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A Year After Gaza Withdrawal, Ex-settlers Still Feel Pain and Anger

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Eti Tsur shows off her spacious home with pride — its high, sloping, red-shingled roof, its verdant green lawn. But it exists only as a memory captured in a photograph, displayed in an exhibit of other photographs of homes from her former Gaza Strip settlement.

“This is like memorial candles for our homes, which are no longer,” said Tsur, who was among the founders of Ganei Tal when it was established in 1977.

Ganei Tal’s memorial exhibition was held at a hall in the small southern Israeli settlement of Yad Binyamin, where most of the community has resettled.

The exhibit displays the remaining physical memories of the lush settlement that once housed sprawling geranium greenhouses, graceful homes and quiet streets, and which in recent years had become the target of Kassam rocket attacks from neighboring Palestinians.

Among the items on display were keys to the settlement’s former offices, sports trophies won by its basketball team, fliers advertising local events and a wooden sign that pointed to the settlement’s synagogue.

A year has passed since Israel’s historic withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, which saw some 8,000 Jewish settlers removed from their homes, some of them with force by Israeli soldiers and police. It was hailed as a watershed moment, the first time Israel had withdrawn unilaterally from territory seized during the 1967 Six-Day War.

The religious right tried but failed to mobilize Israeli public opinion against the withdrawal. Embittered, they felt betrayed by the government and the army.

But the first anniversary of the Gaza withdrawal comes as a full war rages in northern Israel and across the border in Lebanon, making it difficult to speak of “the expulsion army” and a nation divided.

“It’s painful. What can we say — we told you so? That sounds childish to say, but here is Lebanon with all these weapons and in Gaza it will now be the same,” said Ita Frieman, 56, standing next to a model of her former garden bursting with green and dotted with ficus and jacaranda trees.

David Hazony, editor in chief of Azure, the journal of the Shalem Center, a conservative research institute in Jerusalem, said the religious right is more frustrated than angry a year after the withdrawal.

“They’ve been stunned into silence because, from their perspective, their worst prophecies have come true,” he said. “Many of the people who opposed disengagement now believe that, just as the withdrawal from Lebanon laid the groundwork for a renewed war with the Palestinians in 2000, so too did the withdrawal from Gaza lay the groundwork for the war we face now.”

Hazony suggested that the Palestinians’ election of Hamas, the increase of Kassam rocket fire into southern Israel and the war in Lebanon are prompting Israelis on both the left and the right to question the wisdom of unilateral withdrawal.

Many former settlers have reacted angrily to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s recent comments that he still plans a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank.

“It’s hard for us to see a prime minister who sends soldiers into battle and then says, ‘Soon we will give back more territory.’ It makes us feel rage when we know many of the soldiers are potentially those who will be expelled,” said Moti Sender, who used to live in Ganei Tal and has continued to run a Web site called Katif-Net for residents of Gush Katif, formerly the main Jewish settlement bloc in Gaza.

Eli Farhan, who before disengagement lived in the northern Gaza settlement of Elei Sinai, wrote to Olmert after he learned that the Israeli army was using his former settlement and others during recent raids into Gaza to disable the Kassam rockets being launched into southern Israel.

It’s time to “fix the mistake and regain control of the buffer zone that was abandoned,” Farhan wrote.

“The Palestinians need to understand that they have things that they could lose,” he added. “The only way to re-establish our deterrence is to show that there are concessions that can be reversed. In the northern Gaza settlements, all the infrastructure still exists — all we would have to do is rebuild our homes.”

Other former settlers from Gush Katif also yearn for a return.

“We will return to every community” is a slogan popular especially among youth who grew up there.

But most are focusing on building new lives in their new homes.

The largest concentration of evicted settlers lives in Nitzan, north of Ashkelon. Some families live in matching mustard-yellow prefabricated houses with small lawns and freshly paved sidewalks.

Most of the former settlers from Gaza and four West Bank settlements that also were evacuated have been moved into temporary housing. Some spent months in hotels before getting temporary housing.

The government also is in the process of paying compensation to evacuated families. Families are supposed to receive between $200,000 and $250,000, an amount that can increase depending on the size of their previous homes and property and how long they lived in Gaza, but most families say they have received only partial payouts so far.

Government officials have estimated the total price tag of the Gaza withdrawal, including settler compensation and military costs, at about $2 billion.

A major problem has been finding jobs. About 51 percent of former settlers are unemployed, according to former Gush Katif officials. In Nitzan, some 70 percent of former settlers are out of work.

Frieman, who once was director of social activities for Ganei Tal, is among the unemployed. She has been searching for a new job but without luck.

“I am looking for a yesterday that no longer exists,” she said wistfully.

Starting over has not been easy. Only 150 out of 700 people who owned businesses in Gaza have opened new ones, and only 17 percent of the farmers have remained in agriculture, according to figures listed on Katif-Net.

About 500 families have seen their economic situations deteriorate drastically, and are receiving welfare payments.

Moty Karpel, an important ideologue of the right and editor of the settler newspaper Nekuda, thinks the war in Lebanon will show Israelis that they need a fundamental shift in thinking.

Zionism, he said, has to undergo a “total world view change,” moving from Theodor Herzl’s vision of a safe haven to understand that conflict is part of life in the Middle East.

“The ideology of Zionism said we would come to the Land of Israel and have peace. Now we have a war of survival, and we don’t have energy for another 100 years of fighting,” he said.

The answer is to look toward the country’s religious community, which Karpel said “has a different approach to return to Israel and ideology.”

This ideology understands that there will be more conflict but has the spiritual stomach to fight and, despite everything, still create a thriving society, Karpel said.

Back at the Yad Binyamin exhibit, the focus was less on the future than the past.

“Everyone comes and we just cry,” Tsur said.

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