Displaced Gush Katif Settlers Get Help from Toronto Project

Eran Sternberg used to live a prosperous life in the picturesque bloc of Gaza settlements called Gush Katif. Today, more than five months after the settlements were evacuated, he is unemployed and residing in a crammed mobile home that is prone to water leaks.

“It’s not a good feeling to be in this mobile house,” he said. “It’s depressing.”

Their situation has prompted Jewish philanthropists in Toronto to lend a hand.

Spearheaded by Kurt Rothschild, the Toronto group has established the Netzarim Development Fund, which aims to raise more than $1 million to assist former residents of Netzarim, the last settlement evacuated.

Like many of the other 9,000 or so former residents of Gush Katif, Sternberg hasn’t yet benefited from compensation packages promised to the settlers by the Israeli government.

“I get an unemployment payment, but I didn’t even get one shekel” in compensation, he said. “I don’t know the exact numbers, but the impression I get is that there are thousands like me.”

According to a report compiled by a committee of former Gush Katif residents, about 50 percent of the evacuees haven’t received any down payments. Close to 90 percent haven’t received “full compensation,” which is based on lost land, lost wages, family size and other factors. About 2,100 people lost their jobs.

Some 815 people have received full compensation, said Haim Altmann, a spokesman for the Disengagement Authority, known in Hebrew as Sela. While Altmann would not give a range of numbers, he told JTA that the payments to these people totaled the equivalent of about $225 million. In addition, 233 people have received 75 percent of their money, while others have received smaller amounts, Altmann said. Other payments to former settlers are in the works, while some families have only recently applied for compensation, he added.

The bulk of the settlers are now living in clusters of caravans, mobile homes, hotels, school dormitories and tents across Israel.

Many of the settlers “still have very inadequate accommodations, many are unemployed, so here are people in trouble and we want to help,” says Rothschild, who has visited the settlers several times since the evacuation. “The second reason for doing this is the project of starting new settlements in the Negev, which is vital for Israel.”

Recently, a series of meetings were held at homes and synagogues in Toronto to help attract donations for the fund. United Jewish Appeal is monitoring the Toronto fund-raising.

About half of the necessary funds have been raised so far, said Udi Zinar, project coordinator for the new settlements. The funds are “being used for our school system, our day care system, the medical system, youth needs and welfare issues.”

Zale Newman, one of the Toronto contributors, views the mission in humanitarian terms, similar to when Diaspora communities helped new Israeli immigrants shortly after the country’s establishment in 1948.

“It’s good, old-fashioned Zionism to build a frontier town in a part of Israel that needs to be populated,” he said. “The difference now is that these aren’t rookie immigrants — they’re skilled business people.”

Prior to the Gaza withdrawal, the organic vegetables and other produce from Gush Katif’s technologically advanced hothouses led to a flourishing economy, which accounted for 15 percent of Israel’s agricultural exports.

The plan is for this agricultural know-how to be harnessed in new towns in Israel’s south.

“They saved their hothouses and they’ll have to learn to adapt to the new soil, which is desert sand, not like beach sand in Gaza,” Newman said.

While other communities are without detailed resettlement strategies, the group from Netzarim has certain benchmarks. Zinar hopes they will achieve a measure of financial stability by the middle of the year.

“If we raise enough money by July 2006, we’ll reach our goal and start the new year in a positive manner,” he said, referring to Rosh Hashanah.

But “it will take a couple of years to get them fully settled,” said Rothschild.

The Toronto endeavor is being touted as an example for other evacuated settlements; organizers said they have their eye on Washington, Montreal and New York for further projects.

In the meantime, financial uncertainty and unstable living conditions have created social and emotional problems, such as bed-wetting and school dropouts.

“When a father doesn’t have a job and the kids are a year behind in school, the family gets really destitute,” said Rachelle Bronfman, who recently hosted an event for the Netzarim fund in her Toronto home.

“I met one girl whose family lived a very prosperous life” before the evacuation, Bronfman said. “And now she shares one bedroom with seven brothers and sisters.”

(JTA Foreign Editor Peter Ephross contributed to this report.)

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