Given everything that’s happening on the Gaza border, it was an interesting coincidence that I had the opportunity to go to the Nitzan Visitors’ Center for the Heritage of Gush Katif , which tells the story of Israeli settlement in the Gaza Strip up to the Disengagement of 2005.
My first thought was “what’s the difference between the people here and the Palestinians with their keys to homes that they had to leave in 1948?” It’s a very superficial comparison: both yearn to go back to the homes they lost, both hold on to the beautiful memories of times gone by, both are sad about their situations today, both believe that they will return. But after this visit, I realized that this superficial comparison is just wrong.
The people of Gush Katif are true believers. They believe in the idea of Israel. They took their beliefs and starting in 1970 built thriving, economically self-sufficient communities where previously there had only been sand dunes. The communities began among the Arab communities, not fortresses against the Arab tide in Gaza. They built friendships; Arabs and Jews worked together. It was surely not a perfect idyll. But it worked. With the first Intifada (1987–1993), this cooperation started to crumble.
In 2004, the Israeli government voted to remove the communities from the Gaza Strip. The residents did everything they could to try to stop it: they reached out to every Knesset member they could, they protested, they started a movement. One monumental event was a human chain of 100,000 people stretching from Gush Katif to the Western Wall (56 miles) and together at 6pm on that day they sang HaTikvah. The residents were offered incentives to leave on their own, but they simply could not, would not, believe that they would be forcibly removed from their homes.
And then they were.
I remember when it happened. Watching it on TV, I felt like I could hear the fabric of Israeli society tearing. The army was ordered to physically take people out of their homes as respectfully as possible. The residents felt like pioneers who built communities from nothing and the government that encouraged them to do it was now destroying everything they had built. The worst moments were when the soldiers cried. They were under orders and did their jobs. In some cases, they sat with residents, hugged them and cried with them. So many apologized. And it was terrible to see and worse to experience. Angry residents cursed the soldiers. But many understood that the soldiers were enforcing the will of the government that the residents believed in as the government of Israel, even if they wholeheartedly disagreed.
The how and the why are completely different when you compare the residents of Gush Katif and the Palestinians. But I worried that the residents of Gush Katif would live within a victim mentality and pass it on to their children. But they haven’t. Many stayed together and did their best to rebuild in a different location. Their faith was shaken, but unbroken. They stayed in Israel and still support and believe in Israel. Some of the kids declared that they would never serve in the IDF, and yet almost all have gone to the army and serve willingly.
And did the Disengagement bring peace and stability? The short answer is no. More than 12,000 rockets were fired on communities near the Gaza Strip. Hamas was elected in 2006, executed the opposition, and have not had a real election since then. The Gaza Strip is under blockade, but whatever does get through is used for tunnel digging and rocket making against Israel and little is used for the people of Gaza. The greenhouses that the Gush Katif residents left intact for use by Gaza residents for their own livelihood were destroyed. (A good summary of the last 20 years can be found here.)
On the border of the Gaza Strip today, the “march” is supposed to be for the right of return. By Hamas and Fatah’s definition, that means all of the land with no Jews in it. The return that the residents of Gush Katif hope for is when the government of Israel will take back ownership of the Gaza Strip and they can go back to the days when they lived in harmony with their neighbors.
I like the dream of Gush Katif better.