At the Gush Katif Museum in Jerusalem.
At the Gush Katif Museum in Jerusalem. Photo by Daniel Bar-On
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Nir Kafri
Evacuation from Atzmona, a Gush Katif settlement, August 10, 2010. Photo by Nir Kafri

At a recent meeting of a parliamentary committee on the removal of houses built on Palestinian-owned land on Ulpana Hill, Yaakov Katz, chairman of the rightist National Union party, lashed out at cabinet minister Benny Begin.


"You’re creating a rift. You’re leading to the scenes that took place in Gush Katif!," Katz admonished Begin, who had expressed support for removing the homes in keeping with a ruling of the High Court of Justice. "You’re opening another wound, which will only widen and (lead to) the destruction of Israeli society!"


The outburst was part of the effort by settlers and their parliamentary supporters to portray the planned evacuation of Ulpana Hill, in the settlement of Beit El, as another trauma in the making: an expulsion of Jewish men, women and children from their homes, rather than the removal of an unauthorized outpost built in violation of Israeli law.


The comparison to Gush Katif, where some 8,500 settlers were evacuated from the Gaza Strip and their homes demolished in 2005, resonates powerfully with many settlers and their backers. They view that withdrawal as a watershed moment that could presage further evictions in the West Bank. Ulpana Hill, they warn, could be the harbinger of more evacuations.


The legacy of the Gaza Strip pullout, as perceived by the settlers, is promoted at the Gush Katif Museum, which is tucked away in a nondescript building not far from Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market.


Lost paradise


The exhibit memorializes what it depicts as the state-sponsored uprooting of thriving communities of agricultural pioneers, who farmed barren sand dunes and led a rich social, cultural and religious life.


Palestinians are conspicuously absent from the narrative, except as rocket-firing terrorists or desecrators of the empty synagogues the settlers left behind.


With a timeline depicting Jewish links to Gaza going back to biblical times, the museum paints a picture of a vanished paradise, destroyed in an act of political folly that upended the lives of thousands of people, who - years after being expelled from their homes - are still coping with the repercussions.


The nostalgia for the years at Gush Katif is nurtured through artifacts saved from "the destruction": a Torah scroll removed from a school mere hours before the area was abandoned; the large menorah that graced the synagogue at Netzarim, the last settlement to be evacuated; identification cards and communications gear used by security officers of the now defunct Gaza Coast Regional Council; and a sign posted on the door of a family house pleading with soldiers to refuse orders to evict the people inside.


The height of the museum experience is a room painted black, featuring stark video scenes of the forcible removal of settlers from synagogues and homes, as a mournful song plays in the background. Many images are from the main synagogue at Neve Dekalim, where soldiers struggled with yeshiva students who had locked arms on the floor, tearfully resisting eviction. The film shows soldiers weeping as they carried out their mission, embracing settlers, sobbing at the synagogue ark. The clip ends with a man crying as he is carried off: "You will not be forgiven!"


Shlomo Wasserteil, a Gush Katif evacuee who runs the museum, says its message is relevant more than ever today. "One of the aims of the museum is that this won’t happen again," he says. "Anyone who goes through the museum and sees what took place can understand that this cannot be repeated."
Yet Wasserteil, who joined a hunger strike by settler activists against the Ulpana Hill evacuation, says he suspects such deeds will certainly recur. "Seven years later, they’re about to do it again," he said. "People have no idea what it means."
A sign on the museum door urges visitors to join protests against the evacuation of Ulpana Hill, warning, "The Likud government is about to again expel Jews from their land, as if it has learned nothing."


Wasserteil says he is concerned that a new generation of alienated settler youth, disillusioned by the Gaza evacuation, would put up a tougher fight against similar moves in the West Bank.


"The youngsters have concluded that no good deed goes unpunished - they view us as having left like sheep," he says. "They’ll want to prove that this time it will be a different story."