A Visit to Gush Katif

I visited some of the Jewish settlements in Gaza shortly before they were evacuated.  This is my report.

 Kfar Darom, population 380, is a truly lovely gated community. As you pass the gates, you are greeted by an oasis of green in the midst of a sandy desert-like area. There are trees and flowers and one of the first things you encounter is a large well-kept community center/yeshiva/museum.

The homes are spacious, well-kept, with lovely green lawns and gardens.

There are, however, a few hints that this is not your standard gated community. The first of course is the drive there, which involves passing through several military checkpoints. You drive down a road with a fence and rows of concertina (razor) wire, with slum-like hovels visible on the other (Palestinian) side of the fence. The gate into the community is not one of those nice ornate gates opening in a stucco wall you see in the retirement communities of Florida, but it’s a military checkpoint style gate surrounded by a military style fence with more barbed wire. That’s one of the big impressions you get driving around the communities of Gush Katif, the southern-most settlement bloc of Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip—fences within fences within fences. 

I visited Kfar Darom, and several other communities that are part of the Gush Katif settlement bloc with a group of Israeli “lefties,” for the most part people who support the disengagement from Gaza. I was the only non-Israeli resident on the tour. Note that all of the people who spoke to us were speaking Hebrew, so my remarks are my English translation-paraphrase, not direct quotes. The tour definitely had a bit of that “New-Agey lefty” feel to it: before we got Gush Katif we sat on the ground in a circle under a tree and everyone introduced themselves and said something about why they were on the tour. Most people said things along the lines of “to listen and to understand.” We had a filmmaker who was recording the proceedings, a journalist (not taking notes—presumably more there for herself than on ‘official’ business). One participant was a social worker who works with helping settlers deal with the relocation who wanted to see first hand what they were leaving behind. There was a smattering of professors and students, and one rabbi, yours truly. 

Ganei Tal and Neveh Dekalim are similar to Kfar Darom: lovely communities, nice homes, but I always felt aware of all those fences. Despite the fences, it is obvious that the settlers in Gaza have done some amazing things in the 34 years that they have been there.

There were some Jewish settlements in the area (notably Kibbutz Kfar
Darom) prior to the 1948 war. The territory was all lost in 1948 and recovered in 1967. In 1971 the Israeli government started to encourage settlement in Gush Katif. Today about 8,000 Jews make their home in Gush Katif.

Prior to 1971, there was nothing in Gush Katif except sand dunes. No Arab towns were confiscated, no farms were taken over. Out of the sand dunes the residents have built communities and businesses. The agriculture in Gush Katif is especially impressive. They have very little water, so everything is done with drip irrigation. The soil for the most part is pretty useless for agriculture, so most plants are grown in big planters with imported soil. They produce a substantial percentage of the world’s geraniums and most of the kosher washed and bagged lettuce consumed in Israel. We were proudly told at one settlement that they use no Arab laborers, they use Thais. Yet at the same time we were told how good everyone used to get along before Oslo.

All of the work that was done to make a paradise bloom in the middle of nowhere makes it all the more sad that it must be abandoned. But the beautiful scenery and the hard work that has gone into developing the area does not change the fact that these settlements will be abandoned, and it is appropriate that they be abandoned.

The residents we spoke with did their best to convince us otherwise. We had a tour guide, Nurit, a 30-something young lady who has lived in Gush Katif her entire life. We had a lecture from a rabbi associated with Midreshet HaTorah v’Ha’Aretz in Kfar Darom. And most importantly, we spent two hours in a private home with several long term residents of Gush Katif.

Between the group of them, I think we were exposed to almost every argument those who want to remain in Gaza have at their disposal. Most of the arguments center on either historical or security grounds.

At Midreshet HaTorah v’Ha’aretz the rabbi not surprisingly worked hard on trying to show the religious significance of Gaza. He showed a map which showed Abraham’s route from Ur to Egypt going right through the Gaza Strip. He spoke of a reference in the Talmud to R. Eleazar b. Isaac, “a man of Kfar Darom.” Of course R. Eleazar’s location did not come with GPS coordinates, so we don’t necessarily have any idea that this Kfar Darom (which means “village of the south”) is anywhere near the present location.

The arguments for the historical significance of Gaza are not very strong. There is a definition of “Greater Israel” in the Bible which includes everything from Egypt to Iraq. That’s not a practical definition of the land that should rightfully be part of Israel. Gaza was not part of Israel in the days of King David or Solomon: it was under the control of the Philistines, a sea-faring people who settled the area while the Jews were still slaves in Egypt. In fact Gaza was only historically part of Israel for about 50 years under the Hasmoneans. As an indicator of the ancient religious view of Gaza, Gaza is NOT considered to be part of Israel for purposes of observance of the agricultural laws such as shmitta, the requirement to let the land rest every seven years.

In a film they showed us at Midreshet HaTorah v’Ha’aretz, they made a case for the strategic significance of Gush Katif. It is claimed that when the Egyptians attacked Israel, the settlements in Gush Katif were especially important in slowing down the advance of the Egyptian troops. They showed a clip of Ariel Sharon some years ago giving a speech telling residents of Gush Katif “You ARE our security!” 

Times change. We have peace with Egypt and a demilitarized Sinai. In fact, Israel is inviting Egypt to have more of a military presence in the Sinai in order to stop smuggling of arms into Gaza. The enemy we are fighting today is NOT Egypt: it is the Palestinians. And in the battle with the Palestinians, Gaza is far more of a liability than it is an asset. 

It does not take a genius in military strategy to take a look at the map of Gaza and see how much more difficult it is defend settlements embedded within Palestinian territory than it would be to defend one simple border between the Palestinian territory and Israel. Gaza’s military significance may have been a factor in the last war: it’s not a positive factor in the current war.

We also heard the claim that to pull out of Gaza would be to give the terrorism a victory and encourage them to engage in more attacks on Israel proper. People said the same thing about the withdrawal from Lebanon five years ago, and it has been proved wrong. The security of the northern border of Israel has not suffered as a result of the withdrawal from Lebanon and the number of soldiers killed along that border has dropped to a fraction of what it once was. The same will happen when we pull out of Gaza.

One of the residents told us about how her husband grew up in a house that used to belong to an Arab in Ashkelon. She said what’s the difference? Why should we have to give up Naveh Dekalim, but we get to keep Ashkelon?

The difference is huge, and it was obvious to the secular Israelis among us. People who have had relatives in the Army who were killed defending the borders of Israel proper from invasion feel that their loved ones died in a noble and worthy cause. Many secular Israelis who have loved ones who died defending the settlements are angry and feel it was a waste.

The most interesting part of the visit was the time we spent sitting and talking with the residents. At times people were yelling at each other:
the emotions on both sides are very high. Sometimes, as an American, we look at Israelis who are fond of yelling in arguments and wonder what’s up with it. Do they somehow think that if they yell louder their logic is more compelling and they win the argument? At one point someone had to remind one of our participants that in the circle he said he wanted to listen and understand, and how can he listen if he’s yelling?

The real reason for the passion is that these are very emotional issues. 
We had a couple of people on the trip whose sons were killed serving in the IDF. You put their feelings about the preciousness of the lives called on to defend settlers up against the feelings of the settlers who are being uprooted from their homes for over 20 years, who feel betrayed by the government that encouraged them to move there, who believe that withdrawing from Gaza is a catastrophe, and you have a recipe for some very heated discussions.

Reasonable people try to see both sides of an argument. One of our participants said “Every argument has pros and cons. I favor the disengagement; I know what I believe to be the pros, and I hear your pain, I can understand the down side. Do you see the upside, the things in favor of disengagement?” The response was no. The settlers see no benefit to it all. They can’t see the benefits that much of the rest of Israeli society sees.

Chagit, the Gaza resident, said if she believed it would lead to peace, she would certainly agree to leave. She just doesn’t believe it. She is resigned to leaving, but she is very bitter over it. She can’t believe that it’s her government, her army, that is coming to throw her out of her home for the last 22 years, where she has raised all her kids, where her parents are buried.

Meeting with these people truly made me aware of the very heavy price we are paying to withdraw from Gaza. It is very difficult. The residents also feel that the way it is being done is terrible. They feel it was not democratic—there was no national referendum. It was pointed out to them that it was, however, done by a democratically elected government. They feel they are not being given enough time to make arrangements to leave. 

They don’t know where they will go, they don’t know what they will do for work. The temporary housing they are supposed to live in until their new permanent homes are built is much smaller than the homes they are living in now. Chagit asked, “what am I supposed to do with all of my stuff?” pointing to the sefarim (Jewish books) lining her shelves, her furniture, her collection of Judaica.

I asked one of the other participants, “what did you learn from the trip?” He replied that he learned that the people living in Gaza are real people: they are not all the crazies we see on TV threatening violence. They are mostly normal people, concerned about their families, concerned about Israel, worried about the future—he was able to see they are fellow Jews in a lot of pain.

An American professor on sabbatical in Israel said “I favor the disengagement, but I can see your pain. What can we do to help you on a personal level?” Chagit replied that we should lobby in favor of extending the date, of giving them more time to leave. And he was also told, “don’t hate us when we leave here.” Meaning, allow us to integrate back into Israeli society, don’t treat us as outcasts when this is all over.

So important things were learned on both sides: the visitors learned the human dimension to the withdrawal, and the residents learned that people on the other side still care about them personally and relate to their pain. So perhaps a little bit of progress was made.

Today I had the opportunity to spend some time with retired Israeli Major General Uzi Dayan, former security advisor to Sharon, known as “the father of the fence.” Dayan said that the withdrawal is a very important step. 

Israel needs to have borders—real borders—that are defined by security concerns, and with an eye on keeping a Jewish majority in a Jewish democratic state. The General believes that pulling out of Gaza is an important step in the right direction.

There is an important principle talked about in the Talmud: tafasta meruba lo tafasta, if you try to grab too much, you grab nothing. It’s not in the best interests of Israel to have the widest borders possible: we need borders that give us a country we can easily defend where the solid majority of the residents are Jews.

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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