NITZAN, Israel (Oct. 31)
Water sprinklers sputter over freshly laid lawns, boys chase soccer balls and residents drive on newly paved roads to their pre-fab houses in this temporary neighborhood built for Jewish settlers evacuated from the Gaza Strip. Nitzan, a government project on the southern coast of Israel, was built hastily before the Gaza withdrawal began in August. Still unfinished, cranes dot its skyline and bulldozers clear away mounds of sandy dirt to make way for houses and tarred sidewalks.
“We are trying to act normal, to continue a regular routine life,” said Karen Sarfati, 49, sitting on a new couch bought to fit her new living room. The house, like most here, is less than 1,000 square feet, much smaller than her previous home.
Sarfati and her family are among some 1,700 families who were forced to leave Gaza and four settlements in the northern West Bank.
Some already have resettled on their own or as communities. About 920 families are still in hotels awaiting housing. Others, unhappy with the government, have set up protest tent camps, leaving the government with the bill for dozens of empty hotel rooms they refuse to take.
The Sarfatis’ house is small for a family of six, but Sarfati said that moving here together with the other families from her settlement of Gan Or has helped ease the transition. So has making the house feel like home by putting up curtains, displaying pewter candlesticks and baking cheesecakes.
Pre-fab homes for a total of 450 families are to be completed soon. Currently about 280 families are living here, planning to stay for the next two years while permanent homes are built.
Initially the idea to build in the area — proposed by a group of settlers — was met with controversy. The group wanted homes on the sand dunes in the area between the southern towns of Ashkelon and Ashdod.
Environmentalists and some government members protested, arguing it would endanger the delicate eco-system of the area, which contains one of Israel’s only remaining stretches of unspoiled sand dunes.
A compromise was struck when the government approved the temporary neighborhood on an area previously zoned for building. It’s near, but not on, the sand dunes.
The government also approved building of permanent homes in two locations: the adjacent religious community, also called Nitzan, and land for building new communities north of Ashkelon.
Remaining together as a community was a priority for most. Within Nitzan, neighborhoods are clustered according to former settlements. The large wooden signs that once stood at the entrances of their communities are propped up on the new street corners.
The sign for the settlement of Gadid has been planted a few steps from the home of David Mor-Yosef, 53, one of the ambulance drivers for the Jewish settlements in Gaza. The house he shares with his wife and three of his children, including a 23-year-old pregnant daughter and her husband, is next to the home of another daughter.
Mor-Yosef’s eldest daughter — whose first husband was killed in Gaza in 2001 by a Palestinian — lives diagonally across the street.
“It helps that the family is here, as well as the families we lived with,” Mor-Yosef said. “Community always helps, especially the kind we had.”
In Gadid, Mor-Yosef said, “whether it was a celebration or, God forbid a tragedy, we were always together.”
Like many of his neighbors, he’s not currently working, though he plans to join a local ambulance team soon. After more than four years of 19-hour days racing to the scene of mortar attacks and roadside shootings, Mor-Yosef said, he needs a rest.
Punctuating the family’s departure from Gaza, a mortar shell fell on their roof the day before they left.
For now, the $420 monthly rent for the Mor-Yosef’s house is deducted from government compensation packages that average $350,000 per family. Compensation is based on several factors, including the amount of land the families lived on, how large their homes were and how long each family member lived in Gaza.
Additional funds were provided for moving. Families who opt to move to the Negev or Galilee, regions in the periphery of the country, are to receive a bonus of $30,000.
“We are trying our best to meet their needs,” Housing Minister Isaac Herzog said.
The government reversed an earlier decision after the withdrawal, and compensation now is being given as well to settlers who did not leave Gaza by the government deadline but did not offer violent resistance to security forces.
The price tag for Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza is about $2 billion, Herzog said, including military costs involved such as dismantling army infrastructure and relocating bases inside Israel. About half of the money is going toward settler compensation and resettlement.
The cost of building the temporary neighborhood of Nitzan is $44 million, the Defense Ministry said. Its dark yellow houses are topped with red-tiled roofs and have sliding glass doors that open onto narrow gardens.
Wooden signs engraved with family names have been transplanted to their new front yards, the orange ribbons tied to them to protest the withdrawal now faded by the sun.
There is a sense of a new beginning: The youngest children attend nursery schools built here, and freshly planted flower beds cover traffic circles.
“We have a variety of solutions. This is one solution and I hope it’s OK,” said Haim Altman, spokesman of SELA, the body created by the government to help resettle the settlers. “We have to remember it is a temporary solution. At the end of the day they have to build new homes, and we are working” on that, too.
Some in Nitzan have been surprised by the relative ease of the transition, while others find the adjustment more painful.
Gadi Hazan, 42, who lost his greenhouse business in the withdrawal, takes another drag from his cigarette and speaks of the government with bitterness. He and his wife warded off depression by focusing on getting settled.
“We were dealing with schools, the kids and the house, and did not have time for ourselves,” Hazan said. “Now we have too much time.”