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Mission unaccomplished

August 28, 2008
Editorial, THE JERUSALEM POST

Sigal Barda lived in the Gaza Strip community of Elei Sinai for 15 years. Her husband is a policeman, which tipped the scales three years ago in their decision to cooperate with the authorities during the disengagement. She also did not want her children to be traumatized by a forcible expulsion.

From the start, the Bardas cooperated with the system – unlike some settlers who initially refused to play any role in facilitating their removal.

Yet even for the Bardas, not much went right. There was nowhere to put them up initially; and promised housing in Kibbutz Or Haner never materialized.

The Disengagement Authority, known as Sela, charged with relocating and rehabilitating as many as 10,000 evacuees from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria, haggled over every aspect of compensation – as if the Bardas were out to exploit the state. Even the monthly cost of warehousing their possessions was deducted from their compensation package.

They were eventually put up in a trailer at Kibbutz Karmiya, pending the construction of new homes at Moshav Talmei Yaffe. These have not materialized because of bureaucratic snafus, and the kibbutz has repeatedly tried to eject them and other evacuees.

Barda says she “never imagined that law-abiding citizens, who lost everything one day through no fault of their own, would encounter such hardheartedness. For three years we have existed without hope in cramped, temporary accommodations, with Kassams fired at us from the ruins of our destroyed homes. We did our share. Why can’t the state live up to its obligations?”

SELA WAS to have served as a central clearinghouse for the evacuees, a multi-service agency that would cut through the red tape so families wouldn’t have to run from one ministry to another for assistance as they tried to rebuild their lives.

Unfortunately, Sela did not have the clout it needed to get the job done. Of an estimated 1,667 families removed from Gush Katif, 1,405 remain in transitory lodgings. Only seven of 24 projected new settlements are reportedly under construction. And only 50 of 400 farmers received some kind of land to work, and few are back in business. Of 3,500 working people, 822 remain jobless. Most others earn a fraction of their previous income. Independently employed entrepreneurs went broke. Communities which strove to resettle together are still unable to do so.

As early as 2006, the state comptroller reported that Sela was “a crushing failure.” Today, the comptroller supports establishing a state commission of inquiry into the treatment of the evacuees, a step recently approved by the Knesset Control Committee.

MISSION not accomplished, Sela has been slated to be disbanded by the end of 2009. It is being closed at the request of the Finance Ministry to save money, and legislation to that effect is included in the 2009 budget. Whatever contracts and agreements are still pending with the evacuees, and with the regional councils or communities into which they are to be absorbed, had better be concluded by the end of 2009 or they will be passed to another governmental body.

Its faults notwithstanding, Sela was at least an address for the uprooted settlers. Now they will have to take their problems to various ministries – Housing, Agriculture, Welfare, Health and Justice, to name a few.

The argument has been made that, at this stage, these ministries might actually be better positioned to deliver where Sela could not. Perhaps.

If the Treasury will not salvage Sela and give it the wherewithal to finish the job, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert needs to immediately direct each ministry to appoint an ombudsman to be responsible for disengagement issues – someone on the inside who knows how to get things done. That should be implemented sooner rather than later for a smooth transition.

There also needs to be an official in the Prime Minister’s Office to keep the big picture in view and coordinate the work of the various ministries involved.

On August 22, 2005 this newspaper editorialized against the “institutional callousness, bureaucratic run-arounds and official hardheartedness” facing those who lost their homes in disengagement’s wake. Out of simple human decency and for the sake of the political system’s credibility, the travails of the uprooted must end.

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