Relocated evacuees see themselves as refugees
When the bus that took them from Neveh Dekalim stopped in Ashkelon, police escorted the women, children and men into the gas station’s rest room. When they arrived at their hotel in Jerusalem, police escorted them inside. “As if we were criminals,” said Dror Vanunu, director of the Fund for Development of Gush Katif. Vanunu is a soft-spoken man, but his message was sharp, reflecting the general sentiment among the evacuees from the Gaza Strip, who have been put up at 25 hotels around the country.
“The crisis is huge. People feel they put their lives on the line for years, and now they are being repaid by demonization, expulsion and humiliation,” he says. Much of his hurt is directed toward those he calls the secular elite and establishment, who are going on with their lives, as though a tragedy has not befallen the residents of the Gaza Strip. “Look around you, all the volunteers are religious,” Vanunu says, as he surveys the teeming lobby of the Shalom Hotel in Bayit Vegan in Jerusalem, where 70 families from Neveh Dekalim have been put up. “When there’s a tsunami in Thailand, secular people know how to volunteer and it’s a good thing. But I expected, as a resident of Israel, that they would also help us at our time of distress. Where are they? When they don’t agree with us, they disappear?”
The loss of a sense of independence and of his status is no less difficult. “We aren’t used to it. Every weekend we used to send out 10 trucks from Gush Katif with food and equipment for needy people. Overnight we have become needy. There are people here who have become refugees,” Vanunu says.
The lobby of the Shalom Hotel did seem on Friday like a humanitarian aid compound. The hotel allocated a room for volunteers where food and equipment piled up: cakes, fruit, entire meals cooked by volunteers, soap and shampoo, cosmetics, diapers, tubs for bathing babies and playpens, and more. “We are trying to provide people with what they use at home, because they’re not going home so fast,” says Shira, who is responsible for the volunteers.
On the piano in the lobby clothes and shoes are being sorted out. White shirts for the Sabbath in their original packages, new and used children’s clothes of different sizes. The bulletin board in the lobby has signs for volunteer services: laundry, arts and crafts for children, toys, psychological assistance.
“People were dumped here like animals. The administration isn’t taking care of them, only us,” Shira says. Every column or bare wall is covered with illustrated signs with messages of encouragement and support for the evacuees. In the midst of the shock and confusion groups gather together embracing, making plans. The are now directing the struggle they led against the army and the police during the evacuation at the civil arm of government that they blame for their evacuation – the Disengagement Administration (Sela).
Rabbi Yigal Kaminetzky, the spiritual leader of Neveh Dekalim, is considering announcing a seven-day mourning period. On Tuesday at noon the evacuees plan to hold a “refugee march,” with all their possessions from the entrance of the city until the Western Wall. Later they will build a tent encampment, perhaps in Sacher Park in Jerusalem, perhaps somewhere else. The evacuees are clinging to the hope that they will be able to rebuild their communities within the country’s borders, a flower for a flower, a mikve (ritual bath) for ritual bath, as Kaminetzky says. If necessary we will live in a tent city, as long as the community stays together,” says Hannah Picard, a mother of eight from Neveh Dekalim who lived in Shirat Hayam for the last four and a half years. On Friday, Picard was still wearing the orange shirt she tore as a sign of mourning when she was taken out of her home. On the sleeve was a sticker: “I was expelled from Gush Katif.” “This morning I showered and thought of wearing a clean shirt, but I couldn’t,” Picard said.
One of the temporary housing solutions being considered by the Jerusalem Municipality’s welfare department is the Har Homa neighborhood near Bethlehem. The school year is about to begin and children have to sign up for school and kindergarten.