NEVEH DEKALIM, Gaza Strip (Aug. 14)
The rabbi’s voice rose and fell in a haunting trill over the hundreds gathered around him. Mothers cradled babies as young men with guns by their sides swayed in prayer and recitation.
Above them a half moon glowed an eerie orange.
“We see this not just as the sacrifice of the Temple but the sacrifice of our land,” says Shlomit Landau, 20, who had come to Neveh Dekalim from Jerusalem. “It feels much more meaningful.”
Tisha B’Av in Neveh Dekalim, the largest of the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, took on an especially mournful tone as it was observed from sundown Saturday to sundown Sunday.
Both residents and the hundreds of outsiders who came from across Israel and the West Bank to reinforce the settlement ahead of the government-ordered evacuation of Gaza, which is scheduled to begin this week, saw special significance in this Tisha B’Av.
The fast day marks the destruction in Jerusalem of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. and the Second Temple in 70 C.E. Religious Jews, such as those who live in Neveh Dekalim, observe the day by sitting on the floor chanting the biblical book called Lamentations.
On Tisha B’Av, many Jews around the world mourn not only the loss of the Temples but other tragedies throughout Jewish history. The Jews gathered here see the evacuation of 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and four more in the northern West Bank as a monumental tragedy.
“It makes us wait even more fervently for the coming of the Messiah,” says Narkiss Netanya, 20, as she finds a place on the sprawling pebble and cement plaza outside the main synagogue complex in Neveh Dekalim, where clusters of worshippers are gathered in large circles.
Netanya is one of many people this week in Neveh Dekalim — part of the main Jewish settlement bloc, Gush Katif — who illegally entered Gaza even after it was declared a closed military zone by the army.
Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, estimated Sunday that as many as 5,000 anti-withdrawal activists have slipped into Gaza in recent weeks. The government refers to them as infiltrators; the settlers call them their guests.
Whatever one calls them, they could prove to be an obstacle to Israel’s plans to withdraw from Gaza. Forced evacuations of those settlers who refuse to leave three of the settlements — Morag, Kfar Darom and Netzarim — were slated to take place Wednesday; no date has been set for withdrawal from the other settlements, although Neveh Dekalim is among the second round of settlements to be evacuated, according to government plans.
Shmuel Levy, 17, who grew up in Neveh Dekalim, has been hosting several outsiders at his family’s home. He still holds out hope for the elusive “miracle” that might prevent this settlement and the others from being evacuated. Speculation about an 11th-hour miracle is rife in the community.
People are even inviting each other to feasts of thanksgiving to be held should the withdrawal be averted by a divine act.
“We believe that just as in Purim, everything could change at the last minute,” says Levy, who said he was discouraged to see eight out of the 10 families on his block move out in recent days.
His family has followed their rabbi’s instructions to pack only their religious books. Everything else remains untouched in the home. The decision to not pack up one’s belongings and furnishings has become a badge of protest throughout the settlements.
Levy said that seeing so many people from outside flock to Gush Katif gave him renewed strength. However, he acknowledged the end could indeed be near.
“If it really is to be the last Tisha B’Av” in Neveh Dekalim, he said pausing, “that would be really sad.”
Adiel Gehassi sits outside on the wooden benches removed from the Yemenite synagogue in Neveh Dekalim to make room for worshippers sitting on the ground. He says this Tisha B’Av feels extremely personal. He moved here when he was just 2 years old and remembers no other home or community.
“This is much more difficult than a regular Tisha B’Av. You think more about your own home than the Temple,” Gehassi said. “What makes it especially sad is that this is Jews who are doing this. It is very hard to grasp that this is all happening.”
Of course, based on a complicated financial formula, the Israeli government is paying compensation — estimated at between $200,000 and $300,000 — to those families who leave voluntarily.
Despite this, the estimated 9,000 Jewish settlers have been reacting to the approaching deadline in various ways.
Some staunchly refuse to pack out of defiance; others hired moving vans and made their way to their new homes inside Israel. Some, like the Issak family in the settlement of Morag, southeast of Neveh Dekalim, chose the middle ground: They packed their belongings into army-issued shipping containers but vow to stay in their home until evacuation day.
As Gabi Issak, 48, packed up his airy two-story home with the help of his four children, he said that he was preparing for the move — painful as it was for him — because he could not bring himself to break the law. “This is the law. We have to honor the law,” said the farmer who has been growing tomatoes, peppers and eggplant in hothouses on the settlement for the past 20 years. “Without laws, this country would cease to exist.”
His wife, Nurit, 45, a nursery-school teacher, said the family of six would remain in their empty house as a sign of protest but when the time came to leave they would go peacefully.
“We are waiting for the knock on the door, but then we will go quietly,” she said, explaining that she did not want to traumatize her children by making them witness soldiers and police dragging her and her husband out of their home.
The family plans to move to Nitsan, where the government has set up temporary housing: trailer homes by the beach near the coastal city of Ashkelon.
Meanwhile, at the edge of Gadit, another settlement, Ariel Porath, 46, a round-faced man with a dark beard who owns dozens of acres of greenhouses, is hedging his bets.
On one side of his property, Nepalese workers squint into the sun and dismantle the metal rods that support the greenhouses. On the other side of his land, dozens of Israeli teenagers who are among the anti-withdrawal activists illegally in Gaza, plant tomato seedlings and scallions in the sandy ground.
“I am being strategic,” he says with a sad smile.
On Sunday as part of their commemoration of Tisha B’Av, relatives prayed by the gravesides of loved ones at the cemetery on the outskirts of Neveh Dekalim, some placing stones painted orange — the color of the anti-withdrawal movement — on the graves.
The sun blared in the midday heat as people cried and wailed, coming to terms with what may be the last Tisha B’Av in Gush Katif.