitan in particular, made us feel completely welcome. I can't tell you how important that was," says Israeli. In the next few months, the 22 families are finally going to be able to start building their permanent houses. They each got a five-dunam (1.25-acre) plot in an empty field just beyond Rehov Caravilla, where they'll not only have room for large homes, but also for their bed-and-breakfast bungalows (which can be trucked over) and for farming. "God willing, the houses will be finished in about a year and a half," says Feist. Everyone is looking forward to that day; it should give the evacuees a strong dose of stability and security (depending, of course, on what happens with the Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations). These people are clearly trying hard to pick up the pieces of their lives. Two of the families are trying to reproduce Gush Katif's best-known product - insect-free lettuce and other leafy vegetables for the strictly kosher market. As I was walking up Rehov Caravilla, a smiling dad came out and sent his little son running up to me with a fridge magnet for the family's jeep tours. "These are determined, patient, strong people," says Feist. "If they weren't, they wouldn't have come all the way up here to the Golan Heights." THEY WERE invited originally by Midreshet Golan, a religious hostel, when it was learned that the settlers from Netzer Hazani, having been ordered out of their homes to make way for the bulldozers, were on buses headed for the Western Wall, but that they had no destination from there. Other evacuees soon joined; eventually there were 80 or so Gush Katif families at the hostel. Little by little, though, about 60 families left, mainly for the central region because of the better job opportunities and closer proximity to family, but also because of the question mark hanging over the Golan's future. In general, the 9,000 Gaza refugees tried to stick together with their old neighbors and stay as close as possible to Gaza, but there are a lot of sad stories from that experiment. "Forty of the families from Kfar Darom went to live together in a high-rise in Ashkelon - on top of one another, without being able to go out the front door and be in the country. It split the community apart," says Haddad, who lived in Kfar Darom for 11 years. The people on Rehov Caravilla, by contrast, are making a go of it. They are putting one foot in front of the other. But they still have at least one foot in Gush Katif. This community within a community, one of the success stories of the post-disengagement resettlement, is still neither here nor there. Haddad, 40, a bear of a man with long hair and a beard, runs golf-cart tours, an archery range and a restaurant elsewhere in the Golan that he named Ruah Dromit - "southerly wind" or "spirit of the South." "I wanted to keep the name of Kfar Darom alive," he says. A father of nine married to an engineer, Haddad says he hopes one of his tourist businesses will turn out a winner, and he's looking forward to building his new house. But for all that, he says without hesitation: "Gush Katif is my home. There isn't a day I don't think about it - the place, the people, the way of life, the spirit." His daughter, Heli, 16, was wounded in the leg in an infamous 2000 bombing of a school bus that killed two Gush Katif children and blew off the legs of another. (Heli has recovered completely.) Haddad lost friends to terror attacks; he lived under intermittent assault from mortars and rockets. Doesn't he appreciate leaving that life and resettling his family near what is often called Israel's safest border? "It's funny, but you get used to mortars and rockets," he replies from the sofa in his living room. While he certainly doesn't miss the terrorism, he says the danger, the challenge and the tragedy of living in Kfar Darom created a stronger bond among the settlers, and gave a greater meaning to the act of settling the land, than he feels in the Golan. "We shed our blood to live in Kfar Darom. My daughter shed her blood to live in Kfar Darom." And although he is getting on with life in Avnei Eitan, Haddad has other plans. "My main goal is to return to Gush Katif. We intend to go back." This determination was expressed by many ex-Gazans and their supporters at rallies before Tisha Be'av, which has become an unofficial day of mourning for the 2005 destruction of Gaza and four northern Samarian settlements. "I spread the word all over about going back to Gush Katif," says Haddad. "I talk to youth groups, to yeshivot, to pre-army classes. I'm sure a large majority not only of the people in this settlement, but of all the people from Gush Katif, feel the same way. "I don't know how it's going to be accomplished, but this is my mission. Naturally I would prefer that it be carried out by peaceful means, but if there's no other way, then as far as I'm concerned, let Israel start a war to return to Gaza." Further up Rehov Caravilla, Ma'ayan Yadai is sitting in her backyard with four noisy kids on her hands, but she is eager to talk. Having lived through war in her native Croatia, she met an Israeli working on a tour boat, converted to Judaism and they moved to Netzer Hazani. An optimistic, charismatic woman of 30, Yadai, too, spreads the word about Gush Katif to sympathetic audiences. "I only lived there for two years, but I feel like I was born there," she says. "The people here are great and I love the Golan, but the spirit down there was stronger. So we've brought the 'spirit of the South' to the North." The threat of being forced out of yet another home by yet another government doesn't scare her, she says, vowing to "resist to the last moment" if necessary, while stressing that she would never use violence. Yet like Haddad, Yadai believes that the Golan will turn out to be only a way station. "One day we'll go back to Gush Katif," she says. As for the means, she doesn't explicitly say Israel should start a war, but she seems to imply it. "Our struggle won't be over until Israel deals with the root problem in Gaza, which is Arab terrorism," she says. "Jews are a merciful people, but we have to meet force with force. An Arab will only respect a Jew when he fears him." She lifts one of her kids off a ledge, then sits down again. I ask her where she thinks she'll be in 10 years. "With God's help, in Gush Katif," she smiles. "And if I can't go back, my children will. That's what I'm raising them to believe."