JERUSALEM – Jewish teenagers evacuated by Israel last summer from the Gaza Strip experience high rates of suicide attempts and eating disorders and drop out of school and abuse drugs and alcohol in large numbers, according to a report presented to the Knesset yesterday.
The report also listed an increased risk of heart attacks and emotional distress among adults evacuated from Gush Katif, the former Jewish communities of Gaza. The majority of refugees are unemployed, have yet to find permanent housing and have not received full compensation promised to them by the Israeli government.
“The situation is extremely grave,” said Dror Vanunu, a former Gaza resident and the international coordinator for the Gush Katif Committee, a major charity organization representing the Gaza Jewish refugees. “It is at emergency status in many cases.”
The Forum for Israel, a nonprofit group also working with Gush Katif refugees, outlined for the Knesset major problems facing evacuated families.
The Forum reported a rise in suicide attempts among Gush Katif teenagers since the evacuation last August and pointed to an elevation in suicidal thoughts and eating disorders. The report also said 30 percent of former Gush Katif teenagers either failed to integrate to new schools or failed their final exams.
Social workers said the teenagers have been finding it difficult to develop relationships and increasingly have been abusing alcohol and drugs. Some have been admitted to psychiatric hospitals.
Among adults, the Forum linked newly formed cases of heart disease to the distress caused by the evacuation.
Israel in August evacuated its nearly 10,000 Jewish citizens from Gaza. Successive Israeli governments over the years had urged thousands of Israelis to move to Gaza and build communities there. Israel pledged compensation packages and aid to the expelled residents.
Prior to the Gaza evacuation, the vast majority of Gush Katif residents lived in large homes in landscaped communities. Many were farmers, tending to the area’s famous, technologically advanced greenhouses that supplied Israel with much of its produce. The Gush Katif unemployment rate was less than 1 percent.
But the Gush Katif groups and Israel’s own Disengagement Authority report 51 percent of Gaza’s Jewish refugees are unemployed, and only 21 percent of former Gush Katif businesses have re-opened. The Disengagement Authority was tasked with compensating the Gaza refugees.
The Israeli government stated it would provide temporary housing solutions for all expelled Gush Katif residents. But 200 of the approximately 1,750 former Gush Katif families are living in university dormitories, motels and guest houses. Most families now reside in the Israeli Negev desert in small, government-built prefabricated “trailer villas.” Residents there live mostly in crowded conditions, in many cases lacking enough bedroom space to accommodate their families.
“You can punch through my wall,” a resident of Nitzan, the largest Gush Katif trailer community, told WND. “My friends come to visit me in coffee shops because there is not enough room in my living room for them to be comfortable.”
Of Nitzan residents, 70 percent are unemployed.
Residents of the Negev trailer camps mostly are former 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 farmers will have to develop new ways for these new lands and the different kind of soil.”
According to the most recent Gush Katif status report, many of the Jewish children expelled from Gaza suffer from a full range of traumatic and post-traumatic stress symptoms, yet many refugee sites lack youth counselors and activity centers. Budgets for youth programs expired in March.
Frustrated with what they refer to as government apathy, Gush Katif resident have asked for outside help. But they say a series of direct petitions to significant U.S. Jewish organizations in recent months have been fruitless.
Most mainstream American Jewish groups supported the Gaza withdrawal.
Many U.S. Jewish charities are associated with Jewish federations. They reportedly grant more than $3 billion per year.
Jewish leader quit in protest
Until he resigned in February, New Jersey resident Buddy Macy served as a member of the board of trustees and a recording secretary for the Jewish Federation of Greater Clifton-Passaic in New Jersey, which belongs to the United Jewish Communities charity network, the most financially endowed Jewish charity group in the U.S.
The UJC reportedly raised more than $850 million last year. It is known to set the tone for thousands of Jewish charity organizations nationwide.
Macy told WND he quit his position after more than 25 years of service to protest the UJC’s refusal to initiate a campaign fund to help the Gaza Jewish refugees.
“There are thousands of Jews in dire need and the UJC and other mainstream groups with huge endowments are deliberately ignoring the crisis. The situation is absolutely unacceptable,” Macy said.
In an e-mail to UJC President Howard Rieger that has been widely circulated among Jewish circles on the Internet, Macy called the UJC leadership “heartless with regard to the Jews who live and lived in Judea, Samaria and Gaza.”
In an e-mail reply also widely circulated after it was posted by Macy, Rieger retorted, “I am not heartless. Read many of the comments which I have made publically [sic] on this subject. On the impact that dislocation has on individuals. And I have visited many of those who are now living in the Sinai and feel genuine concern for their plight.”
Former Gaza Jewish residents do not live in the Sinai, which is located in Egypt.
Rieger in the e-mail went on to blame the Gaza Jewish refugees for their current situation:
“I do believe that in the end that the priority must be the rule of law,” he said. “That many of those who found themselves without assistance after having to be uprooted also refused to engage with the system which was offering compensation.”
The vast majority – 1,450 of Katif’s 1,800 families – did not apply for government compensation ahead of Israel’s August evacuation deadline, some stating they feared if the withdrawal were allowed to be implemented in Gaza, it would lead to other evacuations in Judea, Samaria and parts of Jerusalem.
After the Gaza withdrawal, the Israeli government reoffered aid packages and said all residents would be fully compensated.
Almost all Gush Katif families applied.
Spokesman Glenn Rosencrantz told WND Rieger refuses to comment on the issue of the Gush Katif refugees.
Jewish leaders refuse aid efforts
Macy listed other major Jewish American leaders he charged have been refusing to aid Gush Katif expellees, including Israel Policy Forum President Seymour Reich, World Jewish Congress President Edgar Bronfman, Anti-Defamation League Director Abe Foxman and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
While the situation regarding expelled Gush Katif residents has been looming publicly, Macy points out Jewish leaders Hoenlein and Foxman recently initiated a large charity effort to aid Israeli Arabs.
Macy also cited private Jewish philanthropists who provide large sums to mainstream organizations, including American Jewish magnates Ron Lauder, S. Daniel Abraham, Sam Halpern, Joseph Wilf, Charles Bronfman and Matthew Bronfman, for helping set the tone for the Jewish groups. Macy stated the individuals are closely linked to Israel’s economy and to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is looking to push through a withdrawal from most of Judea and Samaria.
Some small groups offer assistance
The Gush Katif Committee’s Vanunu said he briefed the UJC, the Conference of Presidents and other mainstream American Jewish organizations about the status of the expelled Jewish residents and found that little aid was forthcoming.
Hoenlein of the Conference told WND his organization has been pressing the Israeli government for more assistance and more effective outreach toward former Gaza Jews.
Vanunu said one UJC-linked federation in Texas made donations for scholarships for expelled Jewish children, and another local group provided funds to an employment office in a regional site housing former Gaza Jewish residents. Leaders of the United Jewish Communities of MetroWest New Jersey said they provided some assistance. The Jewish National Fund, which leads efforts to populate the Negev, has offered select assistance programs to Negev-based refugees.
“Unfortunately, there has been no real response from any of the main groups,” Vanunu said.
Some smaller American Jewish organizations have been helping. The Orthodox Union, the largest American Orthodox Jewish organization, helped provide for evacuees’ short-term needs immediately after the Gaza withdrawal and continues to support certain activities.
The National Council of Young Israel, an American synagogue organization, provided funds for specific campaigns under the leadership of the Council’s executive vice president, Pesach Lerner.
Vanunu said mainstream Canadian groups and philanthropists, largely located in Toronto, have been providing aid.
“The Toronto community has been enormously receptive,” he said. “I would really like to apply that model to the American organizations.”
‘Time to put politics aside’
Young Israel’s Lerner last September led a fact-finding commission to Israel to assess the situation among the former Gaza Jewish residents. He authored a letter urging American Jewish groups to help the expellees.
“The mainstream groups are not responding,” Lerner told WND. “They supported the Gaza evacuation. So they are not going to turn around now and offer assistance to the expelled Jewish residents.”
Lerner said the mainstream American Jewish groups may be reluctant to provide aid in light of their stated support for Olmert’s Judea and Samaria withdrawal.
“If it is highlighted the Gush Katif refugees are not taken care of nine months later, it will look terrible for the chance that any Judea and Samaria residents will be compensated,” said Lerner. “We’re talking about 10 times the people.”
Vanunu said while he suspected politics might be at play, the Israeli government is also to blame. He said government officials told American Jewish leaders prior to the Gaza evacuation their assistance was not necessary.
“Israeli leaders announced that they had everything under control,” Vanunu said. “That all the Gush Katif residents would be taken care of. Unfortunately, today almost everyone realizes that is not a reality.”
Said Lerner, “I hope the mainstream groups come to see things differently. There is a Jewish humanitarian crisis. It’s time to put politics aside and help our own people.”
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