Five years after the unilateral pullout from Gush Katif, a prominent Jerusalem family hosted a benefit evening to help the families still struggling to make ends meet. Two people from Gush Katif who were neighbors for over twenty years were catching up with one another. Discussing the lack of progress and endless bureaucracy they’ve gone through to move into permanent homes and get approvals to re-establish their agricultural businesses, they quipped to each other, “Solution for every settler, eh? The only ‘solution’ was to throw us out of our homes.” They both gave an exasperated giggle and then sighed.
Back in 2005, the Israeli government adopted the phrase “a solution for every settler” as the flagship slogan used to publicize the Disengagement. However, the current situation in which the 9,000 former residents of Gush Katif find themselves proves that the extent of direct and indirect damage caused by the Disengagement is a palpable, frustrating, and stress-laden reality. Removed from their small-town comfort zone that they literally built with their own hands, a sweeping majority of families from Gush Katif are still struggling significantly: financially, maritally, and emotionally. Many claim their health has deteriorated and their lives are more stressful. The children and teens have discipline and learning issues in school. Once a tight-knit community that lived in plush homes next to the sea while they literally toiled the land of Israel, the population is now scattered throughout the country and still live in temporary trailer homes similar to FEMA trailers in the United States.
Immediately after the evacuation, a handful of established communities opened their gates to the Gush Katif population, mainly in the greater Ashkelon region (Kibbutz Ein Tzurim and Yad Binyamin), the Lachish region in the northern Negev, Ariel in the Shomron, the Jordan Valley, and Moshav Avnei Eitan in the Golan Heights. The government established the village of Nitzan as an evacuation camp and supplied basic trailers for living space and an area designated for a small shopping center. Today, five years later, the sign for that shopping center is the only thing that stands in the empty lot. In addition, it has no access to public transportation, making it very difficult for the newly displaced people to get around. Fortunately, the industrious people of Gush Katif have been able to establish small home businesses with the help of a non-profit called JobKatif.
Eighty-five percent of the Gush Katif population worked locally, so the need for job transfers, placements, and re-training has been crucial for the economic and psychological well-being of these people. In fact, the issue of employment is a fundamental problem caused by the Disengagement, second only to the lack of housing solutions. A report published by the Israeli government in September 2009 (The Interim Report of the State Commission of Inquiry on the Handling of the Gush Katif and Northern Samaria Evacuees by the Authorized Authorities) explicitly states there have been “continued deficiencies in the treatment of the rehabilitation of the evacuees by government authorities.” With particular regard to employment, the government’s report states:
“No attention was paid to the issue of unemployment stemming from the evacuation. As a result of the evacuation, the evacuees became unemployed. Those who were characterized as self-employed needed to physically rebuild their businesses, and the farmers needed to be rehabilitated as they were evacuated from their farms.”
Homeless and jobless, evidently no solution was planned.
The day immediately after the Disengagement — two days after Tisha B’Av 2005 — the nine thousand Jews from Gush Katif and Northern Shomron found themselves scattered at random in hotels and youth hostels, with no idea of what their next steps would be. No strategy was planned to re-settle or re-integrate them. A young rabbi from Gush Etzion named Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon, went to visit the newly displaced people, still raw from the trauma of being taken out of their homes. He saw adults in their prime, physically able to work, with experience in a wide range of professions such as education, administration, agriculture, beauty, business, glasswork, and home repair.
After organizing convoys of cars to take care of their laundry (they had not washed their laundry due to the Nine Days), and arranging play groups for the children, Rabbi Rimon realized the importance of getting these people back in the workforce as quickly as possible. After all, one’s material and psychological well-being is directly related to one’s ability to be financially solvent. The need to get them back into the workforce was unquestionable.
Five years later, the people of Gush Katif, albeit professionally experienced, still need significant support to get them back into the workforce. Former teachers no longer have the same spark in their eyes or emotional energy to deal with school children; they were (and remain) emotionally exhausted. The business owners lost everything they had built up for years; to start all over again in a new city at the age of 50+ seemed (and still seems) daunting. Those who built up initiatives, but don’t have an academic degree… how do they find new jobs? There were so many questions, but no immediate answers.
Shockingly, the issues that were obstacles five years ago remain obstacles to this day. Even those who have gone back to work still struggle financially and emotionally. They are coined as “underemployed” and hardly make ends meet. The low compensation packages significantly undervalued their assets and hardly covered basic living expenses during the lengthy period of unemployment. Many had to use the compensation monies to pay off their mortgages on their destroyed houses in Gush Katif!
Rabbi Rimon had the foresight to predict these problems, so he created an initiative that he called JobKatif. The organization created one-of-a-kind rehabilitative employment models, and currently employs a staff of case workers who are themselves former residents of Gush Katif. There the professional staff understands the mentality of the population, and in turn, the displaced job-seekers feel a level of comfort and can identify with the case workers. The organization provides services that empower job-seekers from Gush Katif. These services range from individualized skill-building and resume writing sessions, job placements, funding for professional training courses, seed money for new businesses, and individualized sessions with seasoned business counselors who help prepare business proposals, budgets, and one-on-one guidance. In addition, there are financial incentives offered to employers who hire job seekers from Gush Katif.
JobKatif’s successful rehabilitative employment models caught the attention of the government. As a result, the Tnufa (“Sela”) Administration (a branch of the government that has the responsibility for overseeing the Disengagement and its aftermath) officially recognized JobKatif for providing the only employment solutions for the population, and has deferred to JobKatif for updated information and insight into the Gush Katif population. Consequently, the Tnufa Administration agreed to match every donation to JobKatif, in an effort to integrate all Gush Katif job seekers back into the job market.
The current reality of the people of Gush Katif is not an easy one. However, there have been many success stories of rebuilding. To date, JobKatif has launched over 160 businesses, has made 1,300 job placements, and has provided funding to send over 400 people to professional re-training courses. In addition, the organization helped establish an entirely new shopping center in Yad Binyamin, each store owned or managed by former residents of Gush Katif. The families who live in Moshav Avnei Eitan in the Golan Heights have launched a group of lodges and cabins that accommodate large families. Artists, photographers, and others sell their products at fairs around the country, hosted in homes and synagogues. Others have opened small home businesses — manicurists, party planners, graphic designers, and alternative healing treatments. One man who owned the book store in Gush Katif decided to turn the family’s shipping container into a small bookstore.
The government-sponsored shopping center in Nitzan still stands desolate, except for that one five year-old sign announcing its “Grand Opening Soon!” A block away is a tiny storefront owned by a locksmith. “When we got to the hotels, we had no idea what we would do next, but when Rabbi Rimon came to talk to me about how to restart my business, it was like drinking a glass of water in the middle of the desert,” he said.
Little by little, step by step, the people of Gush Katif are rebuilding. The new communities now being planned for them will contribute greatly to the Negev and the Jordan Valley.
Encouraged by the government back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s to settle and develop Gush Katif, their ideology and faith gave them the momentum to make the region blossom. They were so connected to the land itself, that they simply couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. When their communities were destroyed, completely crushed. and dismantled, they relied on that same ideology and strength of character to persevere, rebuild, and still radiate a warmth that only those from those small towns in Gush Katif can radiate.
“Nachamu, nachamu Ami”, says G-d. Somewhere, in this story, the people of Gush Katif manage to find that spark of consolation. Each step towards progress is a step towards rebuilding the lives of these remarkable people.
We all pray that with the help of G-d and with action from the Jewish community, there really will be a viable and attainable “solution for every settler.”