Nitzan is a neighborhood of holes. On every street, there’s at least one abandoned lot, weeds growing over a concrete slab that once held a home. Piles of demolition debris are heaped haphazardly around the empty lots. One house’s yard is full of children’s toys and flowers, and next door, fences lean lazily in every direction, and the sandy soil is undisturbed.
But unlike struggling cities facing urban blight, every one of these empty lots is a success story: a family of Gush Katif, or Katif bloc, evacuees finally moved onward into permanent housing.
This summer, former Gush Katif residents are marking ten years since the disengagement. But byzantine bureaucracy has kept hundreds of families stuck in the temporary mobile homes, exacerbating the emotional trauma of the disengagement.
“I’m the only community head in the world whose success is measured by how much he can dismantle his community,” said Aviel Eliaz, the mayor of Nitzan B, the section of Nitzan that has housed Gush Katif evacuees for the past decade. “I’m breaking up the community, not building the community. Every family that leaves for their own house is a moment of satisfaction.”
In the chaos that followed the disengagement, the government tried to find permanent solutions for the 10,000 former residents of the evacuated area. Some towns in the bloc, such as Neve Dekalim, were better organized and had more connections due to their size and seniority, and they were able to move within a few years to permanent housing. But not all of the residents were as lucky. One of the options was to get a double-wide trailer, called a caravilla, which was offered to families at a reduced rent or free depending on their situation. The caravilla option was meant to last two years, while the families built permanent houses in land they purchased at a reduced rate.
Within six months of the disengagement, the government had built trailers for 550 families in Nitzan B, next to the small town of Nitzan, located halfway between Ashkelon and Ashdod. Many of the neighborhoods were organized according to future settlements, so future neighbors could live together.
Ten years later, almost half of the families are still in Nitzan.
According to the Disengagement Process Administration, known by its Hebrew initials Tnufa, there are still a total of 350 families of evacuees living in temporary housing, out of the 1,800 families evacuated from Gush Katif. Most live in Nitzan.
Approximately 150 of these 350 families are currently in the building process, which means they should be in permanent housing in the next year to 18 months. A hundred of the families are still trying to find land to build their permanent houses.
And the last hundred will need to find alternative solutions, such as public housing. The hope is that Nitzan B will eventually be razed to build an industrial park, though nothing is certain.
“Nitzan [B] is not a town,” said Eliaz. “Ten years ago it was a temporary site for two years. Eight years ago this became a refugee camp. There is no money coming in here. Everything is totally destroyed but you don’t want to fix it, because it’s temporary. Now we’re in this holding situation, where the government won’t spit us out and won’t swallow us.”
One lump sum
The reason that families have languished in temporary housing for a decade is a complicated mix of bureaucracy and trauma. The day after disengagement, families were paid damages in one lump sum. The amounts ranged from approximately NIS 500,000 to NIS 2 million, depending on whether or not the family owned land, the size of their house, and how many years they had lived in Gush Katif. Young families and renters received less compensation. The compensation was supposed to be specifically earmarked for constructing a new house.
“It’s like taking a baby or a two-year-old and giving them candy and saying, ‘sweetie, don’t eat it today, eat it tomorrow,’” said Eliaz. “You can’t take someone who has made NIS 4,000, NIS 5,000 or NIS 6,000 his whole life and suddenly give them a million shekels and say don’t use it till you build, just hold on to it. But by the way, there’s no land for you because we haven’t released the permits and we don’t know how long it will take.”
Eliaz points out for those who came from the areas where things were better organized, such as former residents of Neve Dekalim whose permits were ready within a few years, people still had money left to build. But the longer the bureaucracy of allocating land dragged on, the more families simply ran out of money.
“The government committed a crime when they gave people money like this,” said Eliaz. “They added insult by not giving people economic advisers or any sense of direction. And they added a third crime when the land wasn’t ready.”
A senior official in Tnufa said that the process for allocating land for new towns in Israel is onerous, which is why it took so long. It requires approval from a litany of government ministries, ensuring that the land for new settlements does not infringe on protected conservation areas or antiquities sites. Many of the permanent homes for Gush Katif evacuees are in new towns created for them, rather than existing towns.
But the official was frank in admitting the government’s failure.
“The government decided to take the residents out [of Gush Katif]. They had a special law for evacuation, but they didn’t have any plan for rehabilitation,” he said. “Everything was done for political reasons. They didn’t really think about the day after.”
The official added that this was the first time an evacuation of this magnitude had occurred in Israel, so no one knew quite what to expect. Still, the lack of foresight before the disengagement meant that chaos was inevitable.
“It’s not like there was an earthquake and you have to rebuild all these towns and the residents are cooperating,” the official added. “The idea of being psychologically able to cooperate with government takes years. On top of all the bureaucracy, it’s a very long process socially and psychologically.”
And the longer it took, the more the damages money ran out. Gush Katif evacuees were plagued by high unemployment rates directly following the disengagement, due to emotional trauma as well as difficulty re-launching their careers.
“Life happens,” said Eliaz. “Some people used this money to live their lives because they couldn’t work after the disengagement. Some invested this money in business initiatives that failed. There were not a small number of instances in which people were swindled out of their money. The government also encouraged people to open businesses. For example, they took a driver in Gush Katif and encourage him to open a shoe store. Then when it fails, he is destroyed.”
‘A train with no wheels’
Vered Tartiks, 45, lived in Gush Katif’s Pe’at Sadeh for 14 years and worked as a preschool teacher and as the town secretary. Her family grew nine dunams of vegetables, peppers, cucumbers, or whatever sold well. She has warm memories of her time there. “It was really fun in the bloc, it was very community driven,” she said. “People cared for each other.”
The Tartikses and their six children now live in a caravilla in Nitzan with the displaced community from Rafiah Yam, another town in Gush Katif. Her husband’s sister belongs to Rafiah Yam and they decided, after the disengagement, to join that community. The Tartikses live in a section of Nitzan B that was built for residents of Rafiah Yam, while they await the construction of the Rafiah Yam neighborhood of Be’er Ganim — a town 15 minutes away that will accommodate, in separate neighborhoods, residents of nine Gush Katif communities. Ten of the Rafiah Yam families are still in temporary homes in Nitzan, while ten more have moved into their permanent homes in Be’er Ganim.
The Tartikses also decided to leave Pe’at Sadeh before the actual date of the disengagement, a decision that still angers their former neighbors. Many Gush Katif residents refused to make alternate plans before the date of the disengagement, and felt that anyone who did so was a traitor. This lack of cooperation also contributed to the chaos in the years that followed.
For two years after the disengagement, Tartiks’s husband struggled to find work. They lived off of the NIS 2 million they received in damages. Eventually, the couple decided to open a bicycle repair shop and small hardware store in nearby Yad Binyamin, a town of some 3,000 where they have relatives. “It started as a bike shop, but became a bit of everything, kind of like a small Ace Hardware with tools and light bulbs and all sorts of things,” she said. “Most of the money from the damages we received went into the store.”
The store did well, until the commercial center in Yad Binyamin decided to relocate. The store that the Tartikses received in the new mall was on the second floor, and the owner didn’t want bicycles inside. So they decided to stay in the old commercial center. But eventually people stopped coming to the old commercial center, and they went bankrupt.
“Our debts multiplied very quickly,” said Tartiks. “We tried to get help, but it took time… I was really just so broken. The bank seized our car and froze our account due to debts.” The family’s debts started out at NIS 160,000 but have since ballooned to more than NIS 600,000 with fines and fees.
“My husband makes NIS 6,000 a month [as a gardener] but it all goes to debts,” she said. “I get to the end of the month and we don’t have enough money for food. People need to understand that if you got damages, and we got the damages, it still wasn’t a sky-high amount. We are starting from zero. I have no ability to help my kids. One of them is working all the time, working so hard in order to save for university. I never thought that we’d be in the position where I can’t help him pay for university.”
Permeating this whole experience of opening a business and failing was the Tartiks family’s significant emotional trauma stemming from the disengagement. “When my kids were in school, I was just in bed all day,” she said. “When I sleep, I’m not worried about our situation. So I would just sleep all the time. But I know that’s not healthy, because I’m not doing anything.”
Tartiks’ father died the year after the disengagement, and then she had two more children. “Between my father being sick and dying and the births I didn’t really absorb what happened with the evacuation,” she said. “The last five years everything has collapsed. I just feel like nothing is going my way.”
The worst part, Tartiks said, is the uncertainty of living in limbo for a decade with no idea when they will be in permanent housing. The caravilla was a good temporary situation, but it has turned into a disaster. The poor construction held up for a few years, but now there are leaks everywhere in the winter, causing mold to bloom along the ceiling. The thin walls mean the family freezes in the winter and bakes in the summer, and the lack of insulation causes their electricity bill to reach NIS 2,000 ($525) some months.
Tartiks has tried to make things work. She also makes jewelry, but has difficulty selling her wares because she has no way to travel to craft fairs. She proudly shows off her garden, which she says is her therapy. Avocado pits are sprouting into trees and rosemary reaches for the sky, but everything is growing in buckets and even an old baby tub. She wants to be able to take it with her when they leave.
They used a caravan to create a treatment room so Tartiks, who trained for seven years in reflexology, could treat patients privately. But everyone in Nitzan is struggling, and few people could afford her services. She didn’t think about expanding or advertising, because she didn’t have the energy to get a permit for a business when they were supposed to be leaving in a matter of months.
“I feel stuck in one place,” she said. “You can’t move. It’s like the wheels are just stuck. And I’ve been stuck for ten years. I want to get out of here.”
She said the moment that broke her was when the bank seized her car in 2010. The lack of car made living in Nitzan isolating, and further diminished her job prospects.
She’s also angry.
“It took five days to evacuate the [Katif] bloc. This place [Nitzan B] was built in six months. If they wanted to get us into permanent houses, they could. Why do they need to stretch this out for a decade? It’s like being on a train with no wheels. When they wanted to get us out of there, they do it in a second, but this is taking forever.”
“It’s like the moment you fell, you can’t get up.”
The emotional sense of ‘home’
Golan Shahar, a professor of clinical health psychology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, has studied trauma among Gush Katif evacuees. According to his research, at least 40% of the evacuees meet clinical standards for post-traumatic stress disorder. Much research has been done into the trauma of relocation for refugees during wars or natural disaster, but this had the added element of being a direct attack on the settlers’ belief system and ideology.
“Irrespective of one’s political persuasion, and I’m in favor of disengagement, [these people] were uprooted, physically uprooted,” Shahar said. “This has physical, literal, and spiritual implications that are far-reaching. Staying in caravillas for 10 years really increased the gap between their lives prior and subsequent to the disengagement.
“These houses were located in a cohesive community. They were relatively affluent; it’s not like they were materialistic but they were secure financially. Now their ideology and ideological living are tarnished,” he said.
But the worst part of the caravilla situation is that it kept people from dealing with this trauma and moving forward, Shahar explained. “The caravillas are a salient aspect of the suffering,” he said.
“We have a mental representation of what a house means and what a home means. It’s intimately related to an understanding of safety, of security, of comfort. A temporary arrangement threatens all of these representations, because it essentially puts one in a situation where one feels insecure.”
The end of the road
Tnufa, which is now under the aegis of Uri Ariel (Jewish Home), the minister of agriculture and rural development, is slated to close at the end of 2015. “What we haven’t been able to do so far, we won’t be able to do,” the senior Tnufa official said. This means that there will be no single address to help the residents not yet in permanent housing, and they must coordinate individually with each government ministry.
Tnufa has one last-ditch effort to get families into permanent housing called “mishpachtit” (the family path), which will see the government build houses on land belonging to evacuees who have land but no money to build. The families will then rent or buy the property from the government when they become financially stable.
But this situation only applies to some of the 350 families still without permanent solutions. The Tartiks family, for example, cannot receive this benefit because as farmers in Gush Katif they have a different land arrangement than non-farmers, which makes them ineligible.
Many families have received threatening letters demanding that the families leave or risk paying eight years of retroactive rent. Others, like Tartiks, were forced to sign contracts saying they will evacuate their caravillas within a year to 18 months. Tartiks has land but she hasn’t started building yet since the family has no money, so she doesn’t know what will happen next year.
The official said Tnufa is trying to negotiate with the Finance Ministry so that families will not have to pay eight years of retroactive rent, but he makes no promises. “It’s impossible to have a law for evacuation without a law for building,” the official told Times of Israel. “[The government] was basically ready to have a war to get people out of there, but they weren’t ready to have a war to build them houses.”
‘Suddenly there’s light’
The crowded, trash-strewn caravilla neighborhoods of Nitzan are a far cry from the expansive construction site of Be’er Ganim. The new town, 15 minutes from Nitzan, is made up of nine communities from Gush Katif, and many of the people of Nitzan B, including Eliaz, will eventually live here.
Only 170 families have finished building their houses. The first building stage of the town includes homes for 700 families, many of which are under construction. The second building stage will have room for 400-500 families.
These homes under construction are not small. Large two-story houses with soaring windows and modern architecture dot the landscape. Bulldozers are at work in almost every direction. There are no sidewalks, but there are street lamps. There’s no public transportation. Most roads are unpaved. The new school only goes until 4th grade. There aren’t any public buildings like clubhouses for the youth group or sports fields and there aren’t enough synagogues.
“I feel kind of like we’re being pioneers, just in a very different way,” said Devora Israeli, the mother of four who moved into her new house three months ago after almost a decade in a Nitzan caravilla. Hers was the fourth family to move into her neighborhood, which will eventually have 70 houses.
“This place will be a construction site for another ten years,” she said. Last summer, The Times of Israel visited Israeli in the midst of Operation Protective Edge. The caravillas have no protected areas, so every time there was a siren they had to run outside to temporary concrete shelters made from pipes. “When there’s a siren, we run out to these sewage pipes like rats,” she said at the time. Every parent faced the same choice over and over: which child to pick up first?
But now Israeli is in a completely different place. The family moved into the new home three months ago and breathed a huge sigh of relief. In contrast to the cramped quarters of the caravilla, everything about the house is spacious, open, and full of light. There’s a protected area inside the house. The living room is elegantly decorated in white. The expansive patio shows off a view of three bulldozers in the next neighborhood, all hard at work.
“It’s like you’re in a tunnel and suddenly it opens up and there’s light,” Israeli said. “It was too much already, living in the caravillas. We wanted our privacy. Your neighbor would sneeze and you’d hear it and say bless you. When I’m here, I can breathe. Someone who didn’t go through it can’t explain what it’s like to leave the caravillas. Suddenly life goes into this relaxed place.”
For the first time since the evacuation, Israeli said she will have the emotional strength to attend official ceremonies marking the anniversary of the disengagement. She’s inquired about volunteering at the Gush Katif museum. “Now that we’re here, I’m only now realizing what we went through [in the disengagement], only now I’m able to absorb it and I can start talking about it.”
Israeli and her husband received about NIS 100,000 in damages because they were a young couple living in a rental property. Israeli was pregnant with her first child during the disengagement. They received a discount on the land, like all Gush Katif evacuees, but nothing beyond that. It took almost eight years to free up the permits for their land. The house took eight months to plan and a year to build. But now, the family will mark the anniversary of the disengagement, for the first time, in their own house.
“Suddenly, you feel like you belong to a place,” said Israeli. “Your roots begin to grow. We were like trees torn out from the ground.”
It will be a long time before Israelis’ new town looks like a regular neighborhood and not a construction site, but she’s thrilled with the change. What’s frustrating is that it took so long.
“During the ten years, Israel was always talking about schedules and deadlines,” said Eliaz. “You have to sign before such and such date on your land. You have to pay before such and such date. If you don’t do it by this date, then the contract is void. You have to build before such and such date. Your damages grant is available until such and such date, but after that you won’t get it. There were so many of these timelines. Some were terrible, some were less terrible, but they always spoke to us in frameworks and deadlines. But they told us at the disengagement that we’d get land within two years. The State of Israel didn’t stand by its own deadline.
“Ten years afterwards, there are still so many families without a solution.”