Four Years after Gaza Pullout

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JERUSALEM, Israel - As part of his Middle East Peace Plan, President Barack Obama is demanding Israel stop building in Jerusalem and the West Bank (Judea and Samaria).

Many Israelis, however, say their pullout from the Gaza Strip four years ago proves that destroying settlements won't produce peace.

In August 2005, the Israeli government uprooted all 21 thriving Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip in what it called the "Disengagement Plan."

After 30 years of successful building and farming on the sand dunes of the Gaza Strip, it took just a week to obliterate Jewish life there.

Missiles, Not Improved Security

The government hoped that evicting all 9,000 Israelis from the Gaza communities security would improve. Instead Israel got war.

"In exchange, we got more missiles launched at Israel," said Yoram Ettinger, former Israeli Embassy liaison to Congress, who called the government's pullout "a wake-up call."

"More missiles have been smuggled into the Gaza Strip since the expulsion of the settlements and most importantly, most notoriously, it triggered an all out war last December," Ettinger said, referring to Israel's three-week military operation in Gaza.

"The wake-up call has sent a message to all Israelis that settlements are not the root cause of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and certainly not an obstacle for peace," he said.

"The message to the terrorists has been that not only has terrorism paid off, but in fact you get more and more recognition by the international community," Ettinger said.

20/20 Hindsight

In fact, many Israelis have changed their minds about the disengagement. A recent poll showed that 68 percent of those who supported the pullout now think it was a mistake.

"More and more Israelis, even those who supported disengagement, realized that it was a terrible mistake," Dror Vanunu, a former resident of Gush Katif, told CBN News.

"Gaza became a Hamastan, a terror state" said Vanunu, who serves as international coordinator for the Friends of Gush Katif, an umbrella organization that helps former residents.

In fact, Hamas has set up terror training camps where Jewish communities stood. And the once thriving hot houses, given to the Palestinians, were vandalized and destroyed.

"During the last war in Gaza [Operation Cast Lead], the Palestinians were shooting rockets from the ruins of our homes, synagogues and daycare centers," Vanunu said.

A Disaster in More Ways than One

For Israel, too, the disengagement was a disaster.  The government spent more than a billion dollars on compensation and new infrastructure to help evicted residents, but it wasn't enough.

Four years later more than 95 percent of the former residents are still living in temporary dwellings. Up to a third of the 1,700 families are in serious emotional or financial trouble, 38 percent are unemployed or underemployed, and hundreds of the evacuees are still paying mortgages on homes that were destroyed.

Esther and Israel Lilintal, a retired couple who are among the first to build a new home, said they're using their life's savings to rebuild something similar to what they had in Neve Dekalim, the largest of the 21 communities.

"Our feeling is they [government agencies] were very, very efficient in stage one - the uprooting - and they were very inefficient in stage two - getting people back to healthy living," Esther said.

Farmers Hardest Hit

Farmers are the hardest hit by the pullout. Out of 400 successful farmers, who sent their produce to the best markets in the world, only 10 percent are farming now.

Anita Tucker, one of the pioneering farmers of Gush Katif has yet to restart their business.

"It's not so easy and you're not the same person after you live through this kind of a trauma in which everything in your life time was reduced to a pile of rubble," Tucker told us.
 
Tucker said the government's compensation didn't include home and business upgrades nor did it factor in the years of lost income.

Yet it was "the spirit and the values, the faith that we managed to salvage" that is helping evacuees go on with their lives, she said, something "we're not going to let anybody destroy."

Halutziyot, a New Agricultural Community

While some struggle to move on, some former Gush Katif farmers are growing produce again in the desert sands near the border near Israel's border with Egypt and Gaza.

At Halutziot, which means pioneers, 90 former Gush Katif families were joined by 70 others from around the country. Here, they oversee 500 acres of hot houses and 3,000 acres of land, growing top quality organic vegetables for export to Europe.

Eli Adler, a Rabbi, a farmer and father of eight, lives with his family in a temporary house in nearby Yated. Here, large cement pipes serving as makeshift shelters against rocket attacks line the streets.

"Even though things are taking time, are not easy and are not going maybe as fast as we thought they would go, it's developing nicely," Adler said of the progress being made in Halutziot.

"Of course it was very painful leaving Gush Katif but even with what we went through, which wasn't simple, our spirit was left with us and we came here and we're continuing," he said.

While the former residents are determined to press on with their lives, they believe that one day they or their children or their grandchildren will return to rebuild the communities that were destroyed.

"You see the land, the desert, which became a heaven when the Jews were there became today a cursed land," Vanunu said.

"In the same way this land was waiting 2,000 years for the Jews to come back…I'm sure Gush Katif is waiting [for] her real sons to return," he said.

*Originally published August 20, 2009.

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