The Human Spirit: Small steps for evacuees

How are the Gaza Strip's former residents getting along more than two and a half years later?

disengagement 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [archive])
disengagement 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [archive])
At the invitation of an organization called JobKatif, I recently visited a group of evacuees from Gush Katif. Remember them? It's more than two and a half years since the heartrending evacuation from their homes in the Gaza Strip. In the interim, their fate has largely slipped out of the news and even the consciousness of many past sympathizers. How are they getting along? We arrive at Yad Binyamin, a tidy village between Jerusalem and Ashkelon, close to Gedera. Three hundred and fifty former residents of Ganei Tal, choosing to remain together as a community, have moved into prefab homes we call "caravans" and the humorous call "caravillas" depending on size. The men and women you meet in Yad Binyamin buying lettuce, repairing bikes and pushing baby carriages are nearly all former Gush Katif residents. Employment remains a thorny problem, hence the involvement of JobKatif. Soon after the evacuation, Yosef Zvi Rimon, a rabbi and yeshiva teacher in Alon Shvut, established the organization, and volunteers and staff are still plugging away at helping with CVs and job applications, listing available positions and making the matches between evacuees and employers. Motivated by the dictum of Maimonides that the highest level of doing rightly for your fellow person means finding them a job, the organization provides capital grants, small business mentoring and occupational advice - all paid for by private donors, many from abroad. Ezra Eldar is one of JobKatif's field workers. A spry and cheerful former farmer in his late 50s, he goes door to door offering job help. Eldar - an evacuee himself - left behind sweet scented fields of dill, chives and mint, but gets satisfaction from helping his neighbors regain their dignity by being able to once again provide for their families. He points out the organization's success in converting a horseshoe of public storerooms into an unpretentious commercial center. A lawyer's office and an insurance agency, a pizza parlor and half a dozen practical retail stores represent new businesses owned by former residents of Ganei Tal. The bicycle store has already expanded to include hardware, oversized hot plates and ladles. The gift shop has a corner for women's hats. Bracha Assis, a mother of four grown children, is straightening decorative candles in her gift shop. With the help of JobKatif, she's also replaced her old kiln and runs ceramic workshops in the back of her shop. Her husband and married son have reopened their successful geranium and flower export business nearby. "We've learned a few lessons from the past and are even doing better," she says. Nearer the exit to Route 6, Eliahu Fitussi and his wife Hephzibah have opened up "Meeting at Six" a hot food canteen near the entrance to the highway. Back in Gush Katif they ran a catering business from their home in addition to their day jobs as teacher and child caregiver. Now they serve homemade meatballs, schnitzel, felafel on pita and baguettes at the roadside shop. Further south in Nitzan, Eyal Ben-Hamu, 32, has reestablished Vanilla Sky, a pizza parlor that was once a thriving eatery in Neveh Dekalim. Business is steady. WHAT ABOUT Eldar's own family? They are doing well, he assures me. He and his wife have jobs - she's directing a community center - and their six children are back on track. One daughter is finishing medical school. One son, a naval commander, was given time off to go through the disengagement with his family, and afterward completed his military service. Another daughter is serving as an emissary abroad. "If you don't pick yourself up, you'll stay down," he says. But it sounds more like resignation than ebullience. Is there ever an evening, I wonder, when he and his wife are sitting around with their fellow evacuee neighbors in their new homes with their new jobs, drinking coffee and cracking seeds when they don't bring up the disengagement? "Never," says Eldar. "And never will there be until the day we die." Last week, Eldar and his wife were guests in the town of Beit El. A dozen couples gathered at the home of their hosts to hear firsthand of the events of the evacuation, the government's mishandling of resettlement efforts and the personal tragedies. Even as his family members move on with their lives, he sees a mission in making sure the trauma of the evacuation isn't swept under the carpet. THIS IS supposed to be a cheerful story, but everyone I interview sounds, well, morose. The veneer of optimism feels so thin. When Eldar points out a peeling wall in Bracha Assis's new shop, she shrugs, "What can you do?" Ben-Hamu and family haven't given up on the idea of moving to Canada despite the successful pizza shop. Eliahu Fitussi speaks openly of his wife's ongoing battle with depression. He assures me that their 10 children still love "the Land of Israel," but he doesn't say they love the love the "State of Israel." No one ever uses the Hebrew word hitnatkut, "disengagement," they always speak of the gerush - "expulsion." How tentative are these small new steps in their adult lives, caught between the agony of the past and their hopes for the future. Work is restorative. You have to admire the practical Zionism of Rabbi Rimon and JobKatif, with its theme of "restoring lives, one job at a time." Still, one wonders why the government couldn't have provided an essential service like this, even if it had to be outsourced. What are we learning from the experience of the families from Gush Katif? I used to believe - perhaps naively - that we had drawers upon drawers of "just-in-case" contingency plans for threats that faced Israel. Disengagement isn't just about efficiently removing people from their beloved homes. We need a contingency plan for non-military matters of national importance, too. It needs to start with a frank national reckoning about what went wrong. And I have an employment idea, too. The government should immediately set up a think tank of those who have come to know disengagement up close and personal. Paid jobs for people to analyze the mistakes and come up with a wiser way. Bureaucrats and politicians need not apply.