Jewish residents of the Gaza Strip seem to be splitting into factions in the face of the near-certain evacuation of settlements there, as evidenced by events this week in New York and Jerusalem.
While the mayor of the Gush Katif settlement bloc, joined by a prominent Likud member of Knesset, was making his case for political and financial support here and vowing to fight, a group of settler leaders was meeting with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to discuss relocating their communities and negotiate compensation for the move.
Although some adamantly refuse to discuss relocation with the government, representatives including the leader of the Gan-Or settlement council, Aharon Hazut, met with Sharon for more than two hours and emerged optimistic, according to press reports.
Sharon said he would set up a panel to study the compensation issue and consider the possibility of relocating some settlements en masse, Haaretz reported. The Prime Minister’s Office was quoted this week as saying that Sharon might increase the compensation package after hearing settlers’ complaints that it was not big enough.
About 60 of the 1,600 Jewish families in Gaza have so far agreed to compensation. Another session is planned for next week.But there was no sign of backing down when the Gush Katif mayor, Avner Shimoni, and two residents, joined by former Soviet refusenik Yuli Edelstein, made a string of appearances in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
“There are many people on [Capitol] Hill who are not in favor of this, but they are quiet,” Edelstein told members of American Friends of Likud Monday. “People who have connections and have influence and can write and talk and can e-mail, that should be part of it, so it will come back to my country and people will see that it’s not exactly black and white, and it’s not the whole world that’s applauding.”
Edelstein made most of the remarks to the small lunch gathering, although he does not live in Gaza.He said he was making the case for the Jewish Gaza residents because he feared his own community in the West Bank would one day be on the disengagement table.
“I hate the idea that a year from now I may have to come here on behalf of Gush Etzion instead of Gush Katif,” Edelstein said, using the Hebrew name for the West Bank settlement bloc.
Shimoni, who spoke only briefly at the lunch, said in an interview that under no circumstances would he cooperate with the disengagement, which is set to begin July 20.
“I will either be in my home in Neve Dekalim or in a refugee camp or in prison,” said Shimoni, 57, a native of Rishon LeZion, near Tel Aviv, who has lived in Gaza for 20 years. “My parents were in a refugee camp in Transylvania after World War II, so maybe after 57 years I’ll be in a refugee camp, too.”
Shimoni said he moved to Gaza both for ideological and practical reasons.“Jews have to live all over Israel,” he said. “And my children got a very good education” in Neve Dekalim.
Those children are now in the army, but Shimoni does not believe they will be called upon to carry out the evacuation since one serves in the Air Force and the other is near completion of his service.
Shimoni said he still believes that political pressure from Jews in the United States and Europe can put a halt to Sharon’s plan.
“He is acting like a bulldozer,” said Shimoni. “A little bit of soil in the engine can stop it. How can you send Jews to take another Jew from his home where he lived his whole life?”
Shimoni was joined by Moshe Saperstein, a Lower East Side native who has lived in Israel more than 30 years and in Neve Dekalim for the past seven.
“We are listening to ourselves, but not to the Arabs,” said Saperstein, who displayed a photo of a Kassam rocket that landed near his home. The rocket was inscribed with Al Quds, the Arabic name for Jerusalem.
“The Arabs will never be satisfied until they have destroyed us and driven us out,” Saperstein said. “They are saying it; all we have to do is listen.”
Although the disengagement plan seems to have passed its last hurdles in the Knesset, the settlers are encouraged by what they see as cracks in Sharon’s hold on the government. Last week his effort to reward supporters with cabinet positions was rebuffed. Edelstein insisted that discord over the plan continues to grow because of the speed of the proceedings.
“Even those who said there is only one god and his name is unilateral disengagement … now say we can’t take anymore in this manner,” Edelstein said.
Although polls in Israel show wide support for the plan, passions and tensions show signs of growing. Haaretz reported Monday that the chief rabbi of Kiryat Motzkin, a town near Haifa, urged Jews by the thousands to go to prison rather than cooperate with the disengagement. Rabbi David Meir Druckman, in a widely circulated essay, called the disengagement “a suicide process” and called on hundreds of thousands of people to “fill the prisons which the malevolent government has prepared for us.”
At the New York meeting, Gaza resident Dror Vanunu, who is spearheading much of the PR campaign here, said he was hoping to raise enough money here to continue programs and services in the coming months, so residents will not abandon the towns in advance of the disengagement date.
“These people were sent by Sharon, by [Golda] Meir, by [Yitzchak] Rabin,” said Vanunu. “Now suddenly these pioneers became the enemies of the country.”
Vanunu insisted that despite thousands of terror attacks in the Gush Katif area over the past four years since the second intifada began, the population had grown from 6,500 to more than 9,000.Unlike many opponents of the plan in recent months who have cast aspersions on Sharon’s motives for the Gaza pullout, Edelstein credited the prime minister as genuine.
“My impression is that Arik acts out of a feeling of heavy responsibility,” he said. “He doesn’t want to just kill time and finish [the peace process] whenever. But inevitably his decision is wrong. Disengagement is a very nice dream.”
Edelstein said the withdrawal will not end strife with the Palestinians or amount to disengagement from them. Rather, he said, recent meetings between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and leaders of Hamas led him to believe that the Palestinians view the withdrawal as an opportunity to implement a phased plan of seizing all land controlled by Israel.
“As much as I would like to take a guitar and sing ‘Give peace a chance’ … another side of me says forget about it, Mr. Edelstein.” Saperstein, the ex-New Yorker living in Gaza, said he moved to Gaza with his wife rather than to a retirement community because he wanted “one last adventure.” He said that in his visits here with American Jews, “the great majority of people are either indifferent or hostile, saying we have to trust the [Israeli] government.”
Saperstein, who lost his right arm in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and was also seriously injured in a 2002 terror attack, said he had “bad vibes about this plan, just like I did both times before I was wounded.”
He said the Gush Katif communities had been hit by more than 5,000 missiles in recent years, and noted that a Palestinian acquaintance who works at a local factory had once marveled at the resiliency of the residents.
“He said it’s as if God spread his wings over us,” said Saperstein. “I hope that He who protected us over the last four-and-a-half years will continue to do so and we’ll remain [in Gaza.]”
Ari Harow, the executive director of American Friends of Likud, said his group agreed to host critics of Sharon — the party’s standard-bearer — because it has a policy of providing platforms for all visiting Likudniks.
“We have given a platform to members who both support and oppose the plan, including Roni Bar On, one of the prime minister’s strongest supporters,” said Harow. “We are somewhat confused [about the plan] as well.”In Brooklyn, one local synagogue has launched a drive to collect moas chittim, or pre-Passover funds for the needy, on behalf of the Jews of Gaza.
“A lot of people are out of work because they are fighting the disengagement,” said Alan Hirsch of Congregation B’nai Israel in Midwood. By selling matzah baked in Gush Katif, Hirsch said he has raised about $5,500, and he hopes to double that amount before the holiday commences.
“This is not political,” Hirsch said. “It’s about helping people who, because of a bad situation, have a need for [money].”