Dana Zelinger's children used to think their fantasy vacation was staying in a hotel. Not anymore. Now they dream of a living room, a kitchen, private family meal time, a patch of floor to bounce a ball. The Zelingers are one of hundreds of families still stranded in hotels, youth hostels, vacation villages and tent cities seven months after the evacuation of their Gush Katif communities last summer.
What was to be a 10-day stay has turned into an odyssey of uncertainty whose provisional end will only be seen in another few months when the Zelingers and other evacuees from the community of Neve Dekalim will be settled in temporary quarters at Kibbutz Ein Tzurim. Five years down the line, the remnants of their community will be reunited in permanent housing near Kibbutz Amatzia in the sparsely populated Lachish region.
Yet Dana Zelinger is hopeful, and grateful. At least her family has a proper roof over their heads; evacuees from Atzmona are living in the tent city they pitched on the outskirts of Netivot called Ir HaEmunah (City of Faith). Many of those expelled from Elei Sinai are living in Ohalei Sinai, a tent park set up on a lot outside Kibbutz Yad Mordechai close to the northern Gaza border.
Dana, 42 and mother of seven, can be spotted daily in the lobby of the Jerusalem Gold Hotel adjacent to the Jerusalem Central Bus Station, clipboard in hand and phone to her ear. She is the activities coordinator for the 31 families still stranded in what she calls this "luxury cage," making sure that the nearly 100 children in the hotel have their entire afternoon schedule accounted for.
"The hotel has been quite considerate, and the owner has been wonderful to us," says Dana. "But a hotel is a hotel, and it's not made for kids to run around in. There are other guests here as well. So we have to make sure our children are occupied constantly, with lessons, workshops, and outings. Every minute has to be organized. In a normal home, your child comes home after school, flops down on the couch, takes a snack from the kitchen, and ‘just is'. Here, there is no ‘just'. He can't hang out in the lobby, and he can't shoot hoops in the bus station."
Of the 2,200 people who lost their jobs, less than 300 have found work.
Dana, whose youngest is five years old, says that the most immediate difficulty is the supervision. "We all sleep in separate hotel rooms, connected by a public hallway. I have no idea what time my older kids go to sleep, if they are even in their room, or perhaps wandering around downtown Jerusalem at midnight. In your home, you don't always see everyone, but you know where everyone is and which friends come and go."
Dwelling on the destruction of her home is so mind-boggling, says Dana, that she prefers to use her energy to organize the present and hold her family together. Her husband, an electrician, is employed in the south, close to their former town, and now sleeps there half the week. It's not easy caring for her children on her own in such a non-homey setting, but she's grateful that at least he is employed. Of the 2,200 people who lost their jobs on account of the evacuation, less than 300 have found work.
"People assume that after seven months, we've all gotten our lives back together, we've picked up our compensation checks and gone forward," Dana says. "It's not true. Almost no one has received compensation. Unemployment is rampant and savings are gone. No permanent housing solutions have been created yet. And those highly-touted ‘caravillas' that some families are living in, which are really just prefab caravans with fancy red roofs, are also just temporary."
Dana owned a popular stationery store, the regional center for gifts and school supplies. "The compensation we were told we'd receive for the store just about covers the liquidation expenses. Anyway, it's all theoretical because so far we haven't seen a shekel of it."
Why don't Dana and other families strike out on their own? "The main reason we don't leave is because our community is everything to us, and we are trying mightily to hold it together. We were promised a joint resettlement option, and we are holding to that. We lost our land, our homes, our work, our schools. The only thing we have left is the support of our community. A person who doesn't know what this means can't really understand us."
Dana says her most heartbreaking task is working with the forced retirees whose careers came to a sudden end and now, at their age, find it impossible to start over. "For them the hotel, the limbo, is torture. Some have tried to start new businesses, others have been brave enough to try retraining. But the farmers, the store owners, the civil servants... how do you start over at 55? My job is to keep them busy so they don't go out of their minds."
TOO LATE TO START OVER
One of these men is Moshe Shalva, 54. With his long bushy beard, tucked-out flannel shirt and flying tzitzit underneath, he's out of place in the subdued elegance of a hotel lobby. For 23 years, Shalva ran a successful Judaica business in Neve Dekalim. He's still waiting for compensation for both his home and business. The 50,000 shekel ($12,000) advance that families received after evacuation, given to help get families back on their feet in the interim, is being depleted by daily expenses to sustain his large family -- after the mortgage payments on his destroyed home are deducted every month.
One of the ironies of the compensation package is that to get the initial 50,000 shekels, a special government-controlled account has to be opened. Bank Tefachot, Israel's largest mortgage bank, was about to sue the government for the millions of dollars it would lose on defaulted mortgage payments of homes that would no longer exist, until the Treasury determined that the banks would still receive their mortgage payments -- from the evacuees' compensation accounts.
The Shalvas have four generations in the hotel. Moshe's mother, 92 and clear as a whistle, is the oldest Gush Katif evacuee, having lived with her son in Neve Dekalim for 17 years since her husband died. Moshe, father of 12, also has married children and grandchildren in the hotel. A new grandchild was born just two weeks ago. The Shalvas were the last family carried out of Yamit in 1982, following the Camp David Accords, and the very last family evacuated from Neve Dekalim in Gush Katif.
The public buildings in Neve Dekalim were left intact, handed over to the Palestinian Authority. Moshe Shalva's Jewish bookstore is now part of the campus of the Islamic College. So far he hasn't seen any compensation for the business, although he signed an agreement that would entitle him to two-and-a-half years of his last average income. In the meantime, he's trying his hand at various ventures, but nothing seems to go. "At my age," he says, "it's too late to start over."
"Too late to start over" is the distressing slogan for about 80% of the unemployed residents of Nitzan, an evacuee enclave of close to 500 families outside of Ashkelon, comprising rows upon rows of red-roofed caravans standing on what was until last year a watermelon field. Residents are struggling with the $450 monthly rent deducted from their compensation, and many are still paying mortgages on their destroyed homes. Over 100 food packages are delivered to Nitzan every Friday to families who can no longer afford basic staples or chickens for Shabbat. Some have resorted to begging. On Jerusalem's Ben Yehudah pedestrian mall, a middle-aged man in a business suit is in charge of a daily charity collection.
Chaya Rabinovitch heads a privately-funded team of 10 social workers to deal with the families in crisis. "Dozens, if not hundreds, of families are on the verge of collapse, both financially and emotionally," she states. "The men, dejected and hopeless, don't even go out. They just stay home and watch television. It's tragic to see how successful individuals have been reduced to indigent, idle dependents.
"The youth, who are thought to be the most resilient, are in fact in a very fragile state."
"The government didn't take into account that every family suffered a major, life-shaking trauma. They assumed that only one out of ten families would need some sort of help. Seeing they were understaffed, they sent young, inexperienced social workers who were on the other side of the political fence, who had no idea how to deal with such complex issues families were dealing with, such as removal from their homes, financial ruin, and intense feelings of betrayal."
"The youth, who are thought to be the most resilient, are in fact in a fragile state right now," Rabinovitch explains of the 1,200 youths ages12-18. "Many of them are dealing with the effects of terror over the last five years, of friends who died, and the destruction of the only home they knew. And after all that, there is tremendous anger at their parents and at their community leaders. There have been cases of breakdowns, and even suicide attempts. Even with the ‘normal, healthy' kids, in school -- if they actually show up in school -- many have become floaters, have lost their ability to concentrate, and have exhibited inability to stick to tasks."
State Comptroller Justice Micha Lindenstrauss recently gave the government failing grades for its handling of the 1,750 families evicted from their homes in Gaza last summer. Lindenstrauss writes, "The State and its institutions failed in their treatment of the expelled citizens of Gush Katif... We are aware of the fact that the bodies that were established for the evacuation and absorption of the residents had to work in non-routine conditions, but this report shows that there were grave mistakes in their preparation, which caused harm to the evacuees and caused them unnecessary and very painful suffering... It is obligatory to investigate in depth the failures described herein."
Lindenstrauss slammed the Disengagement Authority (Sela) for not preparing adequate immediate temporary housing for the days following the withdrawal and longer-term temporary housing for the period until permanent housing is completed. Sela only prepared seven temporary housing centers, when in fact 31 were necessary. Hotels and campuses were to be used for a maximum of 7-10 days, but seven months later, hundreds of families have yet to be resettled.
Criticism was also leveled at the treatment of the evacuees' property. The report notes that hundreds of families were cut off from their property for many months, due to a ruling that limited families to accessing their containers only once before having to remove them to their permanent homes, which do not yet exist. It also notes that many complaints of damaged or stolen property have still not been addressed because of unresolved disputes between Sela and the Defense Ministry. Justice Lindenstrauss also admonished the residents for not cooperating with the government before the expulsion date.
Despite the hardships and hurdles, one industry that has persevered is Gush Katif's famous bug-free vegetable enterprise. Its two friendly competitors, Chasalat and Glatt Alim, have succeeded in continuing to provide nearly 100% of the Israeli market demand for bug-free lettuce. Yaakov Reicher, Glatt Alim's marketing manager, says it hasn't been easy. Some older farmers felt they just didn't have the drive to reestablish themselves somewhere else. The company has yet to receive compensation and took private investments to reestablish its industry. Domestically, business is almost at full capacity, but they do not yet have the resources to vigorously re-enter the overseas market where Gush Katif's agricultural industry previously netted $100 million annually, 15% of Israel's market.
"We will once again rise from our shattered lives and make the desert bloom."
At Ir HaEmunah (City of Faith), a tent city built on an abandoned factory lot outside Netivot in the Negev, these former Gush Katif residents prefer to look toward the future. Most of them are expatriates of the Gush Katif town of Atzmona, and many of those families were first evacuated 24 years ago from the Sinai settlements. Now they are being evacuated for the third time, but this time they are going willingly – to Kibbutz Shmomriya in the underdeveloped Lachish region, where the government has given them housing from the failing kibbutz to build their new community.
The residents of Atzmona refused to be scattered in hotels around the country, choosing instead to hold onto their community under their own auspices at all costs, even if it meant living in tents and rickety caravans through the last harsh winter months.
Most evacuees haven't yet seen the light at the end of the tunnel, but Zevulun Kalfa, Ir HaEmunah's 'mayor,' explains that a Jew has to look at the best side of his situation, however difficult.
"It's true that the situation is awful, but there are many things that are bigger than me that I can't yet understand. I look at what it was like decades ago, when we had no country at all, and from that reference point I look toward the future. We will once again rise from our shattered lives and make the desert bloom. It will be a different desert, but it's all Eretz Yisrael."
Tax-deductible contributions to help displaced families get back on their feet can be sent to:
ISRAEL: Central Fund for Israel Att: Jay Marcus 13 Hagoel Street Efrat 90435
USA.: Central Fund for Israel c/o Marcus Bros. Textiles Att: Arthur Marcus 980 6th Avenue New York, NY 10018 Tel: 212-354-8700
Donations should be earmarked: "Operation Dignity - Band Aid Fund", to help families scattered around the country; "Operation Dignity - Food Security/Nitzan" to help Nitzan families with basic staples