We arranged to meet early that morning at the ranch. The secretary told me to turn left after the PazChem Fine Chemicals sign. Waze wasn’t even a dream back then, nor did anyone dream of leaving the Gaza Strip then, either. After breakfast in Lily’s kitchen, Arik took me to the bedroom balcony, on the second floor, to show me the vine tangled around its metalwork, from which he picked a cluster of grapes every morning during the season and brought them to Lily in bed – or so he related.
It was a November day in 1989, and I don’t remember whether there were still clusters on the vine, but the story of the grapes worked its spell, indelibly. As has often been recounted, Lily and Ariel Sharon were warm and gracious hosts, and my impressions from a few visits to their Sycamore Ranch in the Negev are etched upon my heart. There was something intoxicating, bedazzling about them.
My trip with Sharon to the Gaza Strip that same day is another unforgettable memory. The then-minister of industry and commerce called to suggest we visit the Strip, to try to persuade me that the Israeli presence there must remain forever.
“Of course, only if you have some free time,” he added with characteristic flattery that was as irresistible as it was laced with irony. I found the time to spend a whole day with Sharon in Gaza, where he was familiar with every stone and orchard. It was seven years after the Lebanon War and 16 years before the “disengagement.”
The logistics were equally fantastical: Sharon and I in the government Volvo, a chauffeur and perhaps also a security guard up front, meandering as we pleased through the Strip, stopping occasionally to get out. Two Border Police vehicles, one in front and one behind, escorted us. Gaza 1989. Imagine.
Sharon lectured on and on, in his inimitable style. He was concerned that the idea of an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip at the height of the first intifada would prove popular, so he was mobilizing to head off that possibility. The Strip, he explained to me, is not the West Bank – where 80,000 settlers were living at the time – with which Israelis have a historical and religious bond. Fear of Katyushas being fired on Kfar Sava was another factor that would prevent withdrawal from the West Bank. At least that was the talk then. But Sharon worried that it would be much easier for Israel to forgo Gaza.
He recalled with pride how in 1971 he had silenced Gaza by force after the resistance there began to gain momentum, at a cost of 120 Palestinians killed, 800 arrested and a few dozen deported. Occasionally he scolded me for taking notes for my column: “You can write in the office. Now, look. Observe. See.”
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From time to time Lily called to ask her husband whether I had been convinced yet that we must not withdraw from Gaza.
Sharon never ceased to be excited by the landscape, although at the same time he sowed fear: Jewish farmers will no longer be able to work their land in the verdant fields of the kibbutzim in the area, he predicted; the concept of the “Gaza envelope” had not yet come into being then.
“I am talking about artillery terror, about lone Katyushas that can be carried by a mule and could be used to attack kibbutzim and moshavim in this area. And what will we do then? Will we bomb the refugee camps from the air? Shell them? Hit American and French soldiers who will certainly be stationed here as part of a multinational force? Internationally, that will look worse than soldiers with clubs. We will never be able to do that,” he asserted.
Several prophecies in one sentence, some have come true, some have not. I remember that Arik was also worried about free trade and about foot-and-mouth disease.
“Imagine that they declare themselves a free-trade zone,” he said of the Gazans. “That could be disastrous for Israel. And think what will happen if they don’t vaccinate their animals and foot-and-mouth disease breaks out here. That could be ruinous for Israel. After all, we’re talking about open borders, no?”
He gushed enthusiastically when we arrived at settlements. “Look at these people, the women and the children, doesn’t it do something to you?” he asked.
We climbed to the roof of a house still under construction in Rafiah Yam. “Isn’t it wonderful here?” asked the man who would one day order the evacuation of that house along with many others. About 3,500 settlers lived in the Strip at the time. “It used to be that the whole country was thrilled when a settlement like this was established,” he continued.
Sharon had a plan to chop up the Gaza Strip with new settlements, fingers of land, even more than it was chopped up then. Why more settlements?
“There is a difference between a military presence, which might be temporary – today the army is here, tomorrow it isn’t – and the life of people on the ground, who just by living here generate motivation to protect and to stay.” So we will be here for all time? “Yes, for all time.”
Almost 16 years went by. On August 21, 2005, the day Israeli poet Dahlia Ravikovitch died and singer Hanan Goldblatt was accused of rape, the last settlement in the Gaza Strip, Atzmona, was evacuated. Before dawn, the sky was painted in bold blue-gray hues and the black cloud that loomed above still-burning tires portended tough resistance that never really materialized. Sprinklers sprayed water for the last time near the iron gate; a settler with his mobile kiosk showed up for one last day’s take. Half the Israel Defense Forces General Staff was huddled on the lawn opposite the local synagogue.
Atzmona’s settlers milled about, heads bowed, given the somber nature of the event, a few employing the regular settler shticks: brandishing an infant for members of the international media who were there to photograph the marvel of a settlement being evacuated; a woman wearing a yellow Star of David patch, like in the Shoah, on her clothes – so fitting – and so on.
“Is this why you made aliyah?’ they asked a soldier of Ethiopian origin. “Go to the Arabs. Bash them. Not us.”
A settler woman hung up laundry, perhaps as an act of defiance, or maybe the towels were actually wet. “Gush Katif forever” – the name of the settlement bloc in the Gaza Strip – “We were not defeated” and “Always we will triumph in joy.” Such were the lies smeared on the walls there. A Land Rover, packed with domestic appliances and ready to exit the gate, revved its engine.
“Do you get what’s happening? An Arab is going to sleep in my house,” a settler keened, her house built on land stolen from an Arab.
Pe’at Sadeh and Rafiah Yam had already been evacuated, when we visited Atzmona.
Here’s what a failed enterprise that has ended looks like: a half-full box of breakfast cereal and an expired carton of milk on the table of the abandoned home of the Attiah family in Rafiah Yam, a house I had visited three years earlier. “Eleven years, erased,” the Attiah children had written on the wall. “Death to the Arabs” and “Kahane was right” – referring to the ultranationalist Rabbi Meir Kahane – the residents of the nearby neighborhood of luxurious homes, in Pe’at Sadeh, had scrawled, and added: “The Sharon family’s day of judgment is at hand.”
Five months later. January 2006. An almost-final visit to the Strip. In revenge for rocket fire into Israel, Israel Air Force planes had bombed Al-Sika Bridge which the Americans had built a few months earlier for the benefit of residents of the Palestinian city of Beit Hanun, in northern Gaza.
Children from the Anwar Community Center in Gaza City were visiting the ruins of the evacuated Netzarim settlement on their annual school outing. The girls were wearing long skirts, very similar to those worn by the pupils in the seminary for religious Jewish girls here, until a few months ago.
Netzarim was unrivaled when it came to physically bisecting the Gaza Strip with its very presence, embittering the lives of its inhabitants and abusing them. That’s why it was built.
The terrifying checkpoint and the threatening voice over the loudspeaker that stopped the busy traffic between the northern and southern sections of the Gaza Strip whenever a settler mother drove her child to an after-school activity in an armored, heavily guarded convoy – that is something I will never forget.
The children from the community center kissed the liberated soil. They didn’t believe that it was now possible to travel from Gaza City to the southern city of Khan Yunis without going through the scary Abu Holi checkpoint, or to go from the seaside Muassi neighborhood to Khan Yunis without traversing the equally threatening Tofah checkpoint.
A poorly equipped amusement park was erected near the ruins of Netzarim, and the children of Gaza soared in the air with a mixture of joy and fright. It had been five months since the evacuation, but they still poked around, searching for buried treasures – a pipe, a curbstone, electric cables.
Next to the ruins of the synagogue of Kfar Darom a woman pruned branches from ornamental trees. In Neveh Dekalim, Gazan workers were building a new campus of Al-Aqsa University. Dozens of workers passed buckets of cement from hand to hand.
“Take counsel together, and it shall be brought to nought; speak the word, and it shall not stand; for God is with us,” declared a sign quoting Isaiah 8, attached to a still-standing electricity pole.
The black flags of Islamic Jihad were already flapping in the breeze above the ruins of the small and relatively unknown Slav settlement in Gush Hatif, which had now been turned into a camp named after the martyr Mahmoud al-Arkan.
The direct and speedy trip from the settlement of Rafiah Yam to the city of Rafah was another hallucinatory experience. But an Israeli spy balloon and an Apache helicopter in the skies of Rafah brought me back down to reality – which hasn't much changed since then.