Do you remember where you were when President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963? When the sirens sounded on Yom Kippur, 1973? When two helicopters collided on their way back from Lebanon in 1997?

How about August 15, 2005, a date that will remain scorched into the memory of many an Israeli? On that day the first of nearly 9,000 Gush Katif residents were forcibly evicted from the homes they had lived in for decades, homes that were built with the active encouragement of the Israeli government in the Gaza Strip, captured from Egypt in the 1967 war.

Who were they? Where had they come from? What were their lives like? Did they all feel the same about the so-called disengagement?

Answers to these questions and more can be found at the Nitzan Visitors’ Center for the Heritage of Gush Katif. Visitors find that whether or not you agreed with the government’s decision to evacuate Gush Katif, were too young to remember what happened, or weren’t in Israel at the time, the museum provides an important insight into a powerful chapter in this country’s history.

While you are in the neighborhood, travel only a few hundred meters from Nitzan to Nitzanim, for another taste of this nation’s history and a climb on delightful sand dunes in a beautiful nature reserve right next to the Mediterranean Ocean.

A sign from Gush Qatif, a bloc of Israeli settlements in Gaza which were "uprooted" in the disengagement from the territory in 2005. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

A sign from Gush Qatif, a bloc of Israeli settlements in Gaza which were “uprooted” in the disengagement from the territory in 2005. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Our guide to the Visitors’ Center was Project Coordinator Laurence Beziz, who lived in Gush Katif for 19 years before the evacuation and today resides in Be’er Ganim near Ashkelon. She told us that former residents Gush Katif were anxious to have their story told, and they collected photos and made movies that made their way into the Center when it was established in 2008.

Basically, their narrative is a tale of settlement, a historical reality created by people who loved their country and were connected to the land. Beziz stressed that semantics are important in telling the story but what word, she asked rhetorically, do you use? Evacuation? Eviction? The colorless term Disengagement? The Center has opted, when it could, for “uprooting” as a way to describe what Gush Katif residents felt during those difficult times.

The color orange symbolized the resistance to disengagement. The center shirt reads "Orange: because the spirit doesn't stop." (Shmuel Bar-Am)

The color orange symbolized the resistance to disengagement. The center shirt reads “Orange: because the spirit doesn’t stop.” (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Your tour begins with a movie presented through the eyes of the last child born in Gush Katif. He reminds you that when the War of Independence broke out in 1949, residents of Kfar Darom – the one settlement in the area – were forced to leave their homes. And that 20 years later, Prime Minister Golda Meir decided to make the desert bloom by resettling the area.

New settlers were faced with the dilemma of creating new farms on shifting sands, while forming a society based on mutual responsibility and a lack of defined social standing. This became a way of life in Gush Katif, and simply a motto.

The exterior of the Nitzan Visitors Center. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

The exterior of the Nitzan Visitors Center. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

And it was plenty tough; at first, there was no running water, no showers or even toilets. But relationships were intimate and communal. Residents cooked together on Thursdays, bringing eggplants and potatoes raised in the sands. On Fridays, they also ate together.

By the 1980’s the settlements were flourishing. Gush Katif was a human mosaic of Israeli life, housing religious and secular families mainly from Gush Dan, development towns, and farming communities.

The museum features a number of rooms, each one with a different motif. One emphasizes the Jewish history of this area, from biblical times through settlements in the Hasmonean era.

An exhibit in the Nitzan Visitors Center. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

An exhibit in the Nitzan Visitors Center. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

One interesting display describes the very progressive agricultural techniques used for growing excellent produce on the sand. And there is a display contrasting the shifting sand dunes when settlement began – and what the gush looked like on the eve of the disengagement.

Another presents positive relationships between Jews and Arabs – even after attacks began. The first one occurred on the eve of Independence Day 1985, when Aharon Hazut from Gan Or was stabbed while walking in a nearby Arab market. He pulled through, and other Arabs expressed repugnance for this and any other terrorist activity.

But everything changed in 1987, with the outbreak of the first intifada. Amid a general Palestinian uprising in Gaza, Judea and Samaria, residents of Gush Katif were regularly stoned, or had Molotov cocktails thrown at them on the roads. Casualties rose among soldiers and civilians alike.

Photos depicting the former synagogues in the Gush Katif settlement bloc. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Photos depicting the former synagogues in the Gush Katif settlement bloc. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

The situation worsened with the second intifada in 2000; by the spring of 2005, over 5,000 artillery shells and Kassam rockets had fallen on Gush Katif. Yet few families left the Gaza settlements. Instead residents established emergency networks and organized teams of community solidarity. Despite everything, Gush Katif thrived.

In 2003, when prime minister Ariel Sharon came up with his momentous decision to evacuate the entire area, residents were stunned. Many felt that there was a chance to reverse his decision and demonstrated all over the country.

Reality set in a month before the eviction, when the army gave out cartons like those you are invited to sit upon in yet another room. People who felt that their identity was bound up in Gush Katif wondered what they could do about it.

Visitors see movies from the actual evacuation, showing soldiers trying to reason with hysterical residents. Watching the movies you may find, as we did, that while you can understand the residents’ pain at seeing everything they had built up destroyed, you are filled with sympathy for the soldiers.

An exhibit in the Nitzan visitors center. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

An exhibit in the Nitzan visitors center. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Former residents of the Gush have moved into new and existing communities elsewhere. Understandably, it took a very long time for some of them to get back on their feet, and many are still finding it hard to get up in the morning. But, said Beziz, you can’t hold down that Gush Katif spirit. “If you look into our eyes, you can see the spark that means we are from Gush Katif.”

Sprawling sand dunes in a nature reserve near the coastline in southern Israel. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Sprawling sand dunes in a nature reserve near the coastline in southern Israel. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

A first Negev foothold

More history is just around the corner at Nitzanim, site of a heartbreaking battle during the War of Independence. Nitzanim is also one of the most enchanting natural areas in the country.

The only pre-State kibbutz surrounded on all sides by Arab villages, Nitzanim is situated on the other side of Highway 4 from Nitzan. Established in 1943 as a means of gaining a foothold in the Negev, Nitzanim consisted of an elegant two-story building on a plot of land purchased from an Arab dignitary in 1942. Known as the “Palace,” it is a preserved historic building.

The "Palace" in Nitzanim was built to establish a Jewish presence in the area in 1943, and was the scene of fierce fighting in the War of Independence. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

The “Palace” in Nitzanim was built to establish a Jewish presence in the area in 1943, and was the scene of fierce fighting in the War of Independence. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Under the UN partition plan of 1947, Nitzanim was to be included in the Arab State. Yet the settlers refused to leave. Then, immediately after the UN decision in November, Nitzanim fell under total Arab siege. Supplies only rarely got through, by way of armed convoys.

Because the kibbutz was just a bit off the main road on which Egyptian troops advanced towards Tel Aviv, their army didn’t stage any major offensives and during the end of May settled for periodic shelling. But once they’d decided to clear the entire Negev of Jews, the kibbutz was subject to a massive assault by the well-equipped Egyptian army. Warplanes assisted the ground troops in this heavy offensive.

One hundred and forty one Jewish fighters (including 10 women and a division of new recruits) had barely a hundred weapons among them and their single machine gun quickly became inoperable. Soon they lost the northern hill with its water tower and observation point to Egyptian forces.

A picnic site near Kibbutz Nitzanim. The area now hosts a nature preserve. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

A picnic site near Kibbutz Nitzanim. The area now hosts a nature preserve. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Israeli troops retreated to the Palace. Communications were down, reinforcements never showed up, defenders were almost completely out of ammunition and water and there were no medical supplies for treating the wounded.

The situation was desperate and the kibbutz commander decided to surrender. Yet the Egyptians fired at and wounded the first soldier to climb onto the roof with a white T‑shirt held up high. And when the commander himself descended the stairs of the palace with a white “flag,” he was shot in the shoulder.

For the rest of this tragic story, visitors enter the building (now a Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel Field School) and ask to see the movie. Afterwards, and before you start your hike in the sand dunes, stop at the stunning memorial to the courageous women who died fighting the Egyptians at Nitzanim.

Israel’s last remaining stretch of sand dune,s on the coast between Ashdod and Ashkelon, covers an area of 31,000 dunams – a fourth of their size before massive building began south of Tel Aviv. They are located right at Nitzanim and feature four paths through a natural wonderland.

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For precise directions to any of the sites, please contact us at israeltravels@gmail.com.

The Visitors’ Center at Nitzan is open Sunday-Thursday from 9:00-16:00 and on Friday with advance notice. The Center will be delighted to organize tours of the area for you and your family. Browse the website for more information on Center activities: www.mkatif.org.

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Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.

Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.