Keep Gush Katif communities intact

A truly awesome and well-orchestrated military mission has been successfully executed. Intense months of planning resulted in minimum physical casualties on both sides. A crushing force of some 50,000 soldiers and police, provided with sophisticated intelligence reports, removed 1,500 families from Gush Katif. There were 17-member teams assigned to each family. Careful planning was invested to create a psychological momentum that would overcome any resistance.

A mind game of good cop-bad cop was played out; Teams of sympathetic but firm IDF soldiers wearing black baseball caps embroidered with the Israeli flag encouraged the settlers to leave. They were flanked by thousands of massed, intimidating police, garbed in Darth Vader black, a forceful reminder to potential resistors of the force that would be used if necessary. It is no secret that the government authorized endless sums of money to ensure that Operation Yad L’Achim was completed on schedule.

This efficient mechanism evaporated when the now homeless settlers crossed Kissufim checkpoint. Only a 20-strong PR cadre of the Disengagement Authority personnel maintained the previous efficiency. Families found themselves split up between buses that didn’t always succeed in reaching the entrance of small hotels. In many cases, only one authority representative was there to greet the arrivals. That lone figure could not begin to cope with the logistics of the traumatized adults and children, and certainly could not provide for their emotional well being.

Where were the 17 pairs of caring hands to ease them into their temporary living quarters? Where were the government’s hugs to welcome them, as they hugged the soldiers upon leaving their homes? Where were the government mental health teams to screen and intervene in case of crisis or breakdown at the hotels and other sites?

Even as the army continued to coax settlers out of their homes, they could see scenes of the chaos in the hotels that awaited them. What happened to the money, manpower and meticulous planning?

For the approximately 8,000 residents of Gush Katif who had no place to go after being evacuated, the Disengagement Authority initially rented 1,000 rooms. Eight people to a hotel room! One government representative confided that the only tool he received to coordinate the activities of the families was a pen – from hotel management – and a NIS 200 expense allowance.

To compensate for the Disengagement Authority’s lack of planning and concern for the welfare of the evacuees, even lawyers from the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel, an organization opposed to the disengagement, acted as travel agents for the authority, frantically searching for more hotel rooms to house families that were now homeless.

A grassroots army of thousands of mostly “orange” volunteers from communities around the country spontaneously massed at every location rumored to be receiving evacuees. The community of Efrat adopted the Hyatt evacuees, Shaalvim took in 800 Atzmona evacuees and, together with Beit Shemesh, will be covering the NIS 156,000 weekly cost of room and board.

Arriving at hotels and shelters with cakes, drinks, toys and clothes, picking up ice cream on the way, volunteers formed themselves into teams, setting up welcoming tables and playrooms.

Either the government feels threatened, or it can’t comprehend the cohesiveness and strength of communities, which is why it made only perfunctory efforts to find community solutions.

It began by insisting on negotiating with each settler individually, distributing checks and letting each one try to work out his or her own housing solution, making it a near-impossible task to resettle as a community. Ultimately it took the quickest and easiest temporary way out by renting hundreds of unwanted apartments scattered across Ashkelon and other cities.

Why is it that instead of encouraging community empowerment, the government did not make a serious effort to sustain 21 cohesive and caring communities?

So many volunteers, initially confused and without any coordination from above, coalesced into the umbrella group called Lemaan Achai Verai (For My Brothers and Friends), which set up a headquarters in Netiv Meir High School and expanded so rapidly it had to move to Yad Sarah, providing a loving substitute for the Disengagement Authority. It took much longer than necessary to get our operations running smoothly than it would have had there had been any official attempt at organization.

A full week later the adoptive communities are still primarily funding and providing for the families’ most basic needs: laundry is picked up by neighborhood volunteers and returned the same day, childcare is provided by the teenagers, and medical care is volunteered by doctors – most of whom opposed the disengagement plan.

Where are all professionals the government presumably paid to take care of the evacuees during this critical period?

Perhaps the government considers cookies, toys, diapers and toothbrushes to be non-essential items. But what about basic mental and physical health?

On that first day I offered my teams of mental health professionals to the Welfare Department of the Jerusalem Municipality, but was told they didn’t need us. Yet our on-site visits revealed that there were, in fact, no initial official mental health response teams at the hotels.

Lemaan Achai mental health teams were dispatched throughout the country and found themselves having to coordinate both our volunteers and the belatedly arrived government personnel. Indeed, our volunteer trauma expert directed the government psychologist in trauma care.

If one percent of the effort to evacuate the residents of Gush Katif had been invested in the absorption of the evacuated families as communities, as was recommended to the government from the very start, we would not be seeing tent cities springing up in Tel Aviv, Netivot and Yad Mordechai – and that is just the start.

It is crystal clear that the welfare of the Gush Katif evacuees was of minimal interest to the government, and that what was most important was ridding Gaza of its Jews at all costs, including broken communities and broken lives.

The writer is director of social welfare at Lemaan Achai, a non-profit, community-based social services agency.

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