The Gush Katif and Northern Samaria Commemoration Center enjoyed the limelight this week, in honor of the 10th anniversary of the disengagement from Gaza. President Reuven Rivlin, who lit Hanukkah candles there in the past, will host the staff of the museum at the President’s Residence this week. The center is to be honored with the presence of opposition leader Isaac Herzog, who will speak at a well attended seminar alongside Habayit Hayehudi ministers Naftali Bennett and Uri Ariel.
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I decided to get there before them. The truth is that the four small settlements in northern Samaria, near Jenin, that were evacuated do not receive much commemoration at the center, north of the Gaza Strip. Even the word “disengagement” is not mentioned inside the building. It is called the “expulsion” there, and in the ads for the seminar they refer repeatedly to the “uprooting.” It is strange that there is no one who bothers to use the precise, actual term, even those who are not using it for ideological purposes: Withdrawal.
The ads about the uprooting were broadcast on Israel Radio, the official state broadcaster. The government is also the one who runs and pays for the center, established by a law passed by the Knesset in 2008. In fact this was the first thing our young guide said at the beginning of the tour. She was very sweet and pleasant, like all the members of the small staff of educational and management personnel. You can see their devotion and sense of purpose, but without the missionary fanaticism that characterizes the right-wing settlers in the West Bank, with its holy tombs and supposed remnants of the Biblical kingdom of Judah. It is possible that this was a characteristic of the settlement in Gush Katif from its very beginning: Not really logical from a geopolitical standpoint, but also not an ancestral land filled with strife and conflicting claims.
'Gush Katif forever'
The well tended center, located at the entrance to the community of Nitzan between Ashdod and Ashkelon, is of very modest proportions. On the tiny lawn I noticed a huge photograph of the golden beaches of Gaza, it seems from the days before the disengagement. On the wet sand is written: “Gush Katif forever.” The handwriting is simple. Next to the picture is a shelter, donated by an organization of supporters from the Diaspora.
The hero of the film who leads us through the exhibit is an imaginary child named Avichai, a son of the religious Zionist movement, who was the last baby born in Gush Katif just on the eve of the disengagement, and now wants to learn of his family’s roots with their help. There is his brother, now an infantry officer, who during the evacuation said he would refuse to serve in the army, but has since then changed his mind.
The film is sentimental, occasionally emotional, and rather effective. It has a number of insights. In the first room, which is meant to conjure up the lost paradise that was the settlements of the Strip, the viewers sit on stools made out of palm tree trunks. In the last room, the one dedicated to the “expulsion” itself, the stools are made out of Israel Defense Forces crates given to the families to pack their belongings. The screen in that room is built into a wall of broken bricks.
One room, dedicated to the struggle against the withdrawal, is called the “dilemmas room.” In it you hear a number of monologues, supposedly of those living in Gush Katif just before the disengagement. They express views like “and they call this a democracy.” Although even the museum notes that the disengagement was approved by a Knesset majority (67 for, 45 against), another monologue concludes that “a mistake does not become the truth just because the world believes it is.”
A single narrative
Not surprisingly, the center provides a single narrative and only one, whitewashed version of history. The map of “Greater Israel,” without the Green Line of course, stood out for me. The Gaza Strip was presented as a collection of settlements, strewn among them and marked very modestly — Gaza City, Rafah, Khan Yunis. They are marked as being the same size as the settlements. Nowhere in the museum did I find a mention of the true proportions: 8,000 Jews living in the heart of a population of 1.5 million Arabs. The entire attitude toward the Palestinians — their existence, their presence, their lives — is referred to only in passing. A good metaphor for settlement in the Strip and for the unilateral way it ended.
It is a museum intended to present a political message without talking about politics; maybe the choice of using the genre of children’s tales is not accidental. The “expulsion” is presented as an act of fate, a sort of natural disaster that suddenly descended upon the noble pioneers. The only reference to the intolerable diplomatic and military situation in Gaza is to be found in a corner, isolated from the rest of the exhibit, where photos of settlers killed in attacks are screened. There is no organized documentation of the many soldiers killed and injured fighting in the Gaza Strip.
A few omissions
There are pictures of flourishing greenhouses, but absent are the photos etched in the collective Israeli memory of IDF fighters crawling along the Philadelphi Corridor [along the Gaza-Egyptian border] searching for the pieces of their friends’ bodies.
In the entire exhibit, there is not a single voice or argument in favor of the withdrawal. But there are many tearful scenes of mezuzot being ripped out of homes by security forces.
It’s hard to believe that this is an institution financed and initiated by the government, or then again, maybe it isn’t so hard.
The overriding subtext of the museum is the sense of the bitter hurt and insult the settlers felt a decade ago.
On the way out visitors are encouraged to leave their impressions in a guest book. A quick perusal shows a slew of phrases like “We will not forgive or forget,” “Gush Katif forever,” and “We will return.” To add some balance I write: “I understand and empathize with the pain of the evacuation, but I wholeheartedly believe that it was vital and necessary. We had no reason to be there from the start. I hope that in the future we will be wise enough to evacuate from other occupied territories — only not in a unilateral manner but in the framework of an agreement.”
But the truth is that when you leave you wonder whether the museum memorializes some surreal event, light years away. Only a decade has passed since the withdrawal, and it is almost impossible to imagine similar pictures in the future. The country has changed its face, and so have the security forces. The next museum in the chain will have to commemorate destruction of a different sort.