Facebook Twitter

Promised land pullout: Settlements soon to be a memory

SHARE Promised land pullout: Settlements soon to be a memory

GUSH KATIF, Gaza Strip — The Israeli settlements soon to be erased from the Gaza Strip form a patchwork of religious and secular Judaism in a cramped and arid land populated by vastly more Palestinians.

Some Jewish settlers moved here as religious pioneers after the 1967 Six Day War on a mission to redeem Israel's biblical promised land. Others came with lifestyle in mind, for the open space and ocean air.

Among the 9,000 residents are yeshiva students who wear yarmulkes and side locks and bare-headed youths who surf the Internet and the blue waves of the Mediterranean.

There are settlements known for training Torah scholars and settlements known for hothouse farms yielding kosher produce shipped throughout the world.

What these varied strains of the Gaza settler have in common is a world bounded by barbed wire, surrounded by 1.3 million Palestinians, and soon to be a memory.

Thirty-year-old Haim Gross has lived in some of Israel's most dangerous places: Jerusalem, where scores of Israelis have been killed by Palestinian suicide bombers; Beit El on the West Bank, where snipers have attacked Israeli motorists, and Sderot, the border town inside Israel near the Gaza Strip where Palestinian rockets often fall.

He moved to Morag, the southernmost settlement in the Gaza Strip, five years ago, putting his young family at higher risk on the volatile front line that faces the Palestinian town of Khan Yunis. He did it, he said, because "people here are defending the country."

Last week, as neighbors four doors down were filling boxes and preparing to move, Gross, a father of four, with a fifth child on the way, was renovating unfinished second-floor apartments in this small enclave to accommodate new families he says are coming to block the pullout.

"Last week, there were 50 families; next week, 60," he said confidently.

He would not say how the newcomers are sneaking into the settlement bloc, which has been a closed military zone for the past month.

As a religious man, Gross is certain God wants him to be here.

"As a believer, I am willing to fight it out. Jews should do what is right," he said.

Simcha Rivlin and her late husband, Gideon, came to the Gaza Strip in 1978, living at first in a remodeled bus, then cofounding the settlement where about 65 families live today. They learned to grow sweet peppers and flowers for export. And around that same time their first son, Nir, now 26, was born. Four more children followed.

"We wanted to build something new — to feel a part of something new and be pioneers. It's not a very popular word now, but it used to be," Rivlin said in an earlier interview as the reality of the evacuation hit home with the realization that her husband's body would have to be exhumed and reburied inside Israel.

"What happened to Gideon is the price we paid," she said. "But Israel pays a big price" too, for using its army to pull the settlers out. "You can't deny the possibility that a father will see a soldier grab his daughter and freak out.

"It will be a real 'balagon,' " she said, using the Hebrew slang word for a mixed-up mess. "They are already making our lives so hard."

Rivlin has no intention of staying to see evacuation forces at her door. She expects to leave before the deadline.

Semitrailer truck driver Moshe Engel, 55, has lived in Neve Dekalim, the largest Gaza Strip settlement, for nearly 20 years. His parents survived Auschwitz and wanted to move to Israel after World War II but ended up in Canada. Engel was born there and came to Israel in 1973.

He had planned to volunteer on a kibbutz and stay for just six months. But two weeks later, he met Ruchama, the Israeli woman who would become his wife, and the course of his life changed. He joined Israel's army and served for 26 years. His oldest son, Shai (Hebrew for "gift"), was born in 1975. Six more children followed. The youngest, Eleanor, is 10.

Engel's father, who died a few years ago, was a devout Orthodox Jew. Engel describes himself as "not ultra-religious," but he wears a knitted yarmulke atop a thatch of grey hair.

And, in this place where Palestinian snipers have shot at his truck, he carries a pistol on his hip.

He said he moved to the settlement bloc called Gush Katif for the quality of life.

"The sea, the sand dunes, the quietness. In 1986, there was no intifadah. It was a very attractive place," he said.

Now as the end of Jewish settlement here draws near, Engel is struggling to maintain solidarity with neighbors who are refusing to move voluntarily. But he also feels impotent against the power of the state and pressured to act in his family's best economic interest. If he stays to the bitter end, he risks losing up to a third of the compensation he will get after Israel razes his home.

So Engel hedged his bets last week by bringing home some packing crates and seemed sheepishly relieved by a recent announcement in a community newsletter that boxes will be distributed Wednesday, granting permission to pack without feeling guilty about letting his community down.

Khalil Bashir's three-story house in the Palestinian village of Deir al Ballah sits 70 yards from the hard-line settlement of Kfar Darom across a concrete-and-barbed-wire barrier frequently patrolled by Israeli tanks.

Since November 2000, Israeli soldiers have regularly occupied the second and third floors of the house, now mounted with surveillance cameras and draped with camouflage nets.

Bashir, his wife, Suad, and their eight children are restricted to the ground floor.

The army says it seized control of the house because it posed a threat as a sniper's nest. Bashir, 54, a high school principal, insists the house has never been used to launch attacks.

Although the army asked him to leave, he said, he has refused, fearing the house would fall into ruin. An empty house so close to a Jewish settlement often hit by mortar fire provides all the justification Israel needs to knock it down, he said.

"They told me, 'If you don't want to leave, you must close all the windows on the second and third floors.' I said, 'I am prepared to do anything except for leaving my house.' "

The army tolerated his principled obstinacy but exacted a heavy price by denuding his 6-acre farm. Israeli forces chopped down Bashir's grove of date palms and leveled the greenhouses where he grew tomatoes, cucumbers, hot peppers and peas. The army said its actions were necessary to clear the area of ground cover used by gunmen. The family also has paid with its blood, in incidents Bashir attributes to the Israeli military.

In October 2000, Bashir's oldest son, Yazen, then 17, was shot in the leg while getting water from a front-yard well. Six months later, Bashir was wounded by shrapnel when a missile followed by bursts of gunfire penetrated a downstairs bedroom where he was reading. In February 2004 his son Yusuf, then 15, was shot in the back as he waved goodbye to a car carrying U.N. personnel after their visit to the house.

The boy was treated at several hospitals, including one inside Israel, but the bullet remains lodged near his spine because further surgery is deemed too risky.

"Of course, I will feel happy. Once the Israelis leave, I will get back my freedom. But I will never feel victorious," he said.

"We in the Middle East are badly in need of forgiveness and tolerance. If we insist to let our wounded memory guide our steps to the future, it will be foolishness.

"We are destined to live together here. God gave us this cake. We have to share it."