Former Gaza Residents Say Lebanon War 'Direct Consequence' of Withdrawal

Julie Stahl | Jerusalem Bureau Chief | Monday, August 21, 2006

Former Gaza Residents Say Lebanon War 'Direct Consequence' of Withdrawal

Yad Binyamin, Israel ( - The recent Israeli-Hizballah war was a direct consequence of Israel withdrawing from the Gaza Strip last year, former residents of the Gaza Strip said. They are angry, they said, noting that they warned the government that something like this would happen.

Last week marked the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. As part of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan, Israel uprooted 21 Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip and four in the northern West Bank last summer and pulled its army out of the Gaza Strip completely.

Sharon and those who advocated the plan said it would bring greater security to Israel by separating Israelis from Palestinians and giving the Palestinian Authority a chance to rule over an autonomous area, free from any Israeli presence.

But in less than a year, Israeli troops and tanks are back in Gaza, searching for abducted soldier Gilad Shalit and trying to stop hundreds of Kassam rockets from raining down on Israeli communities in southern Israel.

"For us, it's hard because we told them so," said Leah Wasserteil. "What did they [the Arabs] learn from this destruction? What did they learn? They learned that it's possible to continue forward.

"We said that the Arabs would see this as our weakness, that we were fleeing, like we fled from Lebanon, like we gave [the Palestinians] weapons in Oslo. They'll see this weakness again...They'll strike us," said her husband Shlomo Wasserteil.

(Israel withdrew unilaterally in 2000 from a buffer zone that it had maintained for 18 years in southern Lebanon. Hizballah claimed victory for driving out Israel.)

"This is the price that the people of Israel are paying today for all that [the government] did to us," said Shlomo. "All of the people of Israel are beginning to feel what we suffered in Gush Katif -- bombs, destruction of homes, refugees -- all the people are feeling this."

Some 6,000 Kassam rockets and mortar shells have crashed into Gush Katif in the span of a few years, causing extensive damage but few casualties. During the recent Israel-Hizballah war, more than 4,000 missiles have landed in northern Israel, killing dozens, wounding hundreds and causing extensive damage.

Shlomo said a number of families in his community hosted families fleeing northern Israel. His community collected food and some of the youth traveled north to distribute food and encourage the people.

Formerly of the Gush Katif settlement of Ganei Tal, the Wasserteils are now living with the rest of that community - some 80 families - in Yad Binyamin, about 40 kilometers (24 miles) from the northern tip of the Gaza Strip.

Less than a year after moving into a temporary community there, they and many of the other residents have small yards and colorful, blooming gardens. At the entrance to their home, the Wassertails have hung the remnants of Kassam rockets that fell too close for comfort.

At their own expense, the Wasserteils added an extra section onto their temporary home. The caravilla - as the mobile homes were dubbed - provided by the government was just too small, said Shlomo, who wore an orange Gush Katif t-shirt.

"They broke down our houses, they broke our hot houses, but not our spirits," said Shlomo.

Shlomo, formerly one of the most prosperous farmers in Gush Katif, raises geranium plants. He is one of the few farmers who has been able to continue with his farming.

Only 38 of the 220 farmers from the Gaza Strip are still farming; 51 percent of the evicted adults are still unemployed and 30 percent of the schoolchildren have not been able to adjust to their new schools, the Jerusalem Post reported last month according to the Israel Project.

"The thing is that we're together," said Leah. "It wasn't easy. There were kids who couldn't go to school. It was very hard for them to enter a new framework. But in general it was okay. No one from among us [at Ganei Tal] went on drugs or went crazy."

Last week, to mark the one-year anniversary of Ganei Tal's evacuation, former residents displayed pictures and memorabilia from their former homes. Some made models of their homes, including one family who made a replica of their former garden, complete with a flowing waterfall. Outside the community center was the road sign that once pointed to Ganei Tal.

Rivka Goldschmidt, 55, retired from teaching last year because of difficulties switching to a new environment. Her husband was a farmer, who grew amaryllis plants. Although they are not farming now, they plan to start again once they move into their permanent place.

"We are terribly sad because we're remembering what we lost and what the government and the state has taken away from us," said Goldschmidt. "Aside from that we're furious," she said, because of the war in Lebanon

"When the enemy sees that we fold up, that we throw away behind our back our history, that we fold our flags, they can only come to one conclusion: that we're weak, that we're not determined enough and we're not even sure that this country belongs to us," said Goldschmidt. Her son Eli, an officer in the Israeli army, was called to Lebanon to fight.

If something isn't done soon to change the direction of the country, she said she believes Israel is "doomed to go to even worse extremes." If there is justice, everyone involved would be put on trial, she said. Her only hope, she said, is that the religious and other communities in Israel will rise up and "rescue" the country from the liberals.

But Rivka said not everything is bad. They have some joys. Her daughter Avigail got married this week to Omer -- a photographer she met last year when he came to photograph the disengagement in Gush Katif.

Anita Tucker, a farmer from the former settlement of Netzer Hazani said that everything is slow-going but they are "flowing with God" now, which makes the struggles easier to bear.

After 11 months in a hotel room, she and her family just recently moved into their temporary caravilla in the community of Ein Tzurim. Forty-six families from the former Gush Katif community of Netzer Hazani are among some 130 former Gush Katif families living there, she said.

"We're going to build again. That's for sure," said Tucker. "Every stage is a struggle...God-willing we are going to go back to farming [and maybe something in the] tourism business."

Tucker said it was strange that the government had been so well prepared for the disengagement and so ill-prepared for the war in Lebanon. The soldiers had new uniforms last year and profiles on each family, she said.

(Criticisms of the war are already flying here as reservists return from Lebanon with stories of everything from faulty equipment and a lack of food and water to complaints about commanders.)

"I only hope that it will never happen to anyone else again," said Tucker of the disengagement. "It's too cruel and too evil [to take people out of their homes]."

Shlomo, who described himself as someone who always looks for the good in the bad and sees the glass half full, said he is not bitter about all that he has been through, although some people are.

If something is wrong within the country, it has to be fixed from the inside, said Shlomo. "I don't have another land."

And for those who are still having a hard time, he said, he tells them that in 2000 years of Diaspora there was never a better time for the Jewish people than there is today and never a better place to live than in Israel.

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