Former Gaza settlers put down new roots in the sand

At Halutza, communities founded by Gush Katif evacuees hitch their fortunes to the dream of growing etrogs

Debra writes for the JTA, and is a former features writer for The Times of Israel.

Eliyahu Ozan stands in one of his fields. (photo credit: Michal Fattan)
Eliyahu Ozan stands in one of his fields. (photo credit: Michal Fattan)

B’NEI NETZARIM, Southern Israel  — When Eliyahu Ozan left Gush Katif in 2005, he says, he made himself a promise – no matter how hard things became for him or his family, he wouldn’t cry about it.

Ozan, 54, was one of the more than 8,000 Jewish settlers evicted from Gaza in 2005 as part of Ariel Sharon’s controversial disengagement plan to remove all Jewish residents and IDF soldiers from the Strip. He went voluntarily, as did about half of the residents of the 21-settlement bloc, but many of his neighbors had to literally be dragged, kicking and screaming, by forces of tens of thousands of Israeli soldiers. Some settlers fenced themselves in behind barbed wire. Others wept openly, their arms wrapped around equally distraught soldiers. One hardline settler barricaded himself in his home with several women and children, an M-16 rifle slung over his shoulder.

The Gaza Disengagement was one of the most polarizing events in Israeli history, forging massive cleavages between right and left, pro- and anti-settler, and even secular versus religious. For months before the disengagement was carried out, orange ribbons fluttered from cars and city squares were flooded by protesters hoisting signs that read “Jews don’t expel Jews.” Polls at the time said that about 60 percent of Israel’s citizens approved of the withdrawal, while 40 percent were vehemently opposed. The right-wing and religious parties offered doomsday predictions, saying that removing Israelis from Gaza would open the floodgates for terror, rockets, and the Jewish state’s eventual destruction.

Etrogs ready for transport. (photo credit: Michal Fattal)
Etrogs ready for transport. (photo credit: Michal Fattal)

But despite the riots, despite the polemics and the protests, the day came, and on August 15, 2005, Ozan left his home, as well as the greenhouses and orchards where he had cultivated a comfortable life as a farmer. There were wrenching photographs of mothers being dragged from their homes, of teenagers in orange T-shirts sobbing and of fathers burning their buildings and businesses so as not to leave anything behind.

One week later, the area that had been Gush Katif was little more than a heap of bulldozed rubble.
Ozan was convinced his story would be different.For many of Gaza’s settlers, life after Gush Katif has become a study in limbo.

Nine years on, more than thirty percent of the former settlers of Gaza still live in temporary housing. The town of Nitzan, in the sand-choked badlands just north of Ashkelon, is now a bonafide refugee camp of wobbly caravans and families treading deeper and deeper into poverty.


He left Gaza with a wife and eight children, and soon, at the age of 46, became the father to an additional set of twins. At first, the family lived in a temporary caravan in Yavul, which is a speck on the map just across the Egyptian border, but soon they began hearing about a new planned community being built with the help of the Jewish National Fund.

I knew this area would like etrogs. My heart told me the soil was good.

It was called Halutza. The area, wedged between the borders of Gaza and Egypt, was barren and sand-washed. It was so desolate that when Ehud Barak offered to swap it with Yasser Arafat in 2001 in exchange for parts of the West Bank, Arafat reportedly laughed in his face. But Ozan had an idea. He believed, despite the heat, despite the proximity to two volatile borders and without any guarantee that even weeds could grow here, that he could plant an etrog orchard and see it bear fruit.

Road signs for Bnei Netzarim. (photo credit: Michal Fattan)
Road signs for Bnei Netzarim. (photo credit: Michal Fattan)

“I knew this area would like etrogs. My heart told me the soil was good,” Ozan says, standing in the middle of a massive orchard that should have produced upwards of 100,000 fruits this year. “I saw that many farmers around here were growing lemons and oranges, and this is the same family.”

Ozan moved to Bnei Netzarim, one of the three communities that today makes up the enclave of Halutza, in 2000. He began planting shortly after, and soon his trees were producing spectacular fruits – sweetly scented, free of any marks or scratches, and smooth as the skin of a newborn child.

Jewish law, however, states that a farmer must wait four years before he can take a profit from his fruit trees. Each year, he pruned his trees and marveled over the “diamonds,” as he calls them – the purest, most beautiful citrons, which can fetch between $100 and $400 in the US market. Etrogs, or citrons, are ceremonially lifted by Jews during the autumn (in the Northern Hemisphere) holiday of Sukkot. Beautiful specimens are especially prized, while damaged fruits are essentially worthless.

Ozan was all set for a healthy harvest in 2014 that would finally reward his efforts.

And then, of course, Operation Protective Edge broke out. Rockets slammed into the fields and streets surrounding Halutza. His field hands, most of them Arab workers from surrounding communities, stayed away, for fear of both rockets and anti-Arab sentiment.

When I meet Ozan in his orchard, two days before Rosh Hashanah, the rows of his orchard are littered with fruit that festered too long on the branches and then fell to the ground. These bruised and battered citrons, which should have been destined for Jewish communities in America, are instead headed for the trash.

A worker at Halutza examines an etrog for export. (photo credit: Michal Fattan)
A worker at Halutza examines an etrog for export. (photo credit: Michal Fattan)

He estimates that he has lost forty percent of his crop this year, the equivalent of more than one million shekels.

I ask him if he is angry about the situation.

“Angry at who?” he says. “At my country? At the Palestinians? I am angry every day, not because of the etrogs, but because of what they do to my people every day. How does that help me?”

An exception among the rule

Ozan has other crops – tomatoes, potatoes, and more – so while he is taking a financial hit this year, the war has not wiped him out. Standing in the sweltering Halutza heat, with soggy etrogs at our feet and the blazing sun in our eyes, his optimism feels surprising. The story of Gaza’s former Jewish settlers, it feels, has become stuck on one sad trope – extremism, upheaval, and then intractability. This past summer’s conflict, which saw those prophesied rockets rain down on nearly the entire country and sent thousands of foot soldiers right back through the gates of Gaza, was for many among the Israeli right an affirmation that the disengagement was truly a disgrace. A failure of epic proportions, measured in air-raid sirens and spilled Israeli blood. A Waterloo, if there ever was one.

One on hand I moved on. It happened and it is what it is. But on the other hand, I didn’t forget. It’s part of my history

The residents of Halutza’s three communities – Bnei Netzarim, Naveh and Shlomit – are all Modern Orthodox and lean right, politically. They didn’t want to leave Gaza, and they certainly don’t believe that Israel should relinquish further territory from the West Bank or the Golan. They believe in Greater Israel, they feel that Israel has no true negotiating partner for peace, and they, too, felt a sense of vindication this summer when even the most secular and left-wing residents of Tel Aviv had to run for cover from missiles crashing in from Gaza.

None of that matters, though, says Yedidya Harush, JNF’s liaison for Halutza. Harush, 26, was born and raised in the Gush Katif community of Atzmona and was 17 during the disengagement. Later, as a paratrooper in the IDF, he was stationed just outside of Gaza and would sometimes go to the control room, where soldiers monitor satellite feeds of the area, and zoom in on the streets that used to lead to his house and neighborhood.

Children play on a JNF playground at one of Halutza's communities. (photo credit: Michal Fattan)
Children play on a JNF playground at one of Halutza’s communities. (photo credit: Michal Fattan)

“I still look at Google Earth sometimes, just so I don’t forget, and I show my kids where I grew up,” he says. “One on hand I moved on. It happened and it is what it is. But on the other hand, I didn’t forget. And I don’t want to forget. It’s part of my history.”

Harush has been involved with Halutza since its inception. By partnering with JNF, the community has had significant advantages over other former Gaza settlers. Using funds raised by Diaspora Jews, JNF has built their schools, planted their entrance ways, and planned their parks and community centers. But Harush insists that the attitude in Halutza also sets them apart.

“We decided that no matter what, we move on and we continue,” he says. “It takes a lot of strength to say, ‘OK, it happened. It is what it is.’ And we had two choices. We decided to try to turn it into something positive.”

Etrogs wrapped up to protect against scratching. (photo credit: Michal Fattan)
Etrogs wrapped up to protect against scratching. (photo credit: Michal Fattan)

Today, Halutza, whose name comes from the Hebrew word for “pioneer,” has 250 families. Bnei Netzarim, the biggest and most-established of the three communities, has 105 families, as does Naveh, which came next. Shlomit, which broke ground just two years ago, is the smallest and most primitive of the trio, and is filled mostly with young families. That will change, Harush says – the Shlomit of the future will boast 1,500 families, he says, and be the biggest town in the area.

Originally established solely by former Gaza settlers, today Halutza is a mix. Despite the proximity to both Gaza and Egypt, the dusty air and the very real threat of terrorism, it’s easy to see the appeal for growing families. In Bnei Netzarim, rambling family homes, costing a fraction of what a one-bedroom apartment in Tel Aviv would go for, jut up against lawns filled with fruit trees. Children’s bicycles litter the streets. Neighbors, many of whom grew up together as children in Gaza, leave their doors open and pass in and out of each other’s homes. It has the feel of a small town some 50 or 60 years ago. And, Harush says, it’s all quality-controlled.

A view of Halutza from the road. (photo credit: Michal Fattan)
A view of Halutza from the road. (photo credit: Michal Fattan)

The families in Halutza, all of them religious and like-minded, must pass a selection committee. “We want to make sure that the families that come to Halutza are quality, because when you plant a tree, if you don’t plant it straight, in 10 years you won’t be able to straighten it,” he says. “We want the seed of the families to be strong.”

Rambling family homes, costing a fraction of what a one-bedroom apartment in Tel Aviv would go for, jut up against lawns filled with fruit trees. Children’s bicycles litter the streets

During this summer’s war, many of the communities around Halutza, in Israel’s Eshkol region, became ghost towns. Families, terrified as much by the ceaseless rockets as by the discovery of dozens of Hamas attack tunnels dug from Gaza, packed up their families and fled north. Many waited out the war and are now trickling back. But hundreds have not yet returned, and some, Harush feels, never will.

In Halutza, however, no one left. The community made a joint decision that they would ride out the war together, but thanks to JNF they had an advantage many of their neighbors did not. On the second day of the war, Harush called JNF’s chairman and explained that many families in Shlomit were still in temporary houses and lacked adequate shelter. He needed $1 million to build 40 shelters in the community. He was cleared for the funds immediately, and the shelters appeared in Shlomit that same week.

“We believe in something. We have a mission,” Harush says. “We are building the State of Israel. Now it’s the Negev. It’s the biggest national mission today, more than any other part of the country. And we don’t see the obstacles. We just see the target in front of our eyes.”

Farming under fire

While Ozan’s etrog farmers stayed away during the war, the residents of Halutza who work in the fields continued to show up to work each day, missile sirens or not.

Nava Uner, a South African native who recently converted to Judaism and is now religious, planted tomatoes at the height of the conflict. “The siren would go off, we would lie down in the fields, and then get up and keep on planting,” she says. “It actually felt really good, like nothing can stop us. And the fact that we planted something that can grow — it was just the opposite of the war. It was liberating.”

A mother with her children in Shlomit, Halutza's youngest community. (photo credit: Michal Fattan)
A mother with her children in Shlomit, Halutza’s youngest community. (photo credit: Michal Fattan)

Uner is one of three farmers who is being supported on Halutza through a JNF program called the Young Farmers Incubator, which links would-be farmers with mentors in the field and helps subsidize the (sometimes substantial) costs of purchasing seeds, training, and establishing a crop. She and her husband, who is also newly religious, live in Bnei Netzarim.

The fact that we planted something that can grow, it was just the opposite of the war. It was liberating

“We fell in love with the place,” she says. “And the fact that I can be a farmer and do what I love here – there’s a lot of potential to grow in this community.”

No one in Halutza feels that the war with Gaza marked an end to hostilities or a watershed in the peace process. All of them know that another war lurks just around the corner, possibly in four years, more likely in two or three. Most of them, like Ozan, don’t really want to talk about it. He prefers to walk the rows of his orchard, where budding citrons are cradled in gauze so as not to scratch each other, and hope instead that he will spy on a branch yet another “diamond.”

“Jews, I think, are optimistic,” Ozan says. “We just look at what happens and we say, yihiyeh tov (it will be okay). To look back is too hard. If I look back I’ll be like the wife of Lot [in the book of Genesis], and become salt. So, I only look forward.”

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