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A perpetual sukkah

As Sukkot approaches, most Gaza evacuees still live in temporary housing

by Orit Arfa

September 21, 2010 | 1:10 pm

Arab workers removing the roof of a temporary bungalow in the coastal town of Nitzan. Photo by Orit Arfa

Arab workers removing the roof of a temporary bungalow in the coastal town of Nitzan. Photo by Orit Arfa

Arab workers are taking down a roof of a caravilla in the coastal town of Nitzan. They’re stacking the terra cotta tiles, leaving standing a framework of fading, mustard-colored, thin walls made of wallboard. The residents are moving out, and the shell of their former house is about to be loaded on a truck, to be transported and recycled by Israeli government.

“Caravilla” —  a compound of “caravan” and “villa” — is the nickname given to the prefabricated bungalows set up on temporary foundations throughout Israel for the 8,500 settlers who were uprooted from their homes in the Gaza Strip in 2005 as part of the disengagement — an event the evacuees call “the expulsion.”

Initially, most of the evacuees were relocated to hotels, youth hostels, dormitories and inns to wait for the caravillas to be readied. Five years after the exodus from Gaza, these caravillas can be seen as modern-day sukkot, temporary shelter for Jews who have not yet settled in permanent homes.

Twenty-one beachside settlements were emptied out and destroyed in August 2005, most of them in the main settlement bloc of Gush Katif, the “Harvest Belt.” The majority of the settlers were religious Zionists who viewed settling, sowing and defending the land and state of Israel as a religious and national imperative, with service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) elite units an exalted goal.

Originally, the land was zoned by the Israeli government for agricultural settlement. Gush Katif settlements produced the majority of Israel’s organic produce and nearly 15 percent of its agricultural exports, including the famous bug-free lettuce grown hydroponically in the sand.

The settlers were surprised when, in 2004, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon first announced the disengagement, and up until the disengagement they were split on how to fight it. The majority of communities refused to cooperate with the government as an act of civil disobedience, and they didn’t pack or fold up their businesses, believing the operation would eventually be overturned. Others, either as individuals or communities, reluctantly negotiated their relocation in advance of the eviction.

The Gush Katif Committee is an NGO started by the evacuees to represent them. The committee says about 1,500 of the 1,800 families from Gush Katif remained together in hopes of keeping their community intact. Today, about 1,200 of those families still live in the temporary caravilla sites. With Sukkot around the corner, evacuees are now rushing to finish construction on permanent homes. About 200 families expect to eat their holiday meals in sukkot at new homes, up from 120 families last year.

Laurence Beziz, who immigrated to Israel from France in 1981, lived for 19 years in the settlement of Gadid in Gush Katif. Her husband owned and operated a vegetable farm in Gush Katif and has since found work with a produce export company. Today they live in Nitzan, where she serves as a coordinator of internal relations for the Gush Katif Committee. She drove a reporter through Nitzan on what turned out to be a surprise rainy day.

Nitzan is the largest of the caravilla camps, built on former watermelon fields. In the five years the residents have lived here, trees have grown tall, gardens have been planted, and mature passion-fruit vines now cling to the wooden poles of the pergolas residents built to serve as year-round patios and as frames for their sukkot.

The caravillas, which vary in size from about 650 to 1,000 square feet, weren’t built to last this long, Beziz said. The ground is sinking in under foundations; walls and floors are cracked. The original community of 250 caravillas has grown to accommodate over 500, plus add-ons: room extensions, plastic sheds and shipping containers. A mini-market, pizza joint, flower shop, homegrown beauty parlor and bakery serve the community’s basic needs. During the 2008 Gaza War, Operation Cast Lead, gray sewer pipes large enough to accommodate adults were installed in parking lots as bomb shelters. They remain, painted with graffiti messages like “Gush Katif Forever.” Some evacuees call Nitzan a slum, a ghetto and a refugee camp. Only in the past year have residents begun to move into the desert-style housing being built nearby.

JobKatif, a grass-roots organization, was established right after the disengagement to help evacuees find employment. It is currently conducting a door-to-door census on employment and housing conditions and has grown into a full-fledged nonprofit partially funded by the Israeli government.

“The picture coming out is pretty dire,” said Judy Lowy, executive director of JobKatif.
Unemployment is 18 percent — about three times Israel’s national average.

The organization has also found comparatively higher rates of divorce, illness and at-risk youth behavior since the disengagement. In June, a state commission released a scathing report criticizing the government-run SELA Disengagement Authority for its failure to adequately and expediently resettle the evacuees.

In light of the commission’s interim findings last year, SELA named Benzi Liberman, a leader in the settlement movement, the new director and changed its name to Tenufa, which means “momentum.”

Tenufa spokesman Yehoshua Mor said efforts are being made to expedite the resettlement process. “We are working toward the full implementation of all of the report’s recommendations in cooperation with the Gush Katif Committee.”

About 20 residential communities for Gaza evacuees — some new, some as part of developmental towns — are now being set up in cooperation with the Israeli government all over Israel, from the Golan in the north to the border of Egypt. The speed of construction and size of the individual homes, Beziz said, depend on each family’s circumstances.

Compensation for their displacement was calculated according to a complicated formula, taking into account years of residence in Gaza, the size of the home left behind and employment. According to JobKatif, many unemployed evacuees have already spent their compensation on day-to-day living expenses and have no money left to build a permanent home, leaving them in limbo or dependent on communal support.

One of the most developed post-disengagement communities is Yad Binyamin, in the Nahal Sorek Regional Council in central Israel. It has grown from a seedling town with some 20 families to a suburban Modern Orthodox oasis with more than 700 families, among them 300 immigrant American families. Evacuees’ beautiful new homes border the town in a separate residential enclave.

Tali Stern from Neve Dekalim, the largest and most urban of the Gush Katif settlements, just moved into her one-story house. About to pick up one of her five kids from the first day of school, the rebbetzin looks happy.

“We went through a very, very difficult time,” she said, sitting at her dining room table, her 2-year-old clutching her skirt. “We asked, ‘Who am I? What am I? Where am I going? What do I stand for?’ Looking for work, looking for friends, wondering if your friends are really friends. So many questions.

“Slowly, slowly [my husband] found work. We had two girls, which revived the family. It made me feel productive as a woman. It made me feel good. Then this house.” She looks around at the unfurnished living room and spacious kitchen with marble counters. Her sukkah will be built on the front porch.

“We’re ‘whoa, whoa, whoa’ everyday. Thank you, God. Thank you, God.”

A few miles west is Yesodot, the future home of Netzer Hazani.

“When I close my eyes, I can see a whole town here,” said Brooklyn-born Anita Tucker, 64, standing on the square lot of her future house in Yesodot. In the distance, a kindergarten, a synagogue and one house with a facade of Jerusalem stone are taking shape. 

Netzer Hazani closed its gates when the IDF arrived for the evacuation, and, on the whole, its leadership refused to cooperate with the government on relocation prior to the evacuation.

Tucker takes pride in telling stories of Arab-Jewish co-existence in Gaza before the Second Intifada broke out in 2000. When they first arrived, in the late 1970s, Arab mukhtars in neighboring towns warned them the land was cursed and infertile. Eventually, Arabs made up a large part of the farming workforce.

Today the community sees its purpose as fostering co-existence among fellow Jews within the Green Line. Until now, Yesodot consisted of an ultra-Orthodox cooperative farm. It welcomed the evacuees cautiously and conditionally. For example, its members initially forbade the evacuees from burying their dead in their cemetery, a rule Netzer Hazani fought and overturned when one of its members died of cancer. Their recreation centers — basketball courts and pools — at first had to be hidden from view.

Back at Kibbutz Ein Tzurim near Ashkelon, where Tucker lives in a three-bedroom caravilla, Benny Yefet, her neighbor, is lounging around his caravilla.

“We’re waiting here,” he said from his pergola. His sukkah supplies are stored in a shipping container adjacent to his caravilla.

“I don’t have faith already,” said Yefet, a tall, burly man of Yemenite descent. “I see the infrastructure in the field [in Yesodot], but nothing moves.” By the time his permanent home will be ready in about two years, he’ll be 63 years old. “And who knows how much money I will have?”

Yefet owned and operated a successful herb farm in Netzer Hazani. After the disengagement, he leased farmland in his hometown of Netanya to rebuild his business. He slept at his mother’s house during the week and came back to the caravilla for Shabbat. By the end of the year, he calculated a $10,000 loss. In 2008, he got a bus-driver’s license. He claims the public transportation company discriminated against him because of his age and that liability for private bus drivers is too stringent.

Now, he says, “I love and kiss and kiss my wife.” She laughs and playfully pushes him away. Inside, six grandchildren are playing on the computer. The living room is decorated with pictures of their son, Itamar, who died at the hand of a Palestinian sniper from a Palestinian police outpost while driving into the settlement.

In Yesodot, Yefet hopes to plant avocado and mango orchards. “I have reserves of energy,” he said.

In the meantime, he relies on his community for strength.

“For me, the community is home, and for the community, I’m home. ... We eat the good and the bad together.”

Over coffee in her caravilla in Nitzan, Beziz explains how her own community of Gadid decided to negotiate with the government, while she personally fought it. Her daughter, 20 at the time, forged Beziz’s signature on government papers to acquire the caravilla. In hindsight, Beziz blesses her daughter’s mischief, although Tucker points out that pre-disengagement cooperation did not necessarily lead to a quicker long-term solution.

“It gave us a small stability — not much — but I was independent,” Beziz said. “I cooked for myself, I ran my household, my stuff didn’t rot in storage.”

Beziz made her caravilla as cozy as possible with family pictures, her old furniture and a living room extension. Flag of Israel streamers hang across her pergola, not an uncommon site in Nitzan. Most of the evacuees have remained ardent Zionists but are skeptical of the Jewish state’s leadership.

A few caravillas into the distance, doves are flying over rooftops. A neighbor breeds them, a sign, perhaps, of hope. Within the next two years, Beziz hopes to move into her new home in Be’er Ganim, “Well of Gardens.”

“Even though we went through the same process, you have mixed feelings,” she said. “Some say Gush Katif is over; we’re starting a new life. Some dream of going back. ... All of us are sure there’s an open wound that will forever have a scar.”

Tucker is optimistic. “This is home now,” she said of the lands of Yesodot. “We’re building it, [but] if the opportunity ever arises to go back, I’m sure [we] will. Maybe not for me, but for my great-grandchildren.”

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