Ten years ago, on August 15, 2005, Israel began its unilateral withdrawal of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip. Over the course of one week, roughly 9,000 Israelis were evacuated from 21 settlements in the bloc known as Gush Katif in southern Gaza. It was officially known as the Disengagement Plan, but that’s not a term used by the people forced to leave their homes. For them it was and still is the Expulsion Plan.
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This week marks 10 years since that historic event, according to the Jewish calendar. Over the past decade, many of the former settlers are still not in permanent homes, though they often cluster together in existing or newly established rural communities around the country. Haaretz asked a group of them — men, women, young and old — to share their thoughts and memories.
All photos by Michal Fattal.
A 51-year-old mother of seven, Shoshana Elnekave says she wasn’t thinking when she pulled a pair of orange shoes and an orange vest out of her closet one recent morning. Orange just happened to be the color of the anti-disengagement campaign waged by the Gush Katif settlers 10 years ago.
“But you know what,” says the wife of the former chief rabbi of Gush Katif, Yosef Elnekave, “you can write that I chose this color on purpose.” The Elnekaves spent 25 years in Gush Katif. They started out in Kfar Darom, moving from there to Gedid, and from there to Neveh Dekalim. With about 400 other Gush Katif families, the Elnekaves live today in Yad Binyamin, an Orthodox community in central Israel.
“I have awful memories of the day we left,” she says. “The soldiers entered our home at about 11 at night and took the kids out of bed in their pajamas. I didn’t want to fight with them, so I just packed all the kids into the car and began driving. I had no idea where I was going or where I needed to be. There was so much crying, so much pain, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”
After spending a night at her brother’s apartment in Tel Aviv, she joined other families at a Jerusalem hotel, before eventually moving to her current location. “When we got to the hotel in Jerusalem, there weren’t even white shirts for us for Shabbat, let alone toothbrushes and toothpaste,” she recounts. “So all I can say is that when it comes to the Expulsion Plan, the government gets an A, but when it comes to the day after, it deserves an F.”
Elnekave also gives high grades to the township of Yad Binyamin. “Unlike many of my other brothers and sisters,” she says, referring to the former Gush Katif settlers, “we’ve had it very good here. The mayor has treated us with silk gloves.”
For Hagit Gangte, a 48-year-old mother of five, it was the second big relocation she experienced as an adult. The big difference between the two, she says, is that “the first one I did willingly, and the second one I was forced into.”
Gangte is a member of the Bnei Menashe, an indigenous tribe from northeast India that claims to have Jewish roots. Leaving her parents and siblings behind, she arrived in Israel with her husband and two small children in 1995.
“We were taken straight from Ben-Gurion Airport to Neveh Dekalim,” she says, referring to one of Gush Katif’s larger settlements. The Gangtes were among hundreds of families from the Bnei Menashe community brought to Israel by private organizations and settled in the West Bank and Gaza.
After spending four months in a Jerusalem hotel after the Gaza pullout, she, her husband and children moved with several hundred families from Gush Katif to Nitzan, a largely Orthodox community near Ashkelon. After living nine years in a temporary housing unit, known as a caravilla, they finally moved into permanent housing — a brand new six-room, two-story private house designed by her husband — seven months ago.
Gangte, who speaks fluent English, has both bachelor’s and master’s degrees and taught history while living in India. In Gush Katif, she worked as an assistant and cook in a preschool, and since moving to Nitzan, she is employed as a janitor.
“We had heard we were going to be expelled, but we didn’t believe it,” she says. “In fact, a few weeks before, the government sent workmen to our home to take measurements for fortifying the walls.” Recalling the night she left Neveh Dekalim forever, Gangte chokes up: “My daughter had an infection at the time, and she kept crying ‘I want to go home, I want to go home.’”
Although life has definitely improved since the family moved into their new home, something seems missing. “I don’t know how to explain it,” Gangte says. “Maybe it’s because three of my children were born there, and they all grew up there. Maybe it’s because Neveh Dekalim was smaller and more intimate, and I didn’t need a car to get around.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is that Gangte is sticking close to home. Even though she has lived in Israel for 20 years, she has visited Tel Aviv only once (her husband has never been), and aside for the four months they spent in a hotel following the evacuation, they have never been to Jerusalem.
She and her husband didn’t move to Gush Katif for ideological reasons, says Ronit Serlui, a 50-year-old mother of six, but living there for 14 years turned them into ideologues. “It really deepened our convictions,” she says. Former residents of Neveh Dekalim, the Serluis live today in a new community in the country’s south-central region set up by former Gush Katif settlers and with a very similar name: Bnei Dekalim.
The morning of the evacuation, Serlui recalls, her oldest son announced that he planned to lock himself in his room and not leave. “I wouldn’t agree to that,” she says. “But still, we decided we weren’t going to just get up and leave. We sat and spoke to the soldiers who came to the house and waited until the absolutely last moment. Sure, we had tears in our eyes, but we restrained ourselves.”
The Serlui family spent nine months in a Jerusalem hotel before being moved to a special trailer park designated for former Gush Katif settlers at Ein Tzurim, a religious kibbutz. It was only two years ago that they moved to their permanent home Bnei Dekalim.
Asked to sum up the transition, Serlui, who today works for the advocacy group that represents the former Gush Katif settlers, says: “I’m not a good indicator. Wherever I am, I’m happy. I’m the type of person who flows. But the hardest thing has been this feeling of rootlessness I’ve had for the past 10 years. You feel that you don’t belong. That it’s not your kids’ school. That it’s not your supermarket. When people would ask me where I lived, I wouldn’t know how to respond.”
A 58-year-old father of five, Eliezer Orbach heads the Gush Katif Committee, an organization that advocates on behalf of the former Gaza settlers. Orbach lives today with his family in Bnei Dekalim. During their 18 years at Neveh Dekalim, Orbach was in charge of the local religious authority.
How does he explain the close ties former Gush Katif settlers maintain 10 years after dispersing to different parts of the country? “Because we lived for many years under the constant threat of terror attacks, many of us had family members who were scared to visit Gush Katif. So we kind of became family to one another.”
The initial decision to move to Gush Katif, he recounts, was largely a compromise between him and his wife. “I grew up on Kibbutz Chafetz Chaim [a religious kibbutz] and my wife was a city girl. She didn’t like life on the kibbutz, and I had some friends living in Gush Katif at the time. We went to visit them and were really impressed with the place.”
Orbach has a vivid recollection of his last day in Gush Katif. “There was lots of arguing going on in our home,” he recalls. “We couldn’t agree on whether to pack our belongings ourselves or simply leave. But for me personally, the strangest thing was evacuating the cemetery in Gush Katif. As the head of the religious authority, that was my responsibility — removing the bodies and having them reburied. I just couldn’t believe it was happening.”
Sixteen-year-old Elkana, the youngest of Eliezer’s Orbach’s five children, remembers his early years in Gush Katif as idyllic. “Sure, we’d have mortar rockets landing here and there, and we never had any warning, but I don’t remember ever being afraid,” he says. “What I do remember are the beaches, the sand dunes, the feeling of living in paradise.”
He was only 6 when Israeli soldiers knocked on the door and told the family they had to leave, but Elkana has very sharp recollections of that day. “I still remember my parents crying and the terrible sadness,” he recalls. “I had no idea where we were going. For a week, a hotel might have been fun, but staying there for months, that was a nightmare.”
Only a year and a half ago did Elkana and his family finally move into their permanent home in Bnei Dekalim. But he says he has no illusions about this being their final destination, “I believe that one day we’ll return to Gush Katif,” he says, “and that’s also the feeling I get from my parents.”
A 32-year-old mother of five, Tamar Sokolovski was born and raised in Neveh Dekalim. She was married for a year and pregnant with her first child the day she was evicted from her home. “I gave birth 11 days later, a month before my due date,” she says. “I have no doubt that I went into labor early because of all the stress I was under.” Today she lives with her family in Bnei Dekalim, where she works as a teacher.
On the day of the evacuation, the entire family met at her parents’ home: “We didn’t pack any of our belongings. The books were on the shelves, the breakfast dishes were on the table, but the sense of treason was so strong we feel it to this day.”
The Sokolovskis had decided not to put up a fight when the soldiers told them to get on the buses, but today they have their regrets. “We were just talking the other day, and we all agreed that it was a pity we gave in like that,” he says. “Why did we do it? It all seems so surreal today.”
Her father in particular didn’t have a smooth adjustment to life outside Gaza: “In Gush Katif, he ran a rehab home, but since we left, he has been unemployed. And there are many others like him.”
Sokolovski hasn’t slept well in recent nights. “It must have to do with the 10-year anniversary,” she says. “Everything is resurfacing.”
A 60-year-old mother of six with 21 grandchildren, Naomi Mermelstein says her adjustment to life outside Gush Katif has been uncharacteristically smooth. “It may have to do with the fact that I kept busy working, so I didn’t have much time to think about what happened,” she says.
But it probably has more to do with a chance encounter a few days after the evacuation. “I had just gone back to work at my alternative healing clinic in Ashkelon, when one of my patients met me outside and introduced me to a new patient she had brought in. That patient was a woman from Netanya who had been in the Park Hotel holding a seder with her family when a terrorist walked in and blew himself up,” she says.
“This woman lost her parents, siblings and grandparents in that terror attack. Just she and one brother were left. I looked at her and asked myself: ‘What exactly are you crying about? You still have your husband. You still have your children. So you were thrown out of your home. So what? And after that, I stopped crying.”
Mermelstein spent 29 years in the Gush Katif settlement of Ganei Tal. Today she lives in a new community in central Israel also called Ganei Tal with dozens of families from that settlement. As well as things have worked out, she says she still misses her old home.
“It was a 380-square-meter house, with verandas and pergolas, a huge lawn and beautiful garden. After we left, I never went back because I wanted to remember it that way. My husband did go back once, though. I just didn’t have it in me.”
A secular-kibbutznik-turned-Orthodox-settler, Ilan Tenenbaum still carries some relics from his former life: a long ponytail, torn jeans and a cowboy hat. The 59-year-old father of six spent 18 years at the settlement of Netzer Hazani, where he worked as a farmer before changing careers and becoming a tour guide. Today he lives in a new rural community in central Israel of the same name.
Tenenbaum is as bitter and angry 10 years on. “We were among the last families to leave our homes,” he recalls. “When the soldiers came in, I told them I was going to report them and asked them for their names and IDs, but they refused to comply.”
The Tenenbaum family’s first stop after leaving Gush Katif was the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and from there they headed up north to the Golan Heights, where they spent the next eight months in temporary housing facilities. Their next stop was Kibbutz Ein Tzurim before they eventually relocated to Netzer Hazani.
“I can’t forgive anyone for what happened,” he says, “and I believe that anyone who touches the Land of Israel will pay the price. What happened to Ariel Sharon — that was an act from God.” (Sharon had a second stroke and fell into a coma five months after the Gaza withdrawal. He never awoke and died in 2014.)
The Tenenbaums, Ilan says, are enjoying their new surroundings but by no means see them as permanent. “I have no doubt in my mind that we will return to Gush Katif one day,” he says. “As someone who has lived in all sorts of places in Israel, I can tell you that there never will be anything like the life we had there and the people we had there.”
The third of six children, 16-year-old Shaked Haddad remembers feeling excited the day her family left their home in the settlement of Kfar Darom. “I had no idea what was going on,” she recalls. “People were shouting, there were soldiers in the house, and all I knew was that we were going to a hotel, and that sounded like fun. I couldn’t understand why everyone else around me was so sad.”
With a group of other families, they moved to a small guesthouse in the Golan Heights, and the experience, as she describes it, was “a nightmare.” “We were jam-packed into small rooms, there was no place to do laundry, and the food was awful.”
From there they moved into permanent homes in Avnei Eitan, another Golan Heights community, but 10 years later, Haddad says she still doesn’t feel like she belongs. “I’m not happy there,” she says. “Once I finish my national service, I intend to leave the place. I don’t where I’ll go, but I’m not going to stay in the Golan.”
He was born in the Gush Katif settlement of Atzmona, and in one week Shmaaya Karavani, a chain-smoking 18-year-old, will be joining the army, where he will serve as a driver. The seventh of 10 children, Karavani says he terribly misses life in Gush Katif. “Things were great there, I hung out with friends all day by the sand dunes,” he recalls. “Even the mortar rockets, for us, they were an attraction.”
On the day of the evacuation, he took a walk alone around the settlement to bid farewell to the familiar sights of his childhood. “It was difficult to accept that we wouldn’t be back,” he says. “And it’s still difficult to accept.” He and his family spent eight months at Alumim, a religious kibbutz, before moving to their permanent homes in Shomria, a new community in southern Israel established by former Gush Katif settlers.
Karavani hasn’t adjusted well to life in his new environs. Two years ago he dropped out of high school, and he says his closest friends remain those he grew up with in Gush Katif and who are now scattered around the country.