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Evacuated settlers fear years in limbo

[Israel] This college building used by Israeli settlers in the former settlement of Neve Dekalim in the Gaza Strip has been turned into a Palestinian university campus. [Date picture taken: 11/02/2006]
This college building was used by Israeli settlers in the former settlement of Neve Dekalim in the Gaza Strip before being turned into a Palestinian university campus. (Tom Spender/IRIN)

More than a year after Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, former settler Laurence Beziz still keeps the key to her college office in what was the settlement of Neve Dekalim.

The college was one of the few buildings not to be destroyed by the Israeli army as the settlers left under an agreement that the Palestinians would use it as a university campus – and Beziz dreams that one day she will go back to Gaza, turn the key in the lock and resume her former life.

"Of course people dream about it. Most of us are religious and believe that God promised this land to the Jewish people. We have faith that since the land belongs to us, we will eventually return," said the 45-year-old mother-of-four.

But for now, Laurence and many of the other 8,000 Jewish settlers who were evacuated from the Gaza Strip in August 2005 fear they could languish for years in temporary accommodation because the Israeli government has not yet begun building them new homes.

"The government was ill prepared to relocate 1,800 families as communities – and that is how we want to be relocated," said Beziz, who works with the Gush Katif committee, which looks after the evacuated Gaza settlers. "In many places there is no agreement between the authorities of the places where we want to go and the government."

Until the withdrawal, they lived in 21 settlements across the 35km-long strip. Sixteen of the settlements were grouped together in a block on the coast at the south of the strip, known as Gush Katif.

The settlements, guarded by soldiers, took up about 20 per cent of Gaza. About 1.4 million Palestinians lived in the rest of the territory.

Under the leadership of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the Israeli government decided to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip, which it had occupied for 38 years, and the move meant dismantling all the settlements there.

The settlers opposed the withdrawal, and many had to be physically carried away by Israeli soldiers.

Now, Laurence and other settlers’ representatives – who refer to themselves as ‘expellees’ – say they are living in a distressing state of limbo.

Suicidal thoughts

"Gush Katif was everything, the centre of life, work and education. We are trying to rebuild now all that was destroyed last summer – and it is a long process. There are cases of depression, even suicidal thoughts. It puts so much pressure on the family," she said.

The rate of divorce among former settlers has risen, she said, as has the school dropout rate, with about 30 per cent of 780 pupils simply not turning up for lessons.

"For the youth of Gush Katif the trauma is very strong. They can no longer relate in the same way to the state of Israel and its institutions, such as the army or the government," said Beziz.

The last families were moved out of a tent city known as Elei Sinai and motel rooms in July this year.

Many of the families now live in 'caravillas' – temporary mobile homes that have been arranged by the Israeli government and are concentrated between the towns of Ashdod and Ashkelon. Others live near Jerusalem and near the border with Egypt.

The settlers were promised significant compensation for having to move – but Beziz says the application process is long and bureaucratic and many settlers are having difficulty getting together all the required paperwork.

Their troubles are compounded by an expellee unemployment rate of 51 per cent and the Gush Katif Committee says about 500 families are now so poor they rely on charity food handouts.

"Life in the caravillas is very difficult. The walls are paper thin and the caravillas are no more than a metre apart from one another. There is no privacy. The six of us in my family live in 90 square metres. There are nine in the next caravilla," said Beziz.

"We have a high rate of unemployment and when you don’t work for two years or more you start eating into the compensation money and using it for daily life when it is supposed to be for rebuilding your home,” she added.

Only 150 out of a total of 700 Gush Katif business owners have been able to reopen their businesses since the withdrawal. Some 30 per cent of Gush Katif settlers earned a living from farming. Just over a third of these have been able to continue farming.

Limited compensation

"It’s difficult to engage in serious professional activity when you think you are about to be moved again. We were promised compensation and at the moment we don’t have a tenth of what we used to," said Beziz.

Haim Altman, spokesman for the SELA authority, set up to manage compensation for the settlers, said the government was doing the best it could.

“From the point of view of the evacuees, every day is an eternity, but if you look at the bigger picture we are doing our utmost,” he said.

He told IRIN that about 500 families had chosen not to insist on moving as communities and had already found new homes to rent or buy.

About 300 further families have been allocated land to live on and were free to begin building their own houses.

And the remaining 1,150 families would be allocated land in Nitzanim, Nitzan and the Golf Area, which are all near Ashkelon, in December this year, he said.

“We have to move between the demands of the evacuees, the demands of the towns that they are to move to and the law,” said Altman.

But Beziz said many former settlers felt betrayed by the government that once encouraged them to move to Gaza in the first place during Israel's 38-year-long occupation of the Strip.

"The government pushed us to go to Gaza, develop the land and secure the borders of the state of Israel. The same government expelled us from this place,” she said.

"We went there – I came from France – we suffered terrorism and two intifadas [Palestinian uprisings against Israeli occupation], we lost friends and relatives. I look back on all this and feel a sense of betrayal.

"The hope was that when we left Gaza there would be some kind of peace. But every day there are more Qassam rockets fired by Palestinian militants in Gaza at Israeli towns nearby. We were not at peace with the Palestinians. Withdrawing has only increased the threat to the entire civil Israeli population."

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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