Israel Legal Forum documents negligence in handling Gush Katif evacuees

Despite reports that have reached disapora Jewish organizations that “all is well,” the harsh reality is that the Israeli government is simply not prepared to provide for the 1,700 families evicted from their homes in the 21 Jewish communities of Gush Katif. What is more, official sensitivity to the humanitarian needs of the displaced residents is nonexistent.

At a press conference on August 23 at the Beit Agron International Press Center in Jerusalem, attorney Dr. Yitzhak Meron provided sobering evidence of the failures of the Sharon government in this regard. Dr. Meron is a senior member of the Israel Legal Forum, an organization of 50 Israeli lawyers that worked pro-bono during the period leading up to the disengagement, in an effort to ameliorate the difficulties of the Gush Katif residents, presenting their case to the Knesset, the government and the courts.

The Forum, anticipating the problems, first approached the government last November, shortly after the disengagement law had been passed. They provided ample warning in writing of what might be expected, to no avail.

The government approach to the settlers, says Dr. Meron, was “aggressive” from the beginning, with a total lack of direct communication. The prime minister never went to “look in their eyes,” and ministers in the government who voted for expulsion did so without having visited the communities whose fates they were deciding. (When the Defense Minister finally traveled to Katif to meet with residents there on April 19th, he simply would not answer questions.)

The express desire of most of the communities has been to stay together, wherever they are relocated.

The Forum communicated the importance of this as well. Every significant study (especially those regarding what happened when people were moved from Sinai) indicates that keeping communities in tact helps to prevent post traumatic disorder, which results in serious emotional disability. The government – clearly aware of all of this – still preferred to act in a fashion that would break up communities, dealing with separate families and attempting to place them in different locations. The official approach, in the main, has been to negotiate compensation and then consider the government absolved of further responsibility.

When individuals declined to speak with government officials and Gush Katif leaders requested that the Forum be permitted to formally represent them as communities, the government was not responsive.

The current situation is a vastly complicated one, involving several stages on the way to final solutions to the problems of the evacuees. Monetary compensation will be provided according to a formula involving length of residence in the community, whether the family owned or was renting, and other factors.

The original full package of compensation for all parties – 2.5 billion shekels – was increased to 4.5 billion shekels when the Forum went to court to expose the inadequacy of the projected sum. This larger amount is still 50% less than is needed for families to restore themselves to anything approximating their former positions. Compensation, in brief: for families who owned houses, roughly $700 per square meter, some $50,000 for land, and $1,000 for each year each individual over age three lived in the community; for renters, some $10,000; for certain land owners compensation via new land – a plan not working out successfully.

Government threats – illegal according to Dr. Meron – to reduce compensation of persons who refused to leave voluntarily before August 17 are being challenged by the Forum in court now.

To date, no funds have been dispersed.

Rachel Saperstein, informal press spokesperson for Katif residents, who was present at the press conference, indicated that many people are without ready pocket cash because the banks in the Gush were closed prior to expulsion. A sum of 50,00 shekels (roughly $11,000) for each family, against eventual full compensation, is anticipated shortly. Families for whom total compensation is less than this will be required to ultimately return the difference

All of the current issues regarding housing solutions were raised with the government by the Forum in sufficient time for them to be addressed – had the government wished to address them. This was not the case. A suggestion that 13 settlements be established in the Negev to which whole communities might move was rejected. A similar suggestion regarding Nitzanim, which is a beach-front area between Ashkelon and Ashdod, was similarly thrown out.

As matters stand right now, there is a three-stage process facing the majority of the evacuees. When forced from their homes they had to be placed somewhere. This is the stop-gap first stage, which could have been prevented had the process moved more slowly and with more deliberation. In the majority of cases, the people are currently in hotels.

Three days before the expulsion was to begin, the government announced that 1,000 rooms had been rented and everyone had some place to go. The reality was that 2,500 rooms were required because of large families. Officials had to scour Israel, seeking rooms at the last moment; the Forum assisted in this emergency action. People left their homes literally not knowing where they were going to end up.

Saperstein reports that some large families are sleeping in one room, with mattresses on the floor for children. In a number of instances, people arrived at one hotel, as assigned, only to be told that there was no room and they had to go elsewhere. There is a problem of “competition” with tourists who have booked rooms and are being given priority.

With all of the problems regarding provision of space came other problems: No social workers were sent by the government to help people cope logistically, or psychologists to help with trauma. Other social services were lacking as well. Mundane but very real issues were raised regarding such matters as insufficient food in some of the hotels that offered only two meals a day or lack of facilities for doing laundry. The flood of volunteers who entered the hotels to provide assistance vastly ameliorated some of these immediate problems.

The situation was also ameliorated in part, according to Dr. Meron, by the initiative of families, mostly religious, who did not wait for the government to provide but made alternative arrangements, going to student dormitories and kibbutz guest houses, and setting up tents. None of this absolves the government of its failure to these people.

Families were told that they would have 10 days in the hotels, but two-thirds of the families have no idea yet where they will go next, for the second, temporary housing, stage.

At least three to four months will be required for this to be resolved and there is expectation that the period allotted for remaining in the hotels will be extended. Matters will become easier after the tourist season ends on September 1, but will become difficult again when the Jewish holidays start in early October. Of great concern to these families, most of whom have many children, is what school facilities will be available.

Some small percentage of the families have already entered that second stage of temporary housing. Most notably is this the case with families who signed up for caravans (euphemistically referred to as “caravillas”) in Nitzan (adjacent to Nitzanim). Some 200 families have received their keys, but are encountering vast problems: There are no synagogues, no schools, no clinics and no shops – simply an array of simple housing that is so inadequate that people have to store their large refrigerators and purchase small ones, and store their precious religious books as well. A maximum of 400 such caravilla will be provided here. The government is investing $100,000 in each of the structures, which are all scheduled to be destroyed in four years when residents will move on. There is no adequate information forthcoming as to why the government did not instead invest in more permanent housing.

The final stage of housing solutions will not be completed for some three to four years. At present, a full 90% of the people have no idea how their situations will be resolved.

This contrasts with the fact that when the people were brought out of Sinai only 10% were lacking a final plan on the day of evacuation.

The roughly 200 families who do have a solution at present have been placed – or have arranged to be placed – for the most part as individuals and not as communities. The vast majority of those awaiting solutions still intend to work towards the goal of staying together as communities.

Plans are being made for the 200- 300 families who have signed on independently to live in Netzanim. These plans are tentative however, as the government still must purchase the property on which the houses are to be placed. Those participating were required to sign an agreement saying that they understand if this cannot be accomplished by the end of 2006, the project will be abandoned.

Dr. Meron emphasized that there is no legal basis whatsoever to the government claim that there was no official responsibility in cases where Gush Katif residents refused to deal with authorities.

As the government ordered thousands of people to be removed from their homes, it was obligated to provide satisfactory alternative housing.