Calling Ehud Zinar intense is like calling the Negev dry.

Whippet-thin and darkly energetic, Zinar is a man on a mission, touring North America, speaking to community leaders, clergy and school children about his former hometown, Netzarim, in Gush Katif, Gaza. Armed only with a cell phone, rental car, and short film about Netzarim’s evacuation, Zinar is here, in part, to bear witness to the Gaza strip evacuation (“deportation” is the word he prefers). He’s also sharing with North American Jews his neighbors’ experiences as evacuees and their hopes for a new town of Netzarim to be built in the desert.

The last of 21 towns evacuated from the Gaza Strip, Netzarim residents opted to leave together, as a community. Begun as an army outpost in 1972, Netzarim boasted 80 families comprised of 600 people on the day of evacuation.

“We wanted to leave with dignity,” Zinar says. They also wanted to remain a community, to support one another through this unprecedented disruption of their lives. “Our big problem with the disengagement was that the government wasn’t ready,” reports Zinar. “Our main problem with the government is that they’re not interested in relocating us as a community.”

The government’s decision to work with evacuees as individuals rather than as communities has been widely criticized by several Israeli non-governmental organizations, including the Israel Legal Forum, the social service agency Lema’an Achai, and Jewish Family Services, Israel. According to a report compiled by Arlene Kushner for the Israel Resource News Agency, The Disengagement Authority, SELA, insisted on negotiating compensation only with individual families and refused requests from leaders of Gush Katif communities to allow the Israel Legal Forum to negotiate on their behalf as communities.

In the weeks since the disengagement, it has been widely acknowledged that the Israeli government was ill-prepared for moving the more than 8,000 residents of Gush Katif. A shortage of hotel rooms led to cases in which whole families with several children were moved into one hotel room, with mattresses on the floor, Kushner writes.

No government-provided social workers were available to assist with the trauma of relocation. As a result, distraught, angry, confused and depressed evacuees were left to struggle with pragmatic issues such as where to do laundry and how to access their belongings, which the government put into storage for them.

To put the evacuation in perspective, Zinar compares it with government plans to relocate a “safari zoo.” The animals are to be relocated over the course of five to eight YEARS,” says Zinar. “But the government’s deportation of the citizens of Gush Katif took place in five to eight DAYS.”

Although Netzarim residents were opposed to evacuation, now that it has happened and their homes and synagogue are gone, they “still want to contribute to the state of Israel,” Zinar says. To that end, they’re embracing a mission to the southwestern Negev where they hope to rebuild farms, homes, and businesses. “It’s the middle of nowhere, by the Egyptian border.”

Families from Netzarim are gathering in the city of Ariel where, with the help of faculty from the College of Judea and Samaria, they are working with the government on a solution that will keep the original community together. Preserving Netzarim’s social, educational, and municipal framework will help reduce the trauma that former residents will experience in the coming months, say mental health experts.

The personal toll of the evacuation is still unfolding, notes Zinar. As displaced settlers prepared to spend the High Holidays in hotel rooms, student dormitories, tents and caravans, psychologists working with the refugees reported widespread depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. According to a study conducted by the University of Haifa, nearly all the evacuees, including children, feel pessimistic about their safety and future.

Which is why Zinar’s first stop in Cleveland was The Hebrew Academy in Cleveland Heights to thank Rabbi Simcha Dessler and students in grades 1-6 for the New Years cards they made for the children of Netzarim.

Hearing that 350 children from Netzarim had been evacuated to Ariel and would be staying there in trailers though the High Holidays, “our school immediately went to work, creating original L’shanah tovah cards with a message in Hebrew to the children,” explains Rabbi Dessler, educational director.

“Regardless of where one stands on the disengagement plan, our message to the children (of Netzarim) is that their struggle is our struggle, and their pain is our pain. We’d like to share the burden, to lighten their load, if we can.”

To contact Zinar and the Netzarim Development Fund, e-mail or call 212-933-9537 (U.S.) or 972-54-6366-256 (Israel).

This piece appeared in the Cleveland Jewish News on November 18th, 2005