RAMALLAH, 4 April 2011 (IRIN) - More than five years after 9,000 Israeli settlers were removed from the 22 settlements of the Gush Katif community in the Gaza Strip and from four smaller settlements in the West Bank, most evacuees are still living rough and are yet to rebuild their homes.
"We are still living in the same cramped caravan, about 60 square metres," Chanania Grossman, a 33-year-old IT professional, said. "It is not enough space for our six children and it is not weather-proof."
Grossman's family, former residents of Netzarim in Gush Katif, are among 22 families whose houses are finally being constructed in Ariel, a West Bank settlement of about 17,000 people. The house should be complete in about 18 months. Meanwhile, they pay about US$285 a month to rent the caravan because rental prices for a house in Ariel start at about $700, which they cannot afford.
"We did not receive compensation from the government because we were renting property, and had been residents of Gush Katif for less than a year," said Chanania, "and many of our possessions were damaged or destroyed during the evacuation."
The Israeli government's plan for compensation uses a formula that bases amounts on location, house size, length of occupancy, and number of family members, among other factors. None of the evacuees are obliged to be settlers in the West Bank and have every right to return to any place in Israel. But compensatory housing is only being offered in designated areas and communities have tried to stay together to preserve continuity.
The religiously-inclined Grossman family was lured to Gush Katif by the cheap rents, the beaches, lifestyle and spirituality of the community. Some of the former residents, like Debbie Rosen, had been living there for over 20 years; her husband moved from the Sinai to Gush Katif when Israel removed its citizens from Egypt.
The spokesperson for the Gush Katif "committee", Laurence Baziz, explained: "The Israeli government wanted a Jewish presence in Gaza, and wanted to develop the agricultural community there. The government provided young families with plots of land and small business loans to build agricultural communities. It was easy for young couples to start their lives there and to build businesses."
Israel's settlements are built on land captured during the 1967 Six-Day War and considered illegal by the international community, with the resolution of the issue seen as central to the peace process.
Israel unilaterally withdrew its settlers and military personnel from Gaza in September 2005. The initiative was described by then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a bold move to end the stalemate with the Palestinian Authority (PA). [ http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Peace+Process/Guide+to+the+Peace+Process/Israels+Disengagement+Plan-+Renewing+the+Peace+Process+Apr+2005.htm ].
Many Palestinians regarded the "disengagement" as dictated more by the cost of occupation, and the often lethal friction between Israelis and Palestinians in the area.
Power was transferred to the PA, despite domestic political opposition in Israel, with the expectation there would be some additional transfers of settlement areas in the West Bank. However, support in Israel for "disengagement" stalled after a series of Israeli military incursions into Gaza in 2006, its war in Lebanon, and the takeover of Gaza by the Islamic movement Hamas in 2007.
About 230 of the 1,450 families from Gush Katif (16 percent) have moved into permanent homes, according to a December 2010 report released by the Gush Katif "committee". [ http://www.gushkatif.co.il/Files/Lastwinterin.pdf ]
Unemployment among former Gush Katif residents is running at about 18 percent, while under-employment is 20 percent, said the "committee". Before the withdrawal, unemployment was 5 percent, with 85 percent working in Gush Katif, according to JobKatif, [ http://jobkatif.org.il/english/ ] an NGO created to help former residents rebuild their livelihoods.
While unemployment is much worse in Gaza, the unemployment rate among the evacuees is about double the rate of the general Israeli population. Children have faced adjustment issues and the divorce rate increased, along with financial problems, say former residents. Government compensation that was received, was lower than the value of the land and did not allow farmers to re-establish their farms, according to the "committee".
Shilat Kahalani, spokesperson for the Mateh Binyamin Regional Council which covers 42 Israeli settlements in the West Bank (known as Judea and Samaria to Israelis), told IRIN that many former Gush Katif residents wanted to rebuild their homes and lives in the West Bank, but were prevented from doing so by a building moratorium which was only lifted in September 2010, having been in force for 10 months.
About 380 farms existed in Gushi Katif (of which 240 were operational), but only 28 percent of the owners of agricultural land have resumed farming. Most business owners, too, have not returned to their trade and were not appropriately compensated, according to the "committee".
"Disengaging a community is not something that can be rebuilt easily, and many families never received promised full financial support," Kahalani said.
A June 2010 report [ http://elyon1.court.gov.il/heb/hitnatkut/doc/final_report_eng.pdf ] on the findings of the Israeli "State Commission of Inquiry into the Handling of the Evacuees from Gush Katif and Northern Samaria by the Authorized Authorities", placed blame on the state of Israel.
"The State of Israel failed in its handling of the evacuees," it said. "Five years after, most of the evacuees are still living in temporary caravan sites; the construction of most of the permanent housing has not yet commenced; and the decisive majority of the public structures in the evacuees' new settlements have not yet been built."
"It was a mission of the government to settle people in Gaza," said former Gush Katif resident Debbie Rosen, and "there must be a solution for every settler". She received half the value of her home in Gush Katif, and she and her six children are still waiting for their new house to be built, she added.
Still no peace
Former Gush Katif residents say the Gaza withdrawal did not increase chances for peace, but rather allowed Hamas to gain power, a sentiment echoed by many Israeli settlers living in the West Bank who point to the recent escalation in rocket fire from Gaza to Israel.
Hamas took responsibility for some of the attacks - a first since the end of Israel's Operation Cast Lead in January 2009. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says resolving the issue of Palestinian refugees and dismantling Israeli settlements in the West Bank is essential to the peace process and to regional stability.
The transfer of settlement blocs in the West Bank to the PA will be essential to any final-status peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, and the creation of a future Palestinian state. However, the experience of the Gaza withdrawal has had a significant impact on settlers in the West Bank, where 30 percent of settlements are built on private Palestinian land.
"People in my community are unwilling to be evacuated because on a personal level they witnessed the awful outcomes of such a disengagement on the lives of the Gush Katif evacuees," Binyamin council spokesperson Kahalani said. "And on a larger political level, the disengagement only worsened the situation and security deteriorated - Gaza was taken over by Hamas and now the situation there is even more unstable."
Meanwhile, Israeli settlements in the West Bank, like Har Gilo, are expanding.
Uri Peleg, 44, an ear, nose and throat specialist, his wife Leah and their three children moved to Har Gilo in 2008. Located close to the children's school and Peleg's medical practice in Jerusalem, the low real-estate prices of the growing settlement community were attractive. Land outside the green-line is generally much cheaper.
The couple's new home will be completed in about six months. The moderate, secular couple, raised in Israel, says they feel at home in Har Gilo, with a population of about 480 people.
"Jewish settlements in the Gaza strip (Gush Katif) never thought they would be forced to move and look what happened," said Peleg. "We feel quite certain that Har Gilo as well as all the other communities in the Gush Etzyon [one of the largest settlement blocks in the West Bank] area will not be displaced. However, we are taking it into account that sometime in the future it may happen," he told IRIN.
About 300,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank, and 200,000 in East Jerusalem, according to UN estimates. Both areas are regarded as part of occupied Palestinian territory. About 2.5 million people - Israelis and Palestinians - live in the West Bank.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on 30 March 2011 called on Israel to halt settlement building in the West Bank. But despite pleas from across the international community - including the US, the European Union, and Russia - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approves settlement expansion.
In 2010, Israel built 6,794 Jewish-only housing units on occupied Palestinian land, four times more than in 2009, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.