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Gush evacuees still waiting for permanent homes

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Dror Vanunu, international coordinator of the Friends of Gush Katif, in a field designated to house a community of Gaza Strip evacuees. Construction on new homes has yet to begin. Ben Harris

NITZAN, Israel – More than four years after her family was ejected from their home in the Gaza Strip, Karen Sarfaty lives with her husband and four of their children in a small pre-fab house in this small town located about midway between the southern Israeli cities of Ashkelon and Ashdod.

Neither she nor her husband have found adequate employment. The compensation she received from the government is running out. Her daughter is only now beginning to overcome the trauma of their forced removal from Gaza. And while the lots allocated to them to build permanent houses are nearly ready, Sarfati says she lacks the money for construction.

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Moshe and Rachel Saperstein, seen here outside their temporary home in Nitzan, are still waiting to move into their home in the new community of Bnei Dekalim. Ben Harris

“I have a lot of anger inside of me,” Sarfaty told JTA. “If [the evacuation] had to be, then it had to be. But at least if it had to be, it should have been done the right way.”

More than four years since the August 2005 removal of some 9,000 Israelis from Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, the national trauma of the forced evacuation is firmly in the past. But for the majority of evacuees, who still do not live in permanent homes, the trauma has not ended.

According to a report last November by Friends of Gush Katif, the American arm of the former Gaza residents’ official representative in Israel, unemployment among the evacuees is 21 percent, and only 12 percent have begun construction on permanent homes. Housing construction has begun at only seven of the 23 sites where the evacuees are to be resettled. At about half the sites, work on permanent infrastructure — the prerequisite for housing construction — has not begun.

The situation is so bad that the Knesset has established a commission of inquiry to look into the matter. In an interim report issued in September, the commission said the government basically had failed in its handling of the evacuees, though it also noted that a lack of cooperation from some in the settler community contributed to the delays.

According to government data cited in the report, only about half the 1,800 or so families had been allocated plots of land to build new homes. Of those, only about 250 families had begun to build as of last August.

Several evacuees noted with disgust that while the government managed to speedily carry out the evacuation — also known as the disengagement — from conception to execution, the rehabilitation has dragged on without any sense of official urgency.

“There was terrible foot-dragging,” says Dror Vanunu, the international coordinator for Friends of Gush Katif.

Evacuees were supposed to be housed in temporary quarters and then moved to permanent dwellings. But in Nitzan, which is home to the largest concentration of former Gaza residents in the country, the community has all the trappings of a permanent neighborhood.

The community has schools and groceries, playgrounds, and hair salons. Many families have upgraded the small, pre-fab housing units known as caravillas with additional rooms and elaborate gardens.

About a mile to the south, where permanent dwellings are to be built, roads have been paved and sewage and electricity lines installed, but construction on housing has not begun. According to Vanunu, the paved roads and absence of pedestrians have made the area a popular destination for high-speed motorcycle racing — so much so that the authorities have broken up parts of the pavement to discourage the practice.

“Look around,” Vanunu says. “Not even one single house was built.”

A spokesperson for the commission of government inquiry said the infrastructure is in place and the onus is now on the evacuees to begin construction of their homes. But Sarfaty says that after more than four years with minimal income, the family lacks money to begin construction and may be forced to sell part of their plot to finance a new home.

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Karen Sarfaty, in the garden of her temporary home in Nitzan, says her family lacks money to build a permanent house. Ben Harris

Rachel and Moshe Saperstein also have not begun construction on a new home. The Sapersteins, who moved to Neve Dekalim, Gaza, in the 1990s in protest of the Oslo accords — or, as Rachel likes to say, to “put our bodies where our mouths were” — live a few blocks from the Sarfaty family in a caravilla with a small garden where Moshe, who lost an arm in the 1973 war and several fingers in a terrorist attack, likes to smoke cigars.

Their future home will be in Bnei Dekalim, a community being built in the eastern part of Israel’s Lachish region. The town eventually is supposed to include a luxury hotel, cottages for rabbis on sabbatical, and a health spa. Infrastructure is being built in the area, but it will be many months before the Sapersteins move into their new home.

“I wish I were 39 so I could build a town, watch it grow, and still have a few years left,” Rachel says. “When you’re 69 going on 70, you should theoretically be living in a place that is built. But I’m excited. I’m going to build a town at 69.”

That sort of optimism isn’t always easy to muster among the evacuees, but Sarfaty says her faith helps her to cope.

“We’re people that believe. We believe that everything is for the best,” she says. “Maybe right now we can’t see it. Maybe in another couple years we will see it.”

JTA

 
 

With wineries and tourism, settlers try to rebrand settlements for Israeli public

_JStandardWorld
Published: 24 September 2010
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The winery in the Jewish settlement of Psagot, in the west bank. Abir Sultan/Flash90/JTA

PSAGOT, west bank – Inside the cool of a cavernous wine cellar stacked high with oak barrels of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, the tensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seem to fade away, even at this Jewish settlement in the heart of the west bank.

This is precisely the message a stop at the Psagot Boutique Winery is meant to convey.

It’s part of a new strategy by settler leaders to “rebrand” settlements, offering tours of settlement communities in a bid to win over an Israeli public they fear may have abandoned them either through apathy or outright hostility.

“We have been feeling that enough is enough. Stop making us look like monsters,” said Yigal Dilmoni, who directs the newly created information office for the Yesha Council, the settlers’ umbrella organization, which is organizing the tours.

“Most people don’t realize how regular our lives here are. People wake up in the morning, go to work and are not engaged in the world of politics,” Dilmoni said.

The tours are meant to strike a stark contrast to what Dilmoni described as the common media image of settlers as violent radicals on the prowl for brawls with neighboring Palestinians.

For the Yesha Council, the significance of not having the Israeli public behind the settlement project hit home in wake of the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, when some 8,000 Jewish settlers were evacuated, some forcibly. It was a traumatic episode for the settler movement — not only because of the evacuation, but also because there was no broad Israeli uproar against it.

It was a lesson, too, in the important role played by opinion-makers — journalists, media personalities, and business leaders — in shaping Israeli society’s views, settler leaders said. This is why the Yesha Council has decided to start bringing such opinion-makers to settlements as the first phase of their attempt to improve their public standing.

Avri Gilad, a well-known Israel media personality, told listeners on a radio show the day after he returned from such a tour that it dramatically changed his view of the settlements.

“I went on a tour that revolutionized my awareness of settlements in Samaria,” he said on the show. “I visited places I was raised to detest. I returned in a state of confusion: confusion about the injustice done to citizens who were called on by the state to settle, given building permits, and then frozen out. I was surprised to meet people with whom I had a lot to talk about, with great warmth and intimacy.”

An earlier public relations strategy, an ambitious project of billboards and advertisements briefly launched in 2008 under the slogan “Judea and Samaria, The Story of Every Jew,” proved successful but too expensive to maintain over the long term, Dilmoni said.

Dilmoni, 40, an earnest and energetic geographer and urban planner by training, believes that no one comes away unmoved from seeing the settler enterprise up close, even if political opinions remain unchanged.

About 320,000 Israeli Jews live in the west bank. They believe the land is their biblical birthright, and successive Israeli governments have supported that notion. But the land also is territory that Palestinians claim as their future state.

The settlements, viewed as illegal by much of the international community and a threat to the country’s long-term survival by critics inside Israel, have become one of the major issues of contention in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

They also threaten to derail the recently relaunched direct peace talks between the two sides. (See pages 15, 16, and 27.) Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has declared that he’d pull out of the talks if Israel did not extend a 10-month freeze on construction in settlements that is set to expire Sept. 26.

The message of the tours, Dilmoni said while driving visitors along a stretch of highway that cut through a valley surrounded by ancient terraced hilltops, is “Come here and see what has been built here and then decide what to think.”

The settlement tours constitute a packed day. They begin early in the morning, end at sunset, and include stops and conversations at a range of settlements — large and more urban ones like Ariel, and smaller ones like Kida, which have sweeping views of the desert unfolding into Jordan. They end with a return to the Israeli side of the Green Line — the pre-1967 border between Israel and Jordan that demarcates the west bank.

In the past, when settlers gave tours of Judea and Samaria — the biblical name for the west bank — the focus was on security and the role of their homes as strategic buffers because they sit on the mountain range overlooking the Mediterranean coastal strip to the west and Jordan to the east.

Now a “softer,” more human-interest spotlight has been purposefully chosen, one in which visitors can do a wine tasting at the winery in Psagot, part of a new multimillion-dollar visitors’ center for the Binyamin region that is set to open over the Sukkot holiday.

During a visit there last week, workers were rushing to finish building a room that will house more than a dozen touch-screen computer terminals offering information about the area. The center is a sleek new complex that also boasts event space and a small movie theater with plush orange seats that will show a short feature film about a young man who, on the verge of leaving the country for a job in London, “returns to his roots” to tend land on a settlement.

The itinerary for the settlement tours also includes home visits. At the edge of the settlement of Eli, home to 700 families, a woman named Eliana Passentin, 36, stands in her backyard overlooking an expanse of sloping terraced hillsides and speaks of her passion for living alongside the history of the Bible.

Explaining the view, she points out an Arab village whose name in mentioned in the Bible for producing especially fine wine. She also points to the ancient site of Shiloh, where the Ark of the Covenant was once housed, providing the central site for Israelite worship for 400 years.

Passentin describes how her home, located in a neighborhood the Israeli Supreme Court recently ruled was built illegally and has ordered to be razed, was built with the area’s history in mind.

“The dining room windows look out onto Shiloh,” she said, “and from the living room we can see the site of Judah Macabee’s first and then final battle.”M.p<

JTA

 
 

Itamar’s mayor comes to Englewood, speaks of Fogel family

First-responder addresses students about massacre, settlement life

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Rabbi Moshe Goldsmith, mayor of Itamar, the west bank settlement where five members of the Fogel family were murdered March 11, shows students a slide show about life in the town. Photos by Jerry Szubin

Rabbi Moshe Goldsmith was in synagogue last month when he saw, he said on Tuesday, “three times, a white light” surrounding Udi Fogel, who was killed, along with four family members, the next day.

“Martyrs of Israel, those who give their lives for Israel, have the highest place in heaven,” Goldsmith said.

The mayor of Itamar, where the Fogels were murdered, shared this and other details about the west bank settlement with the eighth-grade class at The Moriah School in Englewood. He also spoke at several other area schools, including Torah Academy of Bergen County and Ma’ayanot Yeshiva for Girls, both in Teaneck.

A student asked, “Are you scared to live in Itamar?” Goldsmith answered, “People are brave and strong, but they are cautious. They carry guns and lock their doors. The important thing is to go on living and be happy.”

Goldsmith opened his presentation with a video that provided a snapshot of family life in Itamar. It featured residents talking about their work, growing crops like cucumbers, and also showed a recent event for disabled children. One resident said, “This cucumber grows from the very same soil our ancestors grew [crops] on.”

Afterward, Goldsmith told the children, “We are here to show you Eretz Yisroel is alive. You’ve seen stories of tragedy … but when you open a siddur on Shabbat [you will see] HaShem says, ‘I will stop the desecration, take my people and bring them back to our land…, and make the desert bloom.’”

Leah Goldsmith, his wife, spoke to the children about making aliyah. Though she believes it is God’s will that Jewish people are to be “collected back,” she also believes that it requires effort on the part of Jews. “No bird with wings will come to get you,” she said.

She told the eighth-graders that she and her husband first met as seventh-graders growing up in Flatbush. Together, she said, they have built their life in Israel.

“Eretz Yisroel is a real place,” she said. “When we got there it was rocks and empty. Today it is green, and the land is giving its blessing.” She added, “Each of you has an important role, and we welcome you all to come and visit.”

The initial presentation was followed by a slide show. It showed pictures of the Fogel home, which terrorists broke into on March 11, and also images of the family members who were killed: 3-month-old Hadas, 4-year-old Elad, 11-year old Yoav, and their parents, Udi and Ruth.

Goldsmith said that the murderers broke through the electrical fence that surrounds Itamar. Although the fence is monitored by video camera, the attackers chose a blind spot in the camera’s vision, he said, concluding that they were planning the operation and studying the community, possibly “for months.”

The fence is also wired to detect motion. When it senses something, the town’s security force “sends a Jeep,” Goldsmith said. In this instance, the town’s security force did detect motion and security guards did arrive. But they did not see anyone and assumed the disturbance was due to wild animals that live in the area.

Goldsmith stressed the attackers’ stealth and calculation.

“The terrorists locked the door on the inside and began to massacre the family,” he said. He described the widely reported details of the assaults. Afterward, Goldsmith said, “they ran out a window. They didn’t notice the [other] children [who were] sleeping, or they would have killed them, too.”

Goldsmith explained that he is on the “response team,” a security force in Itamar. Members have special radios they use to alert one another to any disturbance.

“I took my rifle and vest and told my wife Leah to lock the door,” he said. “I walk into the house and I don’t want to look,” he said with a sigh.

He did not share graphic details.

After seeing the devastation, he said, “we ran from house to house to make sure everyone is OK.” Since then, he added, “it’s been one long day … even here in America now.”

He stressed his belief that Itamar is on the “front lines” of fighting to protect the Jewish state.

“People say ‘the settlers,’” he said, seeming to imply that that is used as a derisive term. “But we are here for all of you. Because Israel is there for all Jews around the world.”

He also said that Itamar has sustained a disproportionate number of casualties in attacks on Israelis.

“In the last decade, 22 people of Itamar were murdered for the land of Israel,” he said.

One child asked, “Why did [the killers] go to one house and then just leave and not go on to other houses?”

Goldsmith speculated, “They wanted to do this savagely and quickly. If they had made noise, they would not have gotten away.”

Several boys asked questions about the identities of the perpetrators and whether and how they will be caught.

Goldsmith responded, “God willing, Israel has a very strong army and we’ll catch them.”

This reporter asked if this view of the settlers articulated by Goldsmith — as being on the front lines and protecting other Israelis and Jews worldwide — is part of the belief system that enables Itamar’s residents to live in such a dangerous place.

Goldsmith replied, “No doubt in the world now, there is a struggle between good and evil. The same forces that destroyed the Twin Towers are threatening democracy throughout the world. Unfortunately, this evil is against people who want to live in peace. The people of Itamar represent the Jewish people around the world. We have to drive in bulletproof buses.… We are the ones being targeted on the front lines.”

Leah Goldsmith added, “The media depict where we live as some faraway Oz.… Yes, we are on the front lines, but if you look at a map of Israel, we are actually in the center.”

She later told this reporter, “I am proud to be a settler and to use the term,” adding that in her view, the halutzim — pioneers who created small Jewish communities throughout Israel in the years before 1948 — were in a sense “settlers.”

In a one-on-one interview, Moshe Goldsmith told this reporter, “The deed to the land of Israel is the Bible. When push comes to shove, if we are true believers we have to accept the word of the Creator.”

Asked if there is any truth to the claim that some settlers have antagonized Palestinians, Goldsmith replied, “What happens is [that critics of Israel] take sporadic incidents. The fact that they can name them shows how few they are. Arab terrorists who attack Jews are numerous. You can’t compare the numbers.”

He said that when people feel they are under siege, they may act wrongly. But, he stressed, “even people [in the settler community] who become enraged, they don’t murder.”

He added, “We have no problem with people who want to live in peace. We have a problem with people who sanctify death.”

He said that in his view, in the big picture, “We are the ones being abused. We have given blood for peace and Iran, Hezbollah, and [other extremists in the Arab world] continue [to threaten]…. You have to be blind not to see the truth.”

After the event, several students shared their thoughts about the attack on the Fogel family.

“The first time I heard I was in class learning Torah, when the rabbi showed us a video of CNN,” said Jeremy David, 14. “I was shocked. How could I not know this? Who could kill a 3-month-old baby? I felt a mix of shock, fear, and guilt for not knowing.”

“About the Fogel family, it was sad and uncalled for what happened,” said Jason Goldberg, 14.

“It was unfair; they were innocent people,” said Dan Poleyeff, 14.

“Those terrorists are cowards because they went after kids,” added Benny Weisbrot, 13.

 
 
 
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