Seven Years On, Gush Katif Remains an Unsettled Question

With the administration that deals with Gush Katif evacuees set to close, many of the families remain in limbo.

A glance from Route 4 is misleading. The red roofs of the houses make the area look like a sleepy border town surrounded by sand. But on entering the temporary housing area in Nitzan – established seven years ago to house the evacuees of Gush Katif for what was supposed to be two years – a different picture emerges. A miasma of unease and tension chokes the site. The conditions are reminiscent of the absorption camps that housed new immigrants to Israel in the 1950s.

The highway off-ramp quickly peters out into dirt roads, bordered by collapsed electricity polls and undefinable piles of debris. Improvised courtyards sprawl from mobile homes, filled with clotheslines and large, rusting containers that have been storing the families' possessions for seven years. The houses of families that managed to leave have been removed, leaving voids filled with trash.

With no public structures – no stone building, no bench – to provide succor in the shade, the sun's bleaching heat is inescapable. This is what seven years of transition look like.

Of the approximately 1,800 families evacuated from Gush Katif in 2005, the largest number—about 500 – are living at Nitzan. What was supposed to be a footnote in their lives has stretched into a long and ugly chapter. Over the years, the families have added makeshift rooms and other additions to their houses. There are 350 original 90-meter mobile homes and 130 more 60-meter mobile homes where the evacuees’ children live.

“The blood that was not spilled then, during the expulsion, is going to spill here,” says Moshe Reuven, the manager of the site, in the small air-conditioned mobile home that serves as his office. "People have reached a point where they can't build homes. There are more than 200 families who will live out their lives here. Someone had better keep an eye out to make sure we don’t have a Silman of our own over here, because people are going to reach that point."

Moshe Silman has come to emblemize despair, after the social-justice activist immolated himself last month.

Reuven recalls when Eyal Gabay, then newly-appointed שד director general of the Prime Minister's Office, called him to a meeting.

“I showed him documents from the welfare authorities. I showed him that these were families that couldn't manage. Not only were they unable to build a new home, but they also could not maintain a day-to-day existence," he says. "I cried like a child in front of him and said, ‘I beg you to think outside the box. Stop skimping on your treatment of the evacuees.’ It’s exactly seven years after disengagement, and there's no end in sight. It’s a shame and a disgrace to the State of Israel. These are only 8,500 evacuees," he adds. "The state is thinking about removing 300,000 people from Judea and Samaria. What will happen to them?”

The 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Stip was carried out under the slogan “With determination and sensitivity.” Seven years and NIS 5.5 billion later (the cost of the evacuation and dealing with the evacuees up to now) it's not over.

The failure must be laid at the door of the state, which failed to accurately assess the challenges.

But it must also be laid at the door of the evacuees themselves, who did not manage the money they received wisely, entrenched themselves in victimhood and slowly sank. The stories of those who made the transitioned successfully reveal opportunities squandered by all parties.

Opportunity not squandered

For almost three years, Lior Khalfa, a 42-year-old father of eight, has lived in a 174-square-meter private house on a half-dunam (more than one-tenth of an acre) lot in the new section of Nitzan's permanent housing area.

Khalfa, the former chairman of the settlers of Gush Katif, does not claim much credit for his relatively comfortable situation – personal initiative and financial acumen were much less important than circumstance, he says.

“One basic and important parameter that differed between families was the amount of compensation, which depended on the length of time they had lived there, the home and family size," he says. "I know very few families who succeeded in building a home without taking out a mortgage, even if they were 50 or 55 years old.”

And those were the fortunate ones.

“I worked and earned money over the entire period except for a brief stint of three months," he says. "I didn’t invest, and I didn’t fall for the scams that hurt a lot of evacuees. A person without a job starts using the money meant for building his home. Luckily, I had a job.”

Khalfa built his home, which is based on a generic construction model, without taking out a mortgage. But it took all his compensation funds to do it. Things could easily have worked out differently, he says.

“I was lucky in some things. Our lot was ready for construction in mid-2008. In other places, that happened only in 2009 or 2010. And in moshav Amatzia, the lots still aren’t ready. I was also fortunate enough to be working with a contractor who didn’t go bankrupt. Quite a few other families weren’t so lucky,” says Khalfa.

He says people's fates were also affected by regional councils, which vary widely in their willingness and determination to provide assistance regarding things like housing, welfare, planning and construction.

With so many variables beyond their control, he says evacuees faced wildly different odds of success or failure.

In June 2010, the governmental investigative committee appointed to examine the treatment of the evacuees of Gush Katif published its final report. The committee,  chaired by retired judge Eliyahu Matza, is highly critical of the authorities’ treatment of the evacuees. It finds that evacuees faced flawed and clumsy bureaucracy, state insensitivity to their plight as "refugees in their own country," waste and inefficiency – among other things. The report reserves plenty of blame for the evacuees as well.

“Some of the evacuees contributed significantly to the creation of the current gloomy situation,” it states.

According to the committee’s report, “Some among the evacuees chose to delay when they could have acted quickly. Many of the evacuees could have taken control of their own destinies early on, leaving remaining disagreements with the authorities for the future while building permanent homes, instead of waiting for their last demands to be met. Some of the evacuees often made exaggerated demands.”

Looking back, it is clear that transferring money directly into evacuees' bank accounts did them a disservice – something many of the evacuees now acknowledge.

Disengaging from the mobile homes

About a year ago, the government announced it would shut down the Tnufa Administration (formerly the Disengagement Administration), which answers directly to the Prime Minister's Office, in 2012. That spread the responsibility for the evacuees among a range of ministries, leaving many loose ends.

Just to drive home the point, the administration created to handle the evacuees from the Yamit settlement in Sinai in 1982 closed just three years ago.

Soon after the announcement of its demise, the Tnufa Administration sent letters to evacuee families that had not begun building permanent homes, saying, “Your eligibility for temporary housing has expired, and you must pay rent starting from the ending date of your eligibility period. You have 30 days to make arrangements to pay your debts to the Amigur government housing company.”

The letter provoked uproar. On receiving it, hundreds of families, mostly from the former Gaza Strip settlement of Nisanit, signed a petition protesting its requirements.

Reuven says, “I met with an official from Amigur and said, 'You’re playing with fire, because you’ve put these people’s backs against the wall. Stop using this tactic, because if you don’t, there will be a disaster here. Please reconsider.’ There are other ways to deal with this issue. Even if it costs another NIS 20 million to 30 million, that won’t break the State of Israel. We aren’t asking you to build these families 200-square-meter homes. We just want the minimum – a roof over our heads.”

According to the evacuation-compensation law, the state paid the evacuees' rent for two years, while permanent houses were built for families that had been given lots. After that, NIS 2,000 in rent was to be deducted from their compensation each month.

“For the families that received the letter, those two years had been over for some time, but the rent had not been deducted from their compensation until now,” says Rabbi Dr. Ophir Cohen, who has been director of the Tnufa Administration since last November. “As an administration, we delayed it as long as we could, but in the end, the state also has an obligation to give back this land, and we have to move on. The last thing we want is to perpetuate the current situation, and that requires people to organize on a personal level.”

According to Reuven and other residents and officials, many of the families are in a despondent state.

“Eighty percent of the residents take various pills and anti-depressants to lift their mood. Thirty percent of them are unemployed – and of that group half are at least 50 years old,” says Dror Tinami, the deputy secretary of Nisanit who now lives at the Nitzan site.

“I live here, on the ground. I live among my people, and I'll tell you this much: 95 percent of the businesses that residents started here have closed down, leaving debt and bitter disappointment. To start the businesses, people used money that was intended for the construction of their homes."

The Tnufa Administration's most pressing challenge is finding the evacuees housing. Even more than getting a job or making a living, the 480 families still living in Nitzan, worry about finding permanent housing. Those who cannot afford to build new homes will take out big loans from the Housing Ministry or build small apartments in Ashkelon. Those with even fewer resources will have to move their temporary homes to existing communities.

And those without any real options left will have to stay where they are and face lawsuits by the state. According to the Hof Ashkelon Regional Council, about 200 – 40 percent – of the families living at Nitza receive support from the welfare authorities.

Meanwhile, construction of a girl's school called Ulpanat Neve Dekalim, the flagship project in the expansion of Nitzan's permanent housing area, is moving forward at a feverish pace – funded by NIS 50 million in private donations.

This irks Aviel Eliaz, the secretary of the community of Nisanit at Nitzan.

“One hundred families have not yet moved to a community because they have no money to build a home, but the administration has already come up with money for public buildings. This building was constructed thanks to a donation of NIS 50 million. We need a supplement of NIS 3 million for the families of Nisanit so that all of us can have a home.”

The expansion of the permanent section of Nitzan also includes 260 new houses for families that were evacuated from the Neve Dekalim community in the Gaza Strip. About half of the houses are now occupied.

In another area south of Nitzan's temporary housing, a permanent community called Be’er Ganim is going up. It is expected to contain 360 homes in nine compounds for eight different Gush Katif settlements. At this point, only six families have moved in.

“The seven bad years are over. We are disengaging from the mobile homes,” says Avi Burstein, the chairman of the Be’er Ganim Association, which established the community. “At present, 120 families are in various stages of construction, and I believe that 50 to 80 families will be living here by year’s end.”

But construction is moving slowly and the area is far from looking like a neighborhood. Even families with completed houses cannot move in yet.

“We have a serious problem with the oxidation pools, which are near the neighborhood and still uncovered, so even those people who have built a home can’t move in because of the odor and the mosquitoes, says Burnstein. "Community infrastructure – like a synagogue – doesn’t exist yet either. If they were to promise me they would complete this community within four years, I would sign the papers right now, but it will take a lot longer."

Giving up on moving on

As of this writing, only 35 percent of the residents of the Gush Katif communities live in established communities, and for them the toughest part is yet to come.

“Of the 1,800 families evacuated from Gush Katif, 400 were not eligible for continued housing, including those who owned apartments there but lived elsewhere and were just compensated for their property. There were another 1,400 families that lived in Gush Katif, and they are eligible for compensation and housing. Of them, 200 families chose to move on independently and bought housing in Ashkelon or Jerusalem, or moved to a moshav."

So we have 1,200 families who have chosen to live together in new communities or expansions of old communities. Some of them received lots several years ago, while others received lots only recently. About 100 families still have not received lots for construction.”

According to sources close to the Tnufa Administration, the lots most evacuees bought with their compensation money were cheap at the time and prices have since increased.

But with construction in the new communities moving extremely slowly – hindered by bureaucratic obstacles and delayed by the planning authorities – many of the evacuees have fallen into financial straits that are only getting worse. The large sums of money that were transferred into their bank accounts to pay for new houses immediately after the evacuation have in many cases been used up on living costs.

Disengagement has cost the State of Israel close to NIS 10 billion, which covered the cost of preparing security forces for the evacuation, establishing an administration to deal with the evacuees, infrastructure, and evacuating IDF bases from the Gaza Strip. That figure also includes the NIS 5.5 billion spent to date on compensating and helping to relocate evacuees, as well as the NIS 2.5 billion allotted toward building physical and communal infrastructure in new communities. Additional funds will be transferred to some evacuees as construction progresses on their new homes.

Evacuees received compensation based on how long they had lived in Gush Katif and how big their families and homes were. Farmers, who lived on the moshavim, received the most compensation due to their land holdings and the farming they had done. The average compensation per family was between NIS 1.6 million and NIS 2.4 million, but there was a wide range. Young families without children in communities such Nisanit received NIS 400,000 to NIS 500,000 while large farming families received NIS 5 to 6 million. 

To the general public, the compensation given to the evacuees seemed more than generous.

The dispute over the fairness of the compensation given to the evacuees still plays a major role in the tense relationship between the state and the evacuees. Even if the value of the compensation was neither fair nor sufficient, as some of the evacuees claim, large amounts of money were still transferred to their bank accounts the day after disengagement – which apparently contributed to the tragic situations some of them ended up in.

Simha Weiss, a single mother of six, is only member of the 10-family community of Shalev to end up at Nitzan's temporary housing site. She says the community was the only one that would have her. Following the evacuation she received NIS 1.2 million in compensation.

“I’m not working now, and my situation is very bad," she says. "We’ve all run out of money, even those who built in areas of expansion. There are already five families who want to sell their homes for NIS 1.8 million because the mortgage is killing them. One woman took out a mortgage of NIS 1.2 million, and she’s paying NIS 7,000 a month. I’m still living in a mobile home. It’s a tough situation. The houses are starting to disintegrate. All the hot-water heaters have burst, the mobile homes get a minimum standard of maintenance and anyone who doesn’t pay rent gets slapped with a lawsuit.”

For the first two years after disengagement, the unemployment rate among the evacuees was about 73 percent. According to David Banjo, the director of Israel operations at JobKatif, the state’s organization that helps the evacuees find jobs, the unemployment rate among the evacuees is now 19 percent.

“People have stopped contacting me,” he says. “They’ve given up. They don’t believe they can return to the work force. This is true mainly of people between 50 and 60 years old who worked as farmers in Gush Katif. A person who went through this trauma comes to the job market in an unconfident and emotionally unstable state. We contact him and try to do the difficult, tiring work of empowering him and getting him psychological help. But many of them don’t want to go to psychologists.”

Many of the evacuees put the large sums that they were given into dubious financial ventures. Some of them were victims of scams by unsavory people who took advantage of the naiveté and lack of financial savvy of a group of people who were used to living in tight-knit communities.

Hagit Yaron, the secretary of Neve Dekalim, says, “Some of the families were lured into bad investments and deliberate scams by so-called ‘good people’ who realized that there was money to be had. So they approached the people and said, ‘It’s a shame to let the money just sit around.’ People fell for it. At first, they even got a return on their investment, but then it stopped and they found themselves with no money.”

Crooks still consider evacuee families easy prey. In January 2011, a construction firm began building homes for 32 evacuees in Be’er Ganim. Two months ago, the firm’s owners disappeared.

The families paid the contractor advances of 10 to 20 percent of the building costs – a total of about NIS 3 million. After efforts to locate the company owners failed, some of the evacuees submitted complaints to the police. This is not the only instance. Nitzan residents talk about other contractors who went bankrupt and took evacuees’ money with them.

To farm or not to farm?

According to Banjo, “A person who has no job usually has no money for groceries. The evacuees have gotten into an absurd situation because the state deposited a large amount of money into their bank accounts. An evacuee found himself with NIS 1 to 2 million and suddenly had money to buy groceries with. So he withdrew NIS 10,000 from his bank account every month, stayed where he was and lived on it.

“They lived off the money they were supposed to use to build a new home, so today there are problems in the construction process. One of the things we have been seeing over the past six months is that people who managed to start building are suddenly running out of money, and they’ve gotten into the difficult situation of ‘If I don’t get a job, I won’t have anything to eat.’ That forces them into the job market, with all the emotional difficulty involved in that, so these things become intertwined. The more people obtain permanent housing, the greater the chances they will return to the work force. On the emotional plane, living in a mobile home contributes to the feeling of detachment.”

Evacuees who have rejoined the work force receive at least six months of professional psychological support. Government ministries have not given evacuees preferential treatment in hiring, despite previously committing to do so.

“The decision was made but never put into effect, and that is one of the conclusions of the committee’s report,” Banjo says. “We gear our efforts mostly toward the private market and try to get people into training. You have to understand that Gush Katif was a kind of economic bubble – a place at the far end of the country with a complicated security situation. The job market that developed there was a kind of compromise that allowed the residents to fill many positions with no formal training. So after disengagement, many of them got into a difficult situation when they were faced with the demands of the free market.”

Since disengagement, Banjo says, JobKatif has succeeded in getting 2,300 people back into the work force and helped them create 235 new businesses, in areas like clothing and candy stores, taxi driving and modern agriculture.

In Dudu Michaeli’s large packaging house near Kibbutz Zikim, piles of boxes are neatly stacked on one another. A Thai forklift operator brings them into a huge hangar, which stands near a long line of greenhouses. The greenhouses hold tons of juicy melons, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant and cucumbers.

Michaeli, an exporter of organic fruit and vegetables, belongs to the small minority of farmers who managed to stay in their profession after disengagement. He started raising organic produce six months after the gates to the Gaza Strip were closed. But it was only this year that he managed to reach the income level he was accustomed to. He employs other former farmers from Gush Katif who were unable to restart their own businesses.

Gush Katif’s two largest communities were Neve Dekalim and Nisanit. Neve Dekalim, in the south, had about 600 families and was considered fairly well off. To the welfare authorities, most of the residents of Nisanit, which was in the north and had about 300 families, was a poorer population. The farmers of the moshavim are somewhere in between.

“In Gush Katif, there were close to 400 farmers. Of them, 190 have gone back into farming, and we have another 48 farmers who are still in the process of receiving land [from the state]. These are people who perhaps did not want to go back to farming, but when they had trouble finding jobs, they took the land [offered by the state in exchange for their land in Gush Katif] so that maybe they would have a source of income,” says Aharon Hazut, the chairman of the Gush Katif Farmers’ Association.

“Almost a year ago, we signed an agreement with the state that farmers who didn’t want to go back into farming would receive financial compensation in exchange for their land. Since that decision was made, no solution has been found, and this is the eighth year they haven’t been in the job market earning a living. I have farmland on kibbutz Zikim, but I haven’t gone back into business.”

Agriculture in Gush Katif was considered some of the best in the business – innovative and creative. The settlements exported as much as $300 million worth of produce every year. Just before disengagement, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised, “Three months after the evacuation, the first cucumber will be picked.” It was with this in mind that 25 farmers from the Gush Katif community Pe’at Sadeh signed an agreement with the state. They moved to Mavki’im, a community south of Ashkelon and received land for cultivation near Zikim [in southern Israel].

Only one of those 25 farmers works in farming today. According to Hazut, it was individual financial and emotional strength that allowed some farmers from Gush Katif to rebuild their businesses. But the future of other farmers is uncertain at best.

“They have no pensions or jobs, and I regret to say that within a short time there are going to be tragedies here," he says. "The government is going to dismantle the administration in 2013 to hide the crime that was committed against the people of Gush Katif. Some people have been successful, but they are few. The strong ones can always make it, but the system is not supposed to be for the strong. The wisdom here is in dealing with the silent majority. Many people have taken severe blows, but they are too proud to talk about it. The state needs to take responsibility until the last person is taken care of.”