January 27, 2005
Talya Eluz walks into her cream-colored sunken living room and takes in the view of sloping sand dunes leading to the shimmering blue Mediterranean Sea and the electric fence that surrounds what she calls paradise.
"Look at it -- it's like Malibu," Eluz says, holding her month-old baby daughter. "But people hear Elei Sinai and think of terrorists. They think we live war every day."
This "Garden of Eden," as Eluz and her neighbors like to call Elei Sinai, is a settlement in the northern Gaza Strip, founded in 1982 by a small group of families evacuated from the Sinai settlement of Yamit when it was destroyed under a peace treaty with Egypt.
The settlement's cul-de-sacs and palm tree-lined streets are quiet except when the thud of mortar shells, which fall almost daily, break the hush.
The quiet also belies the scene the same day at the Beit Lahiya refugee camp, whose rooftops and minarets are visible from Eluz's kitchen window: As Eluz, 36, serves coffee to visitors, seven Palestinians have been killed by an Israeli tank shell retaliating against terrorists firing mortars into Israel. Six of the dead are innocent youths from one family.
Twenty-three years after the first house was built in Elei Sinai, the talk is again of evacuation. The community is home to 85 families, mostly secular Israelis who do not share the ideological and religious stands of settlers in the Gush Katif settlement bloc in the southern Gaza Strip. But Elei Sinai residents are divided on how to respond to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, a plan that would force them to leave their sprawling homes by the sea, the rose gardens they planted with care and the close-knit community they have forged.
Nobody wants to leave, residents say, but some have begun meeting with lawyers and government representatives to investigate the reparation packages they would receive should the day come when Israeli policemen and soldiers arrive to evacuate Elei Sinai and other Gaza settlements.
Eluz and her husband finished building their dream home -- an airy, open-plan two-story house with floors of beige tile and hard wood and a hot tub off the master bedroom -- just four months ago. Eluz is a homemaker, and her husband works in events promotion for the Israeli branch of the Carlsberg brewing company. They moved here from the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon le-Zion. They couldn't afford to build a private home there, but they could afford one here, where a plot of land with a sea view cost them just $13,000.
"I didn't know Gaza even really existed here. My husband said we were moving across the Green Line," Eluz says, her honey-colored hair pulled into a ponytail. "I'm not ideological. I'm here because I love this place. I saw the sea and decided it was here I wanted to live."
She can't bring herself to discuss the possibility of evacuation with her older children, aged 3 and 6. She can hardly bear to think of it herself, she says.
Eluz and her husband are active in the "Committee for the Struggle of Elei Sinai," a group of residents determined to show the government they intend to stay.
"We are not going to react with violence, but we are doing what we must do quietly, with dialogue," she says.
She presents a colored flyer produced by the group: Under the heading "Stop the Mistake," the flyer presents a few paragraphs of background on Elei Sinai's history and a map of the Gaza Strip and southern Israel.
"I built this house with my own hands," Eluz says. "I won't chain myself to the house, but if I know the house will be given to Palestinians I will break down all the walls."
Elsewhere in the Gaza Strip, a black Kassam rocket sticks out of the sandy dirt in a playground outside a nursery school in the Ganei Tal settlement. About an hour before, the Palestinian rocket had landed with a thud, missing the school and the children inside by just 10 feet.
"They are shooting at children -- inside a nursery school!" Ita Friman shouts toward a television camera.
Friman rushed out of her house next to the school when she heard the boom. She wags an angry finger and faults the Israeli army for not taking stronger action against Khan Yunis, a Palestinian refugee camp near Ganei Tal. It's one of the main places serving as launching pads for mortars and rockets fired into surrounding Jewish communities.
The night before, a mortar shell had crashed through the side of a kitchen, killing a 20-year-old Thai woman who worked in the settlement's greenhouses.
Ganei Tal is an agricultural settlement in the Gush Katif settlement bloc, a swath of Jewish settlements in the southern part of the Gaza Strip that contains the majority of the 7,500 Jewish residents of Gaza. Ganei Tal was established in 1979, mostly by young religious couples looking to begin new communities. Most residents here believe Gaza is part of the biblical Land of Israel and say that it's their birthright as Jews to live here.
Friman and her husband were among the first to settle in Ganei Tal, back when the area was an endless expanse of sand dunes, "a desert."
"We didn't steal anything from anyone," she says. "Look at the life we have built here. Why take it away from us?"
Today, Ganei Tal has wide paved roads and rows of hothouses growing geraniums and tomatoes for export to Europe. Its spacious homes, with white stucco walls topped with red tile roofs, are nestled in lush thickets of palm and jacaranda trees. In some families, three generations live together.
Friman doesn't believe the evacuation really will take place, but she's among those actively lobbying against it. She was among the Gush Katif settlers seen on recent television broadcasts wearing controversial orange Stars of David.
The decision to wear the stars -- drawing an implicit comparison between the planned evacuation of Jewish settlers and the Jews who were thrown out of their homes during the Holocaust -- was widely condemned in Israel.
Sitting in the house where she raised three children, Friman, 55, says she is confused and angered by the course set by Sharon, whom the settlers used to consider their champion.
"We never imagined that this could happen. We supported Sharon all these years; he helped establish all this," she says, looking out from her living room onto a porch covered with potted flowers, spider plants, ferns and wind chimes.
Just beyond is a large green lawn with a stone fountain that Friman's husband, the former head of security for the settlement, built by hand.
Friman, who has short dark hair and intense blue eyes, speaks with a slight Russian accent. She immigrated to Israel from Ukraine as a young girl and says she can't imagine recreating somewhere else the sense of community she has found among Ganei Tal's 80 families.
Friman differentiates herself and her neighbors from the extreme wing of the settler movement known as the "hilltop youth." Those teenagers and young people, most of whom grew up on West Bank settlements, physically resist police and soldiers who try to remove illegal settlement outposts set up on remote hilltops. Some fear that the hilltop youth will infiltrate the ranks of Gush Katif settlers and encourage a violent response if the government attempts an evacuation. Friman says she won't raise a hand against a soldier or policeman but will wage an intense political battle to make sure the evacuation day never comes.
Friman's parents survived the Holocaust at work camps, and her family fled Ukraine because of anti-Semitism.
"Now they want us to leave my home again?" she asks. "The evacuation will not happen."
Friman says she and her neighbors try to continue with their normal lives. When the subject of evacuation comes up, people quickly dismiss the notion as impossible. She admits that violence and mortar shells have taken a toll. Her only son, who was injured while serving with the Israeli army in Lebanon, hasn't visited since the violence intensified in Gush Katif. Instead he travels the world. He lives in Hawaii.
"He couldn't take being at home once the violence started," she says, tears welling in her eyes.
As for accepting government offers of compensation to leave Gaza, Friman is adamant that she will stay, that this is her home.
"We have no other place to go," she says.
For Ofer Menashe, moving his family 10 miles from Ashkelon to Elei Sinai 13 years ago was a "simple economic calculation." In Ashkelon the family lived in a small house, whereas in Elei Sinai they built a sprawling home on a large plot of land -- and didn't even have to take out a mortgage.
Now that Sharon's disengagement plan appears to be moving ahead, Menashe is willing to leave -- for the right price.
Menashe recently contacted Shuvi, an Israeli grassroots organization whose name means "Come Back." The group is dedicated to an immediate withdrawal from Gaza.
"There are those who do not want to hear about anything, and there are those who think about the future and who want to leave, and that's me," says Menashe, 49, an electricity company employee and self-described left-winger who usually votes for Labor or Meretz.
When he moved to the Gaza Strip, he always knew there was the possibility that he and his family would have to leave one day.
"I think the Arabs need to be on their side and we need to be on our side," he says, sitting with his wife and teenage daughter on couches in their plant-filled living room.
Several Elei Sinai residents met with the government to say they would agree to evacuate their homes peacefully if they received land to rebuild their community in Nitzanim, an area of unspoiled seaside dunes between Ashdod and Ashkelon. But the area is a nature reserve, and the government denied their request.
Menashe recently told a visiting delegation of Knesset members that if they want settlers to leave, they must help increase the reparation packages being offered.
"The reparation payments are insulting," he says, citing current government calculations that would give him $180,000 for his home. It's worth almost three times that, he says, but he would be satisfied with a package worth between $300,000 and $400,000.
Menashe sits next to the family computer in the corner of the living room and logs on to the Internet site set up by the government's Disengagement Authority, known in Hebrew as Sela. There's a special page, marked by a calculator icon, where settlers can input details about their property and receive an estimate of how much they can expect to receive in reparations.
"The government is making a mistake," Menashe says as he scrolls through the site. "If the prices were right people would leave voluntarily. They would leave if they had the money to do so."
Menashe's wife, Ora, 44, agrees.
"We do not want to be evacuated, but if there is a decision we will go. We will not attack the police or the army, we are good citizens. But we want reparations," she says, lamenting the idea of starting over again with teenagers to support.
"We thought this was it, we thought this was where we would spend the rest of our lives," she says wistfully.
Ofer Menashe, however, says he always thought the family's stay in Gaza would be temporary.
"We will leave here at some point. If not now, then later with an agreement," he says. "I always knew Gaza would not stay with us."
But they had hoped that the small northern corner of Gaza where they live would be given to Israel in a land swap under a peace agreement.
The Menashes talk about the quality of life that they came here for -- the quiet, the space and the view of the sea -- and the shellings and shootings that have shattered that world.
"Since September 2000 there is no quality of life," he says.
Arik Harpaz leans back on the striped bedspread in the room that once belonged to his daughter, Liron.
He and his wife have not changed a thing since the night the 19-year-old was shot to death by Palestinian gunmen a few blocks away, at the edge of Elei Sinai. The white bookshelves still are crammed with novels, cassettes and notebooks. A white teddy bear stares down from the desk. Photos of dark-haired Liron, with her pale skin and red lips, stare down from the walls.
The morning after Liron's death, Harpaz started looking through her notebooks. To his surprise, he found poem after poem -- 140 in all. They have been published and some of them put to music by top Israeli singers, and they have been made into a CD.
Harpaz says he can't imagine leaving the home where Liron and her two sisters grew up -- or the place where she died.
"The blood of Liron is soaked in this earth and they want to expel us from here -- even without an agreement?" he asks, his voice trailing off. "This disengagement process is very hard for us."
On Oct. 2, 2001, during Sukkot, Liron had come home from the army with her new boyfriend. They had gone for a walk around the settlement when they were spotted by two teenaged Palestinians who opened fire, killing them both.
Harpaz, a volunteer ambulance driver, was among the first called to the scene.
For Harpaz and his family, who have lived in Elei Sinai for 11 years, life is divided into before and after "the disaster." He is haunted by the idea that perhaps relatives of the Palestinians who killed Liron will end up living in the Harpaz home if Israel withdraws from Gaza.
If an evacuation does take place, Harpaz, 49, who works in sales, says he would throw a Molotov cocktail and light the house on fire.
"The disengagement plan defies logic," he said. "The Palestinians see that their violence brings them victory," he says.
An energetic, wiry man with brown hair graying at the temples, who always wears a dog tag with Liron's name, Harpaz says he's not interested in discussing reparations with the government. He says he will refuse to sign any papers or deal with the Disengagement Authority. He describes himself as a political moderate and vows to oppose the disengagement plan peacefully.
"If they come to kick us out of our houses, we will invite them for tea and cake," he says.
He dismisses the idea of moving to the Galilee or Negev, areas the government is pushing for settler relocation.
Like most Jews in the Gaza settlements, Harpaz speaks lovingly about the community in which he lives. He differentiates himself and his neighbors from religious settlers in Gush Katif. The three settlements in the northern Gaza Strip are secular.
"Here we do not talk in terms of the Land of Israel," Harpaz says. "Here we treat the question of evacuation as a moral one. We think it is immoral to evacuate people from their homes. We think it is criminal."