Palm Beach East
by Judy Lash Balint
28 April 2004
Dekalim (Palm Beach) is less than a mile away from the Jewish community of Neve Dekalim
in the Gush Katif area of the Gaza Strip, and just a few minutes up the beach
from the tiny Jewish beach communities of Shirat Yam and Kfar Yam.
At Palm Beach there
are no sun umbrellas, no crowds and no traffic jams to impede a drive on
a sunny spring day alongside the bright blue waters and the pristine sand.
That's because Hof Dekalim (Palm Beach) is in the Gaza Strip, about 15 miles
south of Gaza City. But Hof Dekalim is also less than a mile away from
the Jewish community of Neve Dekalim in the Gush Katif area of the Strip,
and just a few minutes up the beach from the tiny Jewish beach communities
of Shirat Yam and Kfar Yam.
It's difficult to understand, particularly for anyone who has not visited
the area, the real meaning of Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan. The image
of a few thousand Jews embedded in communities in the midst of millions of
Arabs, guarded by platoons of IDF soldiers are what prevail.
The real picture of 21 thriving, economically productive communities peopled
by idealistic and industrious Jews, separated from the Arabs of Gaza and
living on terrain whose beauty far surpasses that to which East Coast Americans
run every winter, rarely emerges.
Gush Katif is the micro version of the state of Israel. The country is surrounded
by hostile Arabs, as are many Israeli communities, so why the retreat mentality
for Gush Katif? Jewish settlement in the area was founded during the Hasmonean
Period and continued in Gaza City for two thousand years until the riots
of 1929. The remains of the 7th century Great Synagogue of Gaza are supposedly
protected by the 1995 Interim Agreement of Gaza-Jericho.
To confront the reality, make the two and a half hour scenic drive from Jerusalem
that will bring you to the Kissufim checkpoint half way down the Strip. As
in Judea and Samaria, Gush Katif residents travel in and out at all hours
of the day and night, some in protected vehicles, some in regular cars.
There's heavy military presence at Kissufim, despite the fact that Israel
actually disengaged from Gaza 10 years ago in May 1994. According to
the Gaza-Jericho Agreement, Israeli troops withdrew from the area with the
exception of forces protecting Jewish communities. Today, the Kissufim
road has been denuded of the trees and Arab houses that once lined the road
and provided cover for a series of murderous attacks against Jews driving
in the area.
Kfar Darom lies to the north of Kissufim on the main north-south road that
dissects the Strip. The scene of repeated mortar attacks, Kfar Darom is a
main commercial center of Gush Katif (Harvest Bloc). The community's claim
to fame prior to Sharon's retreat plan, was for the bug-free produce sold
in every supermarket and exported worldwide.
At the packing plant, work goes on as if nothing were amiss. New immigrants
work at the conveyor belt, shoving romaine lettuce into plastic bags bearing
a rabbinic hechsher. Since my last visit more than a year ago, a new
row of homes has been built. Thanks to Kfar Darom's openness to resettling
immigrants from the Bnei Menashe, the village has doubled in size over the
past three years, with 80 families now making their homes behind the concrete
barriers protecting them from the neighbors in Deir El Balah.
The majority of Jewish communities in Gush Katif are clustered together about
a mile south of Kfar Darom, miles away from Gaza City and the Jabalya refugee
camp. Unlike many moshavim and kibbutzim in the rest of Israel, Gush
Katif communities are economically self-sufficient. The high level
of production and state of the art technology has produced extraordinary
results. Netzer Hazani farmers lead the nation in cultivation of cherry
tomatoes; at Moshav Katif it's the dairy that lays claim to being one of
the largest and most modern in the country; Atzmona boasts a thriving nursery
that raises houseplants, as well as being the leading producers growing organic
potatoes for export.
Driving between the villages through the sand dunes, with picture-perfect
glimpses of the Mediterranean Sea and stately tall palm trees dotted all
around it's hard to believe that this is a place that experiences regular
shelling or any kind of violence. We drive on roads forbidden to Arabs, with
only the occasional military vehicle in sight. Teenage hitchhikers stand
at the entrance to every village, and the general quiet is broken only by
the scream of an Israeli jet overhead.
Almost every car and the gate to every community is adorned with a blue and
red poster proclaiming the slogan that Gush Katif residents are trying to
impress on Likud voters: Dismantling settlements is a victory for terror.
It's a message that is being carried throughout the country in a systematic
door-to-door campaign mounted by the local council. Armed with lists
of Likud voters, teams led by Gush Katif teenagers and retirees are fanning
out to ask Likudniks to look them in the eye and tell them they're still
going to vote to dismantle their homes. Reports coming back to campaign
central command indicate that the reaction has been mixed. Neve Dekalim resident
Rachel Saperstein, a teacher at the local girls high school, recounts that
several of her students are shocked that some people won't even open the
door to them.
Neve Dekalim, at the center of the group of communities, appears to be command
central. It's here that the foreign journalists descend on a daily
basis to interview English, French and Spanish speakers and local political
figures. Teenage activists man a large blue tent at the entrance to
the town and politely hand out background material, CDs and bumper stickers.
More than 500 families now live in Neve Dekalim in tidy single-family homes
surrounded with gardens bursting with color. There's a central square
with small shops, a zoo, a central library, eight synagogues and an industrial
zone. Two yeshivot and a women's college complement the elementary
and high school educational institutions.
Inside the hesder Yeshiva at Neve Dekalim is an artistic interpretation of
the 1982 destruction of Yamit, a town of 2,000 families in the northeastern
Sinai, given away to Egypt as part of the Camp David peace deal. Then Defense
Minister Ariel Sharon was the one who convinced Prime Minister Menachem Begin
that Yamit would have to go.
Many people from Yamit pioneered settlements in Gush Katif. Among them
was Esther Bazak, today a fiery, auburn-haired grandmother and one of the
founders of Neve Dekalim. Esther explains that almost every house built in
Neve Dekalim has one wall rescued from Yamit. The glass and white ceramic
of the Yamit monument opens up to the beit midrash (study hall) of the yeshiva.
The meaning is clear. "It's destruction and continuation," Esther says.
In the late afternoon sunlight, the courtyard of the two main synagogues
is filled with modestly dressed women of all ages quietly reciting Psalms.
The women have been gathering every afternoon at 5 p.m as their part of the
campaign to prevent the retreat. There's no idle chatter here,
just the quiet whispering of ancient words of comfort and hope.
A similar atmosphere prevails at the Mechina (pre-military training academy)
located in Atzmona, one of the communities closest to the Egyptian border,
a little more than a mile south of Neve Dekalim. Two years ago, five students
were killed at the Mechina when a terrorist lobbed two hand grenades into
a packed classroom during evening study. Eli Adler, the American-born
rabbi who was teaching the class that night, notes that applications for
places at the remote academy have risen significantly since the terror attack.
"Nothing has changed with our boys since then," he says. "We're deepening
our roots here," he adds.
As he speaks to a visiting group in that same classroom, facing the memorial
plaque for his students and the cabinet labeled 'Emergency Equipment,' a
heavily armed student patrols the academy grounds.
The heaviest visible army presence is reserved for the 13 couples and families
living out the fantasy of many a veteran of the 60s and 70s. Who didn't
want to be living on the beach, next to the surf, under the endless sun?
But the residents of Shirat Hayam have more than sun and fun in mind.
Shirat Hayam is a collection of mobile homes, donated by the Norwegian friends
of Gush Katif, sitting directly on the beach across the road from Neve Dekalim.
The first settlers moved in 2001 to old abandoned summer homes last used
by Egyptian officers prior to 1967. The move was a concrete way for
several young people to channel their grief over their friends murdered in
the Kfar Darom terror attack a few months earlier. Today military guard posts
protect their presence there.
No soldiers are needed to guard the nearby deserted Palm Beach Hotel, which
once accommodated foreign tourists and Israelis looking for an idyllic, secluded,
kosher Mediterranean beachside getaway. Doors flap in the breeze, and weeds
cover the open-air dining area, tennis courts and mini-golf course.
A few local students occupy some rooms, but there's a sad air of abandonment
about the place.
It's hard to conceive that this will be the fate of one of Israel's most
productive and naturally beautiful areas. It's even harder to assess the
impact the unprecedented destruction of thriving Jewish communities by a
Jewish government will have on Israelis and Jews worldwide.
Judy Lash Balint is a Jerusalem based writer and author of Jerusalem Diaries: In Tense Times (Gefen). Reprinted by permission of the author.
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