From Dust to Dust

The Palestinians who helped build the Gaza settlements watch them being demolished.

"Remember how we built Netzer Hazani?" chuckles Adli Yazuri under his graying mustache on the day the settlements were evacuated. Yazuri, Mustafa and a few other friends in their 40s sit sipping coffee and tea, remembering their role in building the settlements.

They were youths, aged 15 to 17, from the Rafah refugee camps - Adli from Block O, Mustafa from Shabura, another from Yibneh - on vacation from school or university. Their work in the settlements financed their tuition and study books.

At the end of the 1970s, when Yazuri and his contractor brother assembled prefabricated houses in Netzer Hazani, the former was already a skilled construction worker. Born in 1959, he had already worked in Yamit, Netiv Ha'asara and Talmei Yosef. They were the ones who assembled the prefabs in the Sinai settlements, then, a few years later, took them apart and put them up again in the new settlements at Pithat Shalom and north of the Gaza Strip. Apparently not all the houses were bulldozed.

"We started building in Gaza during the Camp David accords" with Egypt, he recalls last week in his Gaza apartment. Over the years his brother obtained building contracts throughout Israel, up to the Golan. But when they were building in Netzer Hazani, they worked for two Jewish contractors. One was Israel and the other Dudu, recalls Yazuri with some effort. "One of them told us he had moved to Yamit because he had nothing to eat. The other had a criminal record. When Yamit was evacuated and the settlers received compensation, they became big contractors," he says.

In between arrests

Yazuri studied electronics at a Gaza college, then was sentenced to a year in prison for his activity in the Students' Popular Committee, which was affiliated with the Popular Front. Afterward he started studying history in the Islamic University, where he was in charge of the Students' Popular Committee. He was taken into custody for questioning, released and then put into administrative detention. On leaves, and between detentions, he continued working in construction with his brother in Israel.

Asked what he felt seeing the houses he built being destroyed, Yazuri searched for words. "I'm glad they're leaving my bedroom, but they're still in the living room," he says. Asked if he felt sad, he says, "I feel sad about building them, but that was an economic necessity. We'd have preferred building for Palestinians."

In the 1970s and early 1980s, he said, there was no difference between working in Israel and in the settlements. They were both legitimate, and no one thought of questioning them.

"At a certain period, all the laborers in the tomato packing plant at Gush Katif were activists - either Fatah's Shabiba (youth movement) or Popular Front youth. By day they worked in the settlements and by night they were activists for the organizations," he says.

One of the speakers was a member of the Popular Front in Lebanon, who arrived to the Gaza Strip through the Oslo Accords. He was amazed to hear that members and supporters of the Front had worked in settlements.

"Ya salaam," responds Yazuri with anger at his friend's shock. "They were clerks there in Lebanon, we were the warriors. They did not experience what we did under the military occupation, the weapons aimed at us, the frequent arrests, the humiliation and the forbidden activity under the occupier's nose."

Yazuri took part in the Popular Front's public activity in the 1980s. "Until then Fatah and the Front and others were based overseas, while here they ran secret, military cells. But from the beginning of the 1980s we all started to expand our activity to the street, to the public. No more secret, closed cells. We started raising consciousness and recruiting people to unarmed popular activity against the occupation. The result was the first intifada," he says.

The first nine months of the intifada he spent in jail, first in Gaza, then in Ketziot. Two of his brothers were killed in the first intifada. Basil, 22, was killed in December 1987. Ahmad, 13, was killed a year later.

Basil was killed near his parents' house in Rafah, close to the Egyptian border and the Israel Defense Forces outposts. There was a procession, and the soldiers threw tear gas grenades at the people, causing great commotion and panic. Women and children ran about gasping and choking, people came out to help them, and some of them threw stones at the soldiers. The soldiers fired, killing Basil. Ahmad was killed near the school. A military post had been built on an adjacent building. The children threw stones, "as if a stone a child throws from the street at the outpost on top could hurt anyone." A soldier fired a rubber-coated bullet at him, killing Ahmad. His father, who had a heart disease, was not permitted to leave Gaza for medical treatment in Egypt for three years, because two of his sons had been killed. When he was finally allowed to go for treatment it was too late, and he died at the Rafah border pass.

Yazuri is married to Hanan, a dentist who studied in Baghdad and works in the UNRWA clinic. They named their sons Ahmed and Basil.

A solution for workers

Adli Yazuri had stopped working in the settlements by the mid-1980s. In December 1986 he was incarcerated with a few colleagues for a week in Ansar 2, in Gaza. They were kept handcuffed, exposed to the cold weather, received small food rations and had to use stinking holes in boards for toilets.

"When we came out after a week, all the Israeli journalists were waiting for us outside. The scandalous arrest received a lot of coverage," he says.

A worker at the Palestinian Human Rights Information Center (PHRIC), founded by Faisal Husseini, asked him to detail his prison experiences. His testimony served as the basis for a book, and he was offered a researcher's job at PHRIC. He held his post there until 1995, at the same time completing his economics studies.

His brother Mohammed, who died a few years ago of a heart attack, continued working as a building contractor in Israel even during the first intifada. He stopped working in the settlements in 1985, when there was no more assembly work, his specialty. During the first intifada, activists attempted to stop people from working in Israel and the settlements. At some stage however, they realized that while the settlements were out of bounds, it was unrealistic to forbid people to work in Israel as well. Yazuri recalls that a worker who got rich working in the settlements paid off one of the intifada thugs to let him continue working there.

Yazuri, who like many others quit his organization several years ago, objects to working in the settlements today. He suggests deducting 10 percent from the wages of senior Palestinian Authority officials to create workplaces for laborers who are forced to work in the settlements.

The Yazuri family hails from Beit Daras (south of Ashdod, today Beit Ezra), but also owned lands in Yazour (Azur). "Our land, which is registered on our name in the land registry office, is where the bus terminal is located," says Yazuri, who has not visited Israel or the West Bank since 1992.

Asked whether he would like to return to Beit Daras or Yazour, he says "like a dream, yes, it's my right to return, but in reality, I don't see it happening."

And in a dream, would he want to return in place of the Jews who live there? "No," he says emphatically. "It's my personal right to return, my right to live in my land wherever I choose, but I won't do what they did to us - those who evicted us. There is room for all of us, there is a mechanism to implement my right to return or to get compensation. That's the dream. And even in the dream - it is not at the expense of others."

What did you mean when you said the settlers have left the bedroom but remained in the living room, I ask him. "Did you mean the living room is Israel?"

"No," he says. "I meant the West Bank. I was referring to the closure imprisoning us in the Gaza Strip. I accept two states as the realistic solution. But why not one state for two nations? That is my dream. But there is no chance that we would accept less than the realistic solution of two states within the borders of 1967."