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Our world: The Jewish refugees

The Quartet’s envoy and former World Bank president James Wolfensohn is reputed to be quite a deal maker. One of the deals he made as the Quartet’s envoy to the region was the purchase by wealthy American Jews of greenhouses owned by the Jews who were expelled from Gaza this past summer and their transfer as a gift to the Palestinians. Unfortunately, while the greenhouses were indeed abandoned by the Jews as the IDF threw them off their land, and they were transferred to the Palestinians, the Jews have yet to receive all their money. According to the farmers, the World Bank has deducted the value of the property looted from the greenhouses after they left Gaza from their payments.

This story is one of many that were never reported in the aftermath of the expulsions. Those expulsions, and the withdrawal of IDF forces that followed have enabled Gaza to be transformed into a new base of operations for global jihad. But aside from the foreseen strategic consequences of the withdrawal of IDF forces from Gaza, the expulsions have caused a humanitarian disaster for Israeli society. Hundreds of families have been living in hotel rooms in Jerusalem for the past three months. The largest group of refugees – some 350 families with another 150 on their way – lives in the temporary city of Nitzan.

When one enters Nitzan, at first glance it looks like a success story. The roads are largely paved. Each family lives in a red-roofed mobile home with grassy lawns all around. But dig just slightly beneath the surface and you see you are in a refugee camp. The fiberglass walls of the homes can be torn apart by a stray soccer ball. Children play in dirt plots next to moving bulldozers. Sewage runs openly between the homes. And those homes – 60 square meters for families of five and under, and 90 square meters for families with more than three children – are cramped and tiny. Most of the families in Nitzan had lived in homes that averaged 200 square meters in Gaza.

When they arrived at Nitzan many of the refugees realized that their furniture was unsuitable and so they were forced to buy new furnishings. Although each family’s belongings were packed in containers, you will see no containers in Nitzan. The Defense Ministry, which runs the camp, only allows people to have their containers for 10 days. Anyone who does not remove their container after 10 days is fined. And anyway, the summer heat combined with less than professional packing by Defense Ministry contractors left the contents of some 20 percent of the containers ruined.

THE COMMUNITIES in Gaza were self-sustaining. Most of the residents worked where they lived. Eighty percent of the residents of Nitzan, who farmed, taught in schools, owned shops and worked in the local councils, are unemployed today. The massive unemployment, together with the trauma of having been forced out of their communities, has taken its toll on the residents. Divorce rates are skyrocketing. Parents, who spend much of their days watching television and climbing the walls, have lost control of their children.

The child refugees of Gaza are perhaps the worst hit by the expulsions. Violence among the youths is high and rising. Drug abuse, which was negligible in their communities in Gaza, is on the rise. Two empty mobile homes were locked after they were found to contain drug paraphernalia. So the party moved elsewhere. Nitzan is prime territory for drug dealers looking for easy prey.

Children and youths have an almost psychotic fear of policemen and soldiers. “When they see soldiers or policemen these kids start shaking uncontrollably and become hysterical,” explains Eliya Tzur, the head of the One Heart volunteer organization that has been helping the residents get reestablished.

“The Education Corps of the IDF wanted to send officers to come to the schools to talk with them. I warned them not to,” Tzur, a 24-year-old college student from Jerusalem explains. “They said they weren’t afraid of hostility. I explained that it wasn’t hostility that I was worried about, but violence. These kids look at soldiers and see tyrants. I don’t know what or how long it will take to change this.”

THE IRRATIONALITY of the youths’ reaction to the army and police is matched by the financial irrationality of many of their parents. They received NIS 50,000 from their overall reparations immediately after they were thrown out of their homes. Rather than save it, many bought cars they didn’t need. The government deducts monthly rent for the mobile homes from the rest of the restitution package, which averages NIS 600,000 per family. The residents, without jobs, are eating away the possibility of ever having the money to build new homes for themselves.

The government has met all these problems with indifference. The Labor Ministry has yet to set up an employment office in Nitzan. There is only one social worker assigned to the Potemkin town. Much of the property of the regional council in Gaza was disbursed to other communities. Four thousand books from Gush Katif’s library are stacked up in one of the mobile homes, locked away. There is still no mikve. There is no grocery store. Buses come through twice a day and a taxi ride to the grocery store costs over NIS 100. Absurdly, when the residents moved in there was an IDF watchtower set up in the middle of the development for no reason. There are guard towers at its four corners, but they are unmanned. Theft is rampant.

One Heart organized workshops on everything from job searches to resume writing to teaching parents how to assert their authority over their children. Its volunteers scour the surrounding cities of Ashkelon and Ashdod to try to encourage businesses to employ the residents. The volunteers, who sleep on bare mattresses in an afterschool homework center they organized for elementary school children, also organized a community center and clubhouses for teenagers. When they tried to bring in a mobile home for a pizzeria, the Defense Ministry refused to allow it. Only Ministry contractors can bring in mobile homes – even though each mobile home, for no apparent reason, costs the taxpayers NIS 400,000 and the mobile home One Heart planned to bring in cost only NIS 120,000.

As the residents sink into impoverishment, someone is apparently getting rich at Nitzan. It would be interesting to know how the contracts were awarded.

INCOMPETENCE alone doesn’t explain the Sharon-Peres government’s treatment of the refugee population that it senselessly created. Today the refugees still want, most of all, to build new communities that will allow them to stay together with the people they have lived with all their lives. But while Sharon and Peres and Ehud Olmert grandly discuss plans to develop the Negev and Galilee, these people, who want to develop both, are shunted aside and left to disintegrate.

In its systematic demonization and criminalization of the Israelis of Gaza that preceded their expulsions, the government seemed to be begging for these people – who heroically withstood some 6,000 mortar and rocket attacks, thousands of shootings and hundreds infiltration attempts on their communities over the past five years – to do something that would prove their deprecators right. When these patriots left peacefully, deciding not to disengage from their country, Sharon and his spinmeisters were left with their tongues hanging out. The brutal indifference with which the refugees are treated today seems tinged with more than a slight hint of vindictiveness.

“Perhaps the most terrible thing about Nitzan,” Tzur says, “is that we at One Heart have so much work to do here. We’re just a bunch of students. Why are we necessary?”

But there’s the rub. For the past 12 years the governments of Israel have been playing poker with our lives and well-being by granting land, guns and legitimacy to terrorists. The only thing that has kept this country going is the fact that the Israeli people have refused to collapse.

Once again, the vacuum created by government negligence, incompetence and vindictiveness is being filled by private citizens. One day, perhaps we will have a government that is worthy of us. In the meantime, we have no choice but to work around those who are elected and paid to serve us.

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