THE SITUATION OF THE EVACUEES OF GUSH KATIF

Arlene Kushner

Written for the Israel Resource News Agency

September 7, 2005

Sources

Information for this report has been acquired from authoritative sources: The Israel Legal Forum – the group of more than 50 lawyers working pro-bono and for token payment on behalf of the evacuees; Lema’an Achai – a non-governmental social service agency in Ramat Beit Shemesh that has assumed major responsibility for providing counseling for the evacuees; Jewish Family Services, Israel – a non-governmental social service agency that has been providing some assistance to evacuees; and evacuees themselves.

Background

The realities with which the evacuees are coping are best understood set in context:

1) The Israeli governmental agency responsible for attending to the people expelled from Gush Katif has insisted on dealing with individual families.

The Disengagement Authority, SELA, from the beginning of this process has been willing to negotiate compensation only with individual families, who then presumably would make their own independent arrangements for which SELA would have no responsibility. In some relatively few instances, SELA has offered to provide housing for individual families.

The Gush Katif evacuees, on the other hand, have insisted that only relocation as communities will meet their needs. Community leaders indicated to SELA that they wished to have the Israel Legal Forum negotiate on their behalf, as communities; the government authorities refused.

There is precedent for what they have been requesting: When the Jewish population was moved out of the Sinai in 1982, they were relocated as communities.

As a result of this impasse, situations have arisen in which the government is maintaining it has provided places for people to live, but the people are saying that the scattered accommodations being suggested are not acceptable to them, and they consider that they have not been provided for.

2) By any measure one might use, the government was ill-prepared for moving the more than 8,000 residents of Gush Katif.

In part, this is because preparation took place over a period of months, rather than the three years of preparation done before the Sinai evacuation. Thus a great deal of transient living is facing the evacuees.

Stop-gap accommodations were all that awaited most of the families when they were removed from their homes. While some small percent had arranged more stable accommodations – for example, having already accepted compensation or agreed to move to caravans – the plan for the majority of evacuees was short-term placement in hotels. Mere days before the date of evacuation, however, SELA authorities realized that the 1,000 hotel rooms they had reserved were insufficient for the 1,700 families that were to be moved out: 2,500 were necessary. Officials of SELA, aided by members of the Legal Forum, scoured the country seeking additional hotel rooms. So inadequate has been the planning that there are cases in which whole families with several children were moved into one hotel room, with mattresses on the floor.

In some instances, Gush Katif families declined hotel rooms offered because the arrangements were severely inadequate or would have caused the scattering of the community. In some of these cases, the community set up tents, considered a preferable option; in other instances non-governmental offers of alternative accommodation, such as school dormitories, were accepted.

There were no government-provided social workers on the scene at various hotels to assist with the trauma of relocation and to give practical logistical advice. Evacuees – distraught, angry, confused, and depressed – found themselves having to also deal with such pragmatic issues as having no place to do laundry. It has been the large scale provision of assistance by volunteers – professional social service and legal volunteers, and a large cadre of laypersons willing to help with a myriad of details and provide comfort – that has greatly ameliorated the situation for the evacuees.

Originally the stay in hotels was slated to be for ten days, but was extended. It is certainly expected, however, this first stage of interim accommodations will come to an end before long. For most of the evacuees, this will be followed by a sitution of living in more solid but still temporary housing, for a period of two or three years as permanent solutions are worked out. When they left Gush Katif two weeks ago, two-thirds of the evacuees had no idea where they would be going for this stage.

The temporary housing will be provided largely via apartments, and in some instances caravans. At Nitzan, 400 caravans (euphemistically called caravillas) are planned and some 200 families were able to go straight there and skip the stop-gap hotel accommodations. Additional families, coming from various Gush Katif communities, have since moved in. They have encountered severe difficulties, as they have been provided only with a complex of caravans with no synagogue, clinics, stores or schools local to them. The government is spending $100,000 to construct each of these caravans, which will be destroyed in three years.

As to the final permanent stage of housing, when the people left Gush Katif, a full 90% had no idea where this permanent stage would bring them. The Israel Legal Forum had proposed viable solutions– such as settlements in the Negev or in Nitzanim to which whole communities might be moved. These proposals were made in sufficient time for them to be properly activated, but were rejected by the government. Some suggestions made by the government were not viable. For example, farmers rejected the possibility of relocation to the Galilee because climate and soil conditions are so different from those of Gush Katif that they would have no farming expertise; they require a southern setting in order to sustain themselves.

According to head of the Israel Legal Forum, Dr. Yitzhak Miron, all claims by the government that it was absolved of responsibility to prepare accommodations for families that did not negotiate before the evacuation are without basis in law. The government made a decision to move these people; the government had a responsibility to provide for them.

3) Reports that the evacuees will be generously compensated are in error: Monetary compensation will be provided according to a formula involving length of residence in the community, whether the family owned or was renting, and other factors. The original full package of compensation for all parties – 2.5 billion shekels – was increased to 4.5 billion shekels when the Israel Legal Forum went to court to expose the inadequacy of the projected sum. This larger amount is still 50% less than is needed for families to restore themselves to anything approximating their former positions. In brief: for families who owned houses, roughly $700 per square meter, some $50,000 for land, and $1,000 for each year each individual over age three lived in the community; for renters, some $10,000; for certain land owners possibly compensation via new land, although the plan is not working out successfully.

Government threats – illegal according to Dr. Miron – to reduce compensation of persons who refused to leave voluntarily before August 17 are being challenged by the Forum in court now.

The current situation

Many, if not most, of those evacuated from Gush Katif are without income. Either their farms were dismantled or their jobs were terminated. Securing employment has been problematic for many because of uncertainty as to where they are going to be located. There have been numerous reports of volunteers providing ready pocket cash for people who found themselves without enough to manage.

Dramatic efforts are under way to move some greenhouses and the plants they contain to new locations within the Green Line. This is particularly true in Atzmona, but also in other former settlements such as Kfar Darom and Netzarim. (Note: Many of the greenhouses are being left in tact via an arrangement to turn them over to the Palestinians.) Thousands of volunteers have been working furiously to bring everything out but will not be able to entirely succeed; much will be lost because of the deadline for the final closing of Gush Katif – this Friday, September 9, so that the area can be entirely turned over to the Palestinians next week. Urgent appeals to extend the deadline have not been honored.

Those who had mortgages on their former property within Gush Katif are required to continue to make payments. In some instances it may be possible to ask the bank to freeze the mortgage until the compensation comes through. It should be noted, however, that taking mortgage costs out of the compensation package means having very little left for securing something else.

The evacuees’ belongings, of necessity left behind in their homes, have been packed in containers (with a maximum of two containers permitted) and shipped to storage sites. Considerable anxiety and frustration have accompanied this entire process. There were incidents of looting of belongings before they were packed and there have been incidents of damage in the storage areas. It remains unclear as to whether there is insurance covering the belongings. The compensation package does include something for moving expenses (14,000 to 21,000 NIS – roughly $3,100 to 4,600), but in a great number of cases the cost of moving and storing belongings far exceeds this. Some families arranged for additional containers and storage on their own, because what was being provided was inadequate.

The beginning of the school year has generated additional anxiety and emotional problems – with children feeling disoriented, and parents worried because they know there will be further transitions that are not good for their children.

It remains unclear by when people will be required to leave the hotels. A great many people still do not know where they are going for their next stage of resettlement. According to a lawyer with the Israel Legal Forum, the government is not making an effort to insure that everyone will be provided for in this next stage. There have been reports of arrangements in the planning that fell through; some community groups are making their own arrangements. The problem stated above regarding a strong determination to remain together applies here in the face of apartments offered in scattered locales in some instances.

Less then 50% of the families have received some government money at this point. 50,000 NIS in relief money (to be deducted from the eventual compensation package) was to have come speedily to every family that applied. At this point, any family that has applied for emergency relief but has not completed the entire application for compensation has been denied the relief.