For Former Gaza Settlers, Latest Flare-up Adds Insult to Injury

News of an impending Israel-Hamas cease-fire brought little joy to residents of Nitzan, a community on the Gaza border set up to house former Gush Katif settlers.

Ilan Assayag

NITZAN – Over the past week, the rocket sirens have been wailing here almost incessantly. Still, few, in any, of the residents of this community of former Gush Katif settlers, situated between Ashkelon and Ashdod, appear to be rejoicing over news of an impending ceasefire.

“If I knew this meant 10 years of quiet, I’d be OK with it,” says Aviel Eliaz, formerly of Nisanit, one of the few secular settlements that existed in Gush Katif before it was evacuated in Israel’s 2005 disengagement from Gaza. “But at best, we’ll get a year of quiet, and we already know that there’ll be another round. Once and for all, we should have put an end to this. We have a strong army, and we should’ve used it to rid Gaza of all its terrorists and its missiles.”

Nitzan has suffered two direct rocket hits since the beginning of the latest round of fighting with Hamas. In addition, every time the Iron Dome intercepts a rocket over Ashdod, residents report, the shrapnel rains down on them. “I’ve got a whole collection in my house,” says Eliaz.

The first rocket to hit Nitzan last Tuesday night exploded just a few meters away from the trailer that houses Orit Mendel’s ceramics studio. Her son, Itai, was taken to the emergency room after he lost his balance from the impact and hit his head. Taking a break from her ceramic work this morning, Mendel wanders over to the crater created by the rocket to see whether all the pieces have been removed. “I still see a bit of metal,” she notifies Eliaz.

Is she encouraged by news that the cabinet has just approved the ceasefire pact mediated by Egypt? “So that in a year from now we’ll go through this again?” she responds.

Aside from a few stray souls, the streets of Nitzan are largely deserted this morning. Most of the residents have by now sought refuge in safer, or at least relatively safer, part of the country. Eliaz, for example, has been living alone for the past week, his wife and children camping out at his in-laws’ home in the town of Yavne, about a 15-minute drive away. “At least there they have a basement they can run to for protection,” he explains.

Although they’ve been here close to nine years, about half the 600 Gush Katif families living in Nitzan are still stuck in temporary housing units, many with large containers in their yards for storing the contents of their old homes that can’t be fit into their new, but much smaller living spaces. Known as ‘caravillas,’ these prefabricated structures are slightly upgraded trailer homes. And since they don’t come equipped with safe rooms, local residents are forced to take cover in the large sewage pipes scattered around town, which serve as makeshift shelters. (A peek inside reveals that some are even equipped with benches.)

“If the government stuck me here after taking me out of my home, you’d think the least it could do would be provide me with some shelter,” laments Eliaz.

Dror Vanunu, the former spokesman of the Gush Katif settlement bloc, lives today in a neighborhood of Nitzan with hundreds of other religious families from the former settlement of Neve Dekalim. Besides running his own solar energy company, he moonlights as a spokesman for Nitzan, home to the largest group of Gush Katif evacuees in Israel.

Pointing out the sewage pipes in the neighborhood, he says: “You’re wondering why so many people have deserted this town? Just imagine the scene when you’re a family with four or five kids and you’re woken up in the middle of the night by sirens, and you’ve got to get all the kids out and into the sewage pipes in less than a minute.”

The rocket barrage from Gaza, he says, has been a double blow for the residents of Nitzan. “Like all other Israelis, we suffer because we’re attacked by rockets and are forced to run to shelters throughout the days,” he says. “But as former residents of Gush Katif, we feel a special pain because we warned that this is what would happen if we were evacuated. The irony is that Hamas is now using the ruins of our old homes to fire rockets at us.”

Mordechai (“Mochi”) Better, head of the Gush Katif Heritage Center at Nitzan, hasn’t received any visitors in more than a week now. His thoughts on the ceasefire? “The government and the army know what’s best, but I ask myself, since we’ve already been through this a few times, whether this isn’t just providing Hamas with an opportunity to rearm itself.”

Despite everything, does he feel safer living in Nitzan or living in Gush Katif? “Good question,” he responds. “I guess it depends when. On the whole, I guess I feel safer here because we’re not in such close proximity to them.”

Still dressed in her nightie, Aviel’s neighbor emerges from her homes and leans over the rail of her makeshift porch. “Are your kids home?” he asks.

“They’re sleeping,” she responds. “They haven’t slept in days.”

Across the road, Yuval Alteet, the local hairdresser, sits on a chair outside waiting in vain for customers to show up. “You want to know what I think about the whole situation?” he calls out. “I’ve got one word for it. You know what that word is? YUCK!”

Barely two hours have passed since the cabinet approved the ceasefire, and the rocket sirens are wailing yet again in Nitzan.

Ilan Assayag