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In Gaza, Some Sign on for Relocation but Pledge to Continue Their Struggle

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Yoav Elul surveyed his workers packaging plump heads of cabbage and organically grown red peppers, and announced that he’s not willing to leave the Gaza Strip without a fight. But, he added, he’s a realist, so he decided to join approximately 1,000 families who live in Gaza Strip settlements — about half of the total number of 8,500 Jews there — in signing a document agreeing in principle to move as a community if the planned Gaza withdrawal is carried out.

In doing so, Elul and others stress that they’re not giving up the struggle to save their homes and livelihoods in Gaza. As the document he signed says, “signing the form does not signify agreement to the disengagement plan.”

In a move that has raised the ire of environmentalists, the Israeli government has offered Gaza settlers the opportunity to move to Nitzanim, a stretch of undeveloped sand dunes along the Mediterranean coast near Ashkelon.

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni had set May 26 as the deadline for Gaza settlers to sign up to relocate to Nitzanim, warning that if they missed the deadline they risked losing out on services such as interim housing there and arrangements for schooling.

Elul said signing the document was a type of insurance plan: If the evacuation goes through, he and his family can remain with the community they’ve been part of for the past 22 years.

“People who say (signing) weakens the struggle and that we are in effect agreeing to be evacuated, it’s not true,” said Elul, 50.

Noting the failure of the settler movement to win the political battle in the Knesset to save the Gaza settlements, he said, “Until we went through all the democratic procedures, we signed nothing. Today, the request to sign on something like this is legitimate.”

According to Elul, Gaza settlers are divided into two groups — those who have signed onto the document and those who have not.

Shlomo Wasserteil, who like Elul owns several acres of greenhouses, said he wouldn’t think of signing any such document.

“Of course I didn’t sign,” he snapped. He said he is making no plans for “the day after” withdrawal because he doesn’t believe it will happen.

Gaza, he says, is part of the biblical Land of Israel, and as such he can’t comply with anyone asking him to leave it.

“It’s my right to live here as part of the Jewish nation,” he said.

According to the document, the settlers demand that they be given homes on permanent plots of land in the new community. That would mean living in trailer homes on the plots until their new homes are constructed, settlers say.

“To save the community feeling we have, we are prepared to live in a trailer,” said Elul, who has five children, all of them raised in the settlement of Gadit.

The home where he now lives is a spacious, two-story house surrounded by lush flower beds and citrus trees. Since arriving in Gadit in 1983, he has built a huge agricultural business selling vegetables and herbs to Israel’s fervently Orthodox community, and shipping organic peppers to England.

Elul said his company takes in about $1 million a year, but the government has yet to offer him a proper reparations package.

Meanwhile, Israeli environmentalists are outraged by the plan to build housing in Nitzanim, which is adjacent to an area that long has been slotted to become a nature preserve.

“Nitzanim is important because it’s one of the most unique desert environments in the entire Middle East and one of the only continuous strips of beach area that is still totally undeveloped in Israel,” said Michelle Levine, a spokeswoman for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.

To build a community next to it will inevitably damage the ecosystem, she said.

But Dudi Michaeli, a farmer in Gadit who is acting as spokesman for families that have signed on for a possible move to Nitzanim, said it’s one of the only solutions for relocation.

“It’s the only place that most closely resembles where we live today, close to the sea and sand dunes,” he said.

The increased willingness to sign on to the Nitzanim plan doesn’t mean that settlers won’t struggle until the bitter end, he said.

“I think the government hoped they wouldn’t see the day that 99 percent of families remain in their homes, running their businesses,” he said. “We will continue to live and develop Gush Katif.”

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