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NITZAN, Israel – An American fact-finding commission here to determine the status of Gaza’s former Jewish residents was shocked to learn most have not yet received compensation packages from the Israeli government and have been homeless the past few weeks, with many living in hotels, tent cities and school dormitories.
Tent city for Katif refugees (All photos: Dov Gilor for WND)
In spite of media reports, many former residents say they have not been provided with government supplied social workers and medical care, and have been relying for food and in some cases clothing on volunteer efforts from local populations.
“I was stunned when I saw how former Gaza residents are living,” Pesach Lerner, commission head, told WND. Lerner is executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel, a large American synagogue organization. “The perceptions I had and American Jews in general likely have about the status of the refugees was completely shattered when I saw things for myself.”
The U.S. delegation visited residents of all former communities from Gaza’s Gush Katif slate of Jewish towns. The majority have stayed together and are living in the same areas, many without basic necessities, while they wait for the Israeli government to organize their compensation and relocation deals.
At least one former Katif town has said it will not wait any longer for government aid, and has already started to rebuild its community in the Negev.
The American team spent time with the former Katif town of Eli Sinai, which used to be situated along the Gaza-Egypt border. Its 50 families are currently living in tents outside a popular rest stop at the entrance to the Israeli Negev.
“We have been waiting for the Disengagement Authority to get us the compensation and the relocation we were promised,” said Anat Hakman, a former Eli Sinai resident. “Things are so slow. I can’t believe it’s been almost a month and we have no where to live.”
Hakman showed the delegation her current home – two beds and an improvised closet area under a dark blue tarp. Her tent, along with those of the other former Eli residents, has a fan connected to a generator that works about eight hours a day.
New residence for Eli Sinai family
“The generators are our biggest expense,” said Hakman. “It costs us several hundred dollars a day and is coming from our pockets.”
The Eli refugees take showers and wash their clothes in local homes. The area municipality provided them with water tanks and port-a-potties.
Hakman said once a new area is picked out for them by the government, the families are planning to move as a unit.
“Community is the most important thing to all of us. We have been very clear with the Israeli government that we will only move to new homes if it’s all of us together.”
The families of Shirat Hayam, a former Katif town that used to be located along the Mediterranean Sea, are now living in a college dormitory in Israel’s southwestern Gush Etzion region. Many who previously inhabited large modern homes are currently packing their families into one-room dorm units.
Yossi Chazut, a former Shirat Hayam, resident spoke with the American commission of the difficulties since last month’s Gaza evacuation.
“The families here still have not heard back about our compensation. It’s so hard to be considered a charity case and have to accept the help of others. Our lives are not good right now.”
Chazut said the Eztion Yeshiva [college] is absorbing the costs of their living until new communities are provided. He said many families have little clothing and supplies because their belongings were put in storage during the evacuation, and until compensation deals come through, they cannot afford the fees associated with reclaiming their possessions.
He explained many families are finding it challenging to adjust to life in an ultra-Orthodox environment.
“We’re used to walking around in shorts and short-sleeve shirts. The change is a big one for us,” said Chazut.
The delegation visited Katif’s former affluent Atzmona farming community, with its seventy families now situated in the Negev kibbutz of Ir Emunah or “City of Faith.” The families are all currently living in tents under a large dome roof they built to provide them with shelter from the usually strong desert sun.
A small area with electric generators features dozens of refrigerators and tables. A separate area divides outdoor bathrooms for men and women.
Unlike most other former Katif towns, Atzmona residents have given up waiting for government compensation and are planning to rebuild their community at their own expense.
Hundreds of caravans are being rented next week, while resident leaders scope out land in the Negev in which to settle.
“We have a few places earmarked and will decide on one and rebuild Gush Katif,” said Yehuda Reich, an Atzmona leader. He said he expects former Katif residents from other towns to eventually settle with him, and is hoping private donations will fund the community’s relocation.
In the meantime, with school starting this week, Atzmona residents have constructed from scratch a temporary school building alongside their tent city, and say they will staff the learning center with volunteer instructors.
New homes for Atzmona residents
“They destroyed our homes and our schools, but not our soul and spirits,” said Reich. “We will get back piece by piece everything we lost. And we will do it as a community. And apparently without any government help.”
The former Katif community of Nezer Hazani, with its 80 families, are currently living in a hotel in the Golan Heights owned by a family sympathetic to the refugees’ cause. They do not know where they will eventually settle. The families have not received any compensation from the Israeli government in spite of several specific promises to their community, and have been moved from town to town the past few weeks.
Former Hazani resident Mayan Yadai related the town’s movements: “After the evacuation, at first we had no where to go, so we stayed at a yeshiva dormitory in Jerusalem. The Israeli government set us up in a hotel but after a few days the finances fell through and the hotel needed us to leave. Nothing was worked out.
“Some of us moved to tents in Tel Aviv to protest. Then the government said they had everything ready and we could live in a hotel until we get compensation and are relocated to a new community.
“But after we arrived at the hotel, the government decided we could only stay for one month, but the hotel wanted two months or nothing, so we were kicked out and are now living at a large hotel owned by religious people who just want to help out and probably wont get paid.”
Every former Katif town the American delegation visited described similar situations. Not a single Katif resident who was evacuated last month received any government compensation in any form, the evacuees said. All said they did not know where they will eventually live. Most are relying on charity from the general Israeli public to get by each day.
Many former residents were originally housed in hotels, but moved out after they were informed their hotel stays were being deducted from any compensation they are set to ultimately receive.
The vast majority – 1,450 of Katif’s 1,800 families – did not apply for government compensation ahead of Israel’s evacuation deadline last month, most saying they feared if the withdrawal were allowed to be implemented in Gaza, it would lead to other evacuations in Judea, Samaria and eastern Jerusalem.
The Israeli government, though, reoffered the compensation packages after the Gaza evacuation and said all families would be fully compensated.
Lerner said before he departed to Israel, he was made aware of a briefing issued to American Jewish organizations in which the Israeli government claimed they were immediately providing all former refugees with a $50,000 advance as spending money ahead of any final compensation deal, which they said would average about $200,000.
“No one saw a cent of that money,” said Lerner. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there. People in America think the expelled Gush Katif residents are taken care of. All these media reports say everything is fine and people have been relocated. All inaccurate. The situation is dire.”
Perhaps the one exception is the Negev town of Nitzan, where the 350 former Katif residents who applied early for compensation and moved before the evacuation are currently living. Many media reports have stated Nitzan residents have been fully relocated and are living in comfortable homes.
The American delegation was surprised by the living conditions in the new neighborhood. Those relocated to Nitzan are living in small prefabricated “trailer villas.” Several residents said electricity and running water are sparse and that construction of a school for their children has been delayed.
The Israeli government has not yet constructed a synagogue in Nitzan. Residents wishing to pray together were offered a small building that can house about 20 people.
“It’s terrible in Nitzan for religious families,” explained Lerner. “People used to going to synagogue every day now have really no options. I was also shocked by the size of the new so-called houses. These former residents moved from large homes in Gush Katif to cramped quarters with maybe two bedrooms and tiny living quarters.”
Nitzan residents are mostly farmers, many of whom now say they are not sure what they will do.
“The land is much different here than what Gush Katif farmers are used to,” explained Anita Tucker, one of the pioneer farmers of Katif. “Most of the techniques used in the greenhouses in Gaza were specific to the land and environment. Now farmer will have to develop new ways for these new lands and the different kind of soil.”
A spokesman for Israel’s Disengagement Authority told WND, “We are working as quickly as we can to get compensation to residents. We are aware of delays, and are trying to work together with community leaders.”
Senior community leaders from all Katif towns said they have not heard from the Israeli government the past two weeks.
Lerner said even after compensation packages are received, former Katif residents will still be in need. “Take the average family, which might receive $200,000. First, the government is taking out any mortgage still owed on their Gaza homes, then hotel stays, health insurance … by the time all is said and done, there’s not going to be much left. Not enough to nearly replace their loss and start over.”
Families who lived in Gush Katif for less than three years are not entitled to compensation at all, Lerner said.
Officials expect most people to ultimately move for up to two years to 800 apartments and 110 houses rented by the government in coastal towns such as Ashkelon and on kibbutzim near Gaza. After that, former Katif residents will be on their own.
But for now, Lerner says his delegation has found there is a “massive humanitarian crisis that people in America are not aware of. Something must be done. How can American Jews go on vacations and go about their business when there is this situation of people who used to be charitable and used to live beautiful homes now with no food on their table, no jobs, kids without schools going from place to place. Now that it’s been exposed, it’s time for American Jews to act.”