Gaza Settlers Brace for Disengagement

By Nathaniel Popper

Published January 28, 2005, issue of January 28, 2005.
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ELEI SINAI, Gaza — If Israeli soldiers come to remove the Farhan family from their home here in northern Gaza, it will not be the first time the Farhans experience dislocation at the hands of their own government.

The Farhans are among the 5,000 Jewish settlers who were made to leave their homes in the town of Yamit, in Sinai, when Israel gave back the peninsula to Egypt in 1982. Avi Farhan, the family’s patriarch, did not go quietly back then; he held out in Yamit for three weeks and then made a five-day protest march to Jerusalem. But Farhan began anew, building from scratch here among the sand dunes on the northern border of Gaza.

Now the process is beginning again, as Prime Minister Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan moves forward. Despite protests, the process is moving rapidly; last week, Israel allowed armed Palestinian police to be deployed in Palestinian villages near here to prevent rocket fire by terrorists, and more Palestinian police are to be deployed in southern Gaza in the days ahead. A Knesset bill authorizing compensation to evacuated settlers neared final passage this week, after lawmakers visited several affected settlements. If all goes according to Sharon’s plan, the Farhans and all other Israelis in Gaza will be out of their homes by December.

“Everything that happens takes us back,” said Farhan, 58, who lives with 13 children and grandchildren in Elei Sinai, which translates as “Toward Sinai.”

Although Farhan has been through it before, the current plans have been a shock. Farhan was a great admirer of Sharon, who met him during his 1982 protest hike and asked him to start again in Gaza. Sharon’s current about-face is the biggest shock to many settlers.

It was an expansionist version of Zionism, much like the brand Sharon used to tout, that fired Farhan to come to both Yamit and Elei Sinai. Unlike the zealots who symbolize the West Bank settler movement, Farhan’s family members are not particularly religious, and they were not drawn here by the ideal of reclaiming holy soil. Farhan was looking to find space and to create something, he said, “like the first people going to Arizona.”

While the Farhans’ twisting path might not be typical of Gaza settlers, it provides insight into what might lie ahead for dislocated families.

The Farhan house, a sprawling reliquary to a past life, tells much of the story. Lining the driveway is a thick anchor-chain that Farhan saved from one of his fishing boats at Yamit. In the living room sits a plastic bag containing the Israeli flag that Avi carried on his Jerusalem march, and black-and-white photos of Avi holding his crying wife outside their demolished Yamit home.

Today it is Avi’s daughter, Ganit Nave, a mother of two, who speaks most openly about the impact of the last move. Ganit was 10 when her family left Yamit. She still remembers the bulldozers demolishing the town swimming pool and her best friend’s home.

“My father may be embarrassed, but I went to psychological therapy for a long time — almost 10 years — because of Yamit,” Nave said while rocking her four-month old daughter, Noya. A few years after the move, Avi, who has the good looks of an aging soccer star, had two heart attacks.

When her father first established Elei Sinai, Ganit hated it, she said. It was isolated and small, and as soon as she could she moved to the nearby Negev city of Beersheva. She stayed there for four years, but eventually the anonymity of the big city overwhelmed her, and she returned to Elei Sinai. Now she questions that decision.

“I’m sorry I got into this situation again,” she said. “I’m sorry that I got connected to Elei Sinai. I’m even sorry I didn’t stay in Beersheva, because Beersheva I hated. I don’t care if they give it back or don’t give it back. But this is my home.”

Getting to the Farhan home these days requires passing through two guarded checkpoints. Once inside, the cul-de-sacs and red-tiled roofs suggest a suburban development in, say, Arizona.

Elei Sinai is one of three Jewish settlements at the northern tip of Gaza. The three have been less contentious and faced fewer threats than the 17 settlements farther south, deep inside Palestinian territory. But the sense of danger is never far; at the top of the village stands a stone memorial on the spot where two residents were shot by terrorists in October 2001.

The memorial is in the yard of Dror Maoz, who was hit in the leg by two stray bullets that day while huddled in his house with his three children. Rocket and mortar fire have been intense in recent months, and skepticism is widespread that the current cease-fire, announced this week by Hamas, will last.

Still, Maoz, like many others here, insists that the town is no more dangerous than any other Israeli village. “When you find the safe place in Israel, let me know,” said Maoz, whose wife was raised in Yamit. They are among 14 families in Elei Sinai with ties to Yamit.

Maoz and Farhan came to Elei Sinai at a time when relations with neighboring Palestinians were less contentious. Until the outbreak of violence in 2000, Farhan ran a beachside restaurant that catered to and employed Gaza Palestinians.

Farhan was in Sharon’s unit during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and they have stayed in touch since then, meeting occasionally at Sharon’s Negev farm. A few months ago Farhan met with Sharon in Tel Aviv and asked him to put the disengagement plan to a national referendum. Sharon responded tersely, Farhan recalled, that disengagement needed to happen quickly.

Mirroring larger divisions in the settler movement, there are debates within the Farhan family over how to respond to withdrawal. The youngest of Avi’s four children, Ofer, 25, a Tel Aviv nightclub DJ, insists he won’t budge. “I want them to leave me here and protect me,” Ofer said. “But if they’re not willing to protect me, then bring me a rifle and I’ll protect myself.”

If they come to tear down the houses, Ofer said, he will hold Ganit’s older daughter, Noam, 7, on his lap, so television viewers can see. This provoked an angry retort from Ganit. “When the first house is torn down, my daughter will be far away,” she said. “She is not going to see what I saw in Yamit.”

Noam herself told her mother a few weeks ago that she is “willing to give up my house for peace.”

There will be compensation for her house. Initial government proposals would provide between $200,000 and $350,000 per settler family, less than most settlers in Yamit received, though lawmakers indicated this week that the sums would be raised.

But Avi Farhan refused the money in Yamit, and all the Farhans say they have refused to think about the logistics of what will happen after disengagement. Ofer is convinced that even if the plan goes through, eventually Israel will return to Gaza. He talks eagerly about his dream to come back and start a nightclub in the family’s shuttered restaurant on the beach.

Avi says wistfully that if he is kicked out he will move onto a houseboat in the Mediterranean.

“If they destroy it again,” he said, “I’m too old to have the strength to start building again.”

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