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A disheartening disengagement from Gaza

For decades, they lived on what they considered their ancestral land. Some moved when told; others plan to make their government move them.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN
Published August 14, 2005


Anita Tucker came here three decades ago, one of the first people she met was the mayor of a nearby Arab village. He trudged across the sand dunes bearing a gift of bread.

"He said, "We're so glad to see you. Maybe there will be some work. This is a cursed land where nothing has grown since Abraham and Isaac were here.' So I learned of my Jewish roots in this place from the mayor of a Palestinian town."

With her husband and three small children, the Brooklyn-born Tucker settled in this once desolate region and helped build a tiny Jewish farming community into a major producer of organic vegetables.

Working alongside the Jews were Palestinians. Now 59, Tucker has known three generations of them.

But starting Monday, Tucker and thousands of other Jews in the Gaza Strip will leave their homes and their hothouses, most likely forever.

In one of the most significant events in the recent history of the Middle East, the Israeli government is evacuating all 8,500 Jewish settlers from Gaza and four small areas of the West Bank. In Gaza, which Israel captured from Egypt during the 1967 Mideast War, it will mean the end of a sometimes brutal occupation that has fueled Palestinian terrorism against Israel, especially in the past five years.

Recent polls show a majority of Israelis support "disengagement" of the 21 settlements, which have put a huge strain on the country's budget, image and efforts to make peace with its Arab neighbors. An Israeli newspaper estimated it costs $1-billion per year - or about $118,000 for every settler - to protect and separate Jews from the 1.3-million Palestinians in Gaza.

"They must go," says Omri Ataria, an Israeli agronomist who is working with settlers to determine compensation for their cows and greenhouses. "Only the fanatics want to stay."

The settlers, however, accuse Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - once called the "father of the settlements" - of betraying and endangering all Jews by forcing out those in the Gaza Strip.

"It was Ariel Sharon who said Gaza is the same as Tel Aviv," notes Rachel Saperstein, who moved here in 1997. "This is where Abraham and Isaac dug a well and made the desert bloom. This is our land. This place was put here as a security zone so the army could keep an eye on what's happening in Gaza - Gaza has always been a (Palestinian) hotbed."

The Gaza disengagement is more than just a controversial political exercise. Regardless of how others view the Jewish settlements - as bold frontiers of Zionism or as illegal outposts that have made life miserable for the Palestinians - the settlers consider Gaza home. This is where they raised their children, tended their gardens, built their businesses and celebrated life's happy occasions. It's also where they buried their dead.

Some settlers are defiant, waiting for a miracle; others have accepted their fate.

Refusing to give in

These days, Saperstein, 64, always wears something orange, the settlers' color. Her favorite is a gauzy vest she found in a store in Neve Dekalim, the largest settlement.

For weeks, she has been e-mailing people around the world trying to bring pressure on the Israeli government to stop the disengagement.

"There are human tragedies here - we had a couple who survived the Holocaust and had to leave because they couldn't bear to see their house dismantled."

As evacuation looms, Saperstein senses growing support from other Israelis. Last week, more than 150,000 opponents of the plan rallied in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Hundreds more - many of them West Bank settlers and long-haired backpackers - have sneaked into Gaza despite a ban on nonresidents entering what is now a closed military area.

"Opposition to this plan is rife among soldiers - they have zero motivation to follow orders so they turn a blind eye and let people through," says Chaim Eisen, a rabbi from Jerusalem.

To support the resistance, Eisen and his family have temporarily moved in with the Sapersteins. Joining them are 11 teenage boys who are camping in the back yard and sleeping on the floor of a spare bedroom. It is stockpiled with bottled water in case the army cuts off the utilities.

The settlers will have Monday and Tuesda y to leave Gaza; those who tarry will be forcibly removed and bused out by Israeli security forces. For a house about to be vacated one way or another, the Saperstein home looks surprisingly intact.

"If I pack my bags to leave, it is a sign to the Almighty I've given up the struggle," says Moshe Saperstein, a former Jerusalem Post columnist who lost an arm in the 1973 Mideast War. "I am prepared to give up my most prized possessions rather than give in to this evil decree."

Among the items they will leave behind are his huge CD collection - "bigger than the archives of Israeli radio" - and Rachel's paintings. The only things they have sent out are legal documents and family photos.

Like other resisters, the Sapersteins have refused to make plans for the future and have no idea where they are going. They say the government offered just $120,000 for their large, lushly landscaped home, with its stunning view of the Mediterranean. They refused.

"Considering the house and the view, the only equivalent would be a condo on Pine Tree Drive in Miami," says Saperstein, a native New Yorker. "They made a counteroffer of a one-room apartment in a slum section of Dimona."

A portly 65, Saperstein joked last fall that any soldier who tried to drag him out would get a hernia. Now he is more serious - what happens in the next few days will be "very, very bad," he predicts.

"The government already has placed provocateurs here. A Haaretz article said the security chiefs have determined that settlers are working on methods of tricking soldiers into shooting them. It's a ridiculous idea, unless you realize they are establishing an alibi before the crime."

"It broke my heart'

A few blocks away, Sylvia Mandelbaum's house is vacant. All that remains are two wilting indoor plants and colorful murals her grandchildren painted on the walls.

At 89, the New York native has had a full life - as a writer and self-taught legal scholar who introduced the concept of mediation to Israel. She is also an ardent Zionist who moved to Jerusalem in 1937 - 11 years before Israel became a state - and in her mid 70s picked up and moved again.

"I was on a senior citizens' tour to Neve Dekalim when I saw its beautiful Mediterranean, and I said, "This is where I want to live.' "

For several months, Mandelbaum stayed in a trailer while her house was under construction. Every day, rain or shine, she pedaled her adult tricycle to the site to check on the work. She took public buses to Tel Aviv and Beersheba to buy the tiles, the faucets, the sinks she wanted.

"It was difficult but God sent help - there was always some nice gentleman who helped me lift heavy things."

As soon as she moved in, Mandelbaum began transforming a yard of sand into a tranquil, shady oasis. Now mature, the clementina trees came from a nursery; the mango and avocado trees sprang from pits.

The elderly widow grew close to the young families nearby; she watched one clan grow from a single child to 11. Every month or so, she held spaghetti parties on her patio for the neighborhood kids.

When Sharon announced the disengagement plan last year, Mandelbaum and other settlers were disbelieving. They had been told by the prime minister himself that this was their land, the Biblical home of the Jews.

"Jews have done nothing to merit this," Mandelbaum says. "Our community was a perfect community. People worked hard, raised their families, the children were so well-behaved. I came from a religious household and we were told that a man is as good as his word. Sharon is not a man of his word."

As it became clear the withdrawal would proceed, Mandelbaum decided to leave before the soldiers came; she didn't want unpleasant memories of a place where she had been so happy. Though she has yet to get any money from the government, she moved two weeks ago to a tiny, one-bedroom apartment on the 19th floor of a Jerusalem high-rise. Even at that height, the sound of pile drivers at a nearby construction site makes conversation difficult.

Soon to turn 90, Mandelbaum still has a razor-sharp mind and a firm voice. But she hasn't felt well since the move; she sleeps a lot, she has the "blues," she says.

On her last night in Gaza, the neighbor children made spaghetti for her. They sang and danced and presented her with an illustrated note they had written in Hebrew:

Dear Sylvia,

Thank you very much for the spaghetti parties.

For us it was a lot of fun and very tasty.

It was so pleasant to live near you.

We hope you will come back for a celebration with God's help.

We love you very much.

The next day, Mandelbaum locked her door for the final time. Israeli forces will demolish the settlers' homes and turn the land over to the Palestinian Authority, which is rumored to be planning a casino. Mandelbaum still hopes her home will be spared; perhaps she can return some day.

"But when I left, I felt this was goodbye. It broke my heart to leave those children."

A dream ends

For years, Palestinians in Gaza have complained about the long, frequent delays they endure at Israeli checkpoints. In recent days, the Jewish settlers have begun to realize what the Palestinians go through.

"When we came back from Tel Aviv, the soldiers wanted our IDs - four, five times we had to show our identity cards," says Ita Frieman. "It's very humiliating, and it's very hard."

An early Gaza settler, the 56-year-old Russian Jew has lived here since 1977. Until the start of the second Palestinian uprising five years ago, she and other settlers shopped in Arab stores, went to Arab dentists, became friends with the Arabs who helped cultivate the hothouse flowers and vegetables.

"I know there are good people who are Palestinians, but because some are killers and terrorists we have to check them. The paradox is we want life for the Arabs to be better. We want them to have jobs and nice houses and electricity and schools. In the U.S., in Canada, in a lot of places religious people live together. Why cannot we stay here?"

As activities director for the local community center, Frieman would normally be preparing youth programs for the fall. "Now I just sit home and cry."

She and her husband, Moshe, have done almost no packing, nor do they intend to. Their house is relatively small, full of memories but little in the way of expensive possessions. What Frieman will miss most is her garden, with its flowering shade trees and perfect, emerald lawn. Before she leaves, she will set the timer on the sprinkler system so the grass and plants won't die.

At least not immediately.

The Friemans are among 79 families in Ganei Tal, a religious cooperative that grows tomatoes and other hothouse crops. The settlers are negotiating with the government to move together to another rural area; many are well into middle age and know it would be difficult to start over alone in a big city.

"The group is very important to us, they are more than relatives," Frieman says as she leafs through a 1986 yearbook from the school where she taught first- and second-graders.

"Yes, this is my life. I was one of the first teachers here. Everyone in here I know by name, everyone I know what happened to them."

On the day the soldiers come, the Friemans and others plan to walk to the synagogue and remove the Torah. Then they will go on foot to the cemetery, where her parents are buried.

"From there I don't know where we are going. It's the end of a dream that started 30 years ago. We were young then, we had a lot of strength. Now, I just don't know."

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com