Gaza evacuees sue over NIS 125m. debt

Gush Katif evacuees fight bureaucratic catch-22 situation over funds from sale of Tnuva stock.

Tnuva milk bags 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Tnuva milk bags 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Desperate for cash, Gaza evacuees from the former settlement of Katif sold NIS 3 million worth of their Tnuva stock in January, only to discover that the World Zionist Organization had put a lien on the funds. At issue is NIS 125m. owed to the settlement division of the WZO - which acted on behalf of the government to help build communities over the Green Line - for the development of the 18 Gush Katif communities in Gaza in the 1970s, '80s and '90s. "It's a crazy situation," Katif's business manager, Haim Shimoni, told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday, describing what has become a bureaucratic catch-22 situation for the evacuees. The money was loaned to the Gush Katif communities to execute what at the time was the government policy of developing the Gaza settlements, he said. But the debt remained on the books even after the government changed its mind and evacuated those communities, according to Shimoni. And the government is still demanding that the evacuees make payments on development work done for communities that no longer exist, he went on. Obviously, he said, had they remained in Gaza, the debt would not be an issue. Initially, he said, the Gaza evacuees had trusted that a 2004 cabinet and security cabinet decision had erased the debt. In January, they learned otherwise. Not only was a lien placed on their funds, but government representatives denied that the cabinet had ever canceled the debt. Now, the evacuees fear that the lien issued by the settlement division of the WZO - which now operates under the auspices of the Agriculture Ministry - could similarly be placed on other financial assets owned by the 18 Gush Katif communities. So on Sunday, in a lawsuit spearheaded by the former Katif settlement, the evacuees petitioned the High Court of Justice to order the government to implement the 2004 decision. The Prime Minister's Office referred all queries on the matter to the Sela Disengagement Authority, which told the Post that there had been no such cabinet decision. The authority said the loan was actually NIS 300m. It added, however, that it was working on legislation to erase that debt, which it planned to bring before the cabinet after Independence Day. This response was dismissed by MK Zevulun Orlev (National Union/National Religious Party), who said he had seen the cabinet decision that eliminated the debt. The Gaza evacuees' attorney, Neil Smollet of Granot, Strauss, Adar & Co., said officials from the government had been promising for months that the matter would be resolved and nothing had happened. Nearly three years after the disengagement, Smollet said, the debt has still not been erased. When the matter came before the Knesset State Control Committee this winter, there was even talk from the Treasury of insisting that the evacuees pay off the debt. Smollet and Shimoni said that during the committee debate, promises had been made to fix the problem within weeks, but so far nothing had happened. The evacuees had turned to the court, Smollet said, because they could no longer trust the government to keep its word. Even worse, said Shimoni, since the sale of the Tnuva shares had been done in dollars - the value of which has dropped in the last few months - they were losing money every day they couldn't access the funds. In the meantime, Shimoni said, the Katif community needed the money for its personal and business concerns, including moving its dairy farm from its temporary quarters to a new permanent one. Around 50 families from Katif are living in modular homes in Amatzia, in the Lachish region, where they have yet to receive permission to construct permanent homes. "We are still waiting for the government to take responsibility," said Gaza evacuee Doron Ben-Shlomi.