Former settlers dismayed by Israel’s return to Gaza

FROM THEIR TENTS outside a service station, evacuees from the former Jewish settlement of Elei Sinai in Gaza watch in dismay as Israeli troops reenter territory that was once home.

Explosions in northern Gaza, where hundreds of soldiers and tanks crossed into Palestinian land on Monday, can be heard clearly in the kibbutz of Yad Mordechai, a mere five kilometres from the border.

“I pray we won’t have to reoccupy the areas we were expelled from, but it seems unlikely,” says Etti Harpaz, one of the former settlers.

Elei Sinai, together with 20 other Jewish settlements in Gaza, was evacuated last summer under Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territory amid high hopes of lessening a never-ending cycle of violence.

But the rapid escalation in the Gaza Strip since Palestinian fighters captured an Israeli soldier last week raises bitter thoughts about the reasons why the government evacuated them and razed their homes in Elei Sinai. “What we have here in one day is more than we had in Elei Sinai for over 20 years until we were expelled,” says Sarita Maoz, banging her fist on the table and slamming Palestinian rocket attacks and the reigning tension.

Unlike most evicted Gaza settlers, 35 families from Elei Sinai still have no permanent homes. They live in rented army tents and improvised caravans, waiting for the government to provide them with proper housing.

When a loud screech, followed by a thunder-like explosion, rips through the evening darkness, Maoz stops talking and looks around in despair.

“That was a Qassam,” she says, referring to the make of homemade rockets Palestinian fighters fire almost daily towards Israel.

“All we can do is pray. We have nowhere to take shelter. Just prayers and luck,” she adds.

The hundreds of rockets fired in recent months, despite causing next to no damage, have sown fear among tens of thousands of residents in southern Israel.

Despite launching dozens of air strikes and firing thousands of shells at launch sites, the Israeli army has been unable to curb the incessant rocket fire. “The thought that Palestinians are firing rockets on top of the ruins of our homes is awful,” says Yitzhak Halevi. But since Gilad Shalit was captured, Israel has decided that as well as moving forces into southern Gaza, where the teenage soldier is believed held, the army will move  into  northern  Gaza to put an end to the rocket attacks.

And with Israel now back in Gaza, albeit seemingly for a limited period, former settlers cannot hide their deep sense of frustration and “we told you so” mentality.

“The feeling here is very bad. We paid a very high personal price, but security-wise, the situation is unbearable. We warned this would happen before disengagement,” Maoz says.

“The thought that we said this would happen if we quit without an agreement frustrates me,” says Harpaz, who lost two of her children in a Palestinian attack in October 2001.

The granite stone memorial that used to be in Elei Sinai stands today on the roadside at Yad Mordechai, draped in Israel’s blue and white flag.

The belief haunts everyone that if Elei Sinai and the rest of northern Gaza had remained under Israeli control, with the Jewish frontline settlements acting as a shield, Israel would not have been exposed to rocket attacks.

“We said the [three] communities in northern Gaza should stay to prevent attacks, and now we are under fire,” says Halevi.

Most of the tent-dwellers feel rejected by the government and Israeli society, which quickly lost interest in them after their eviction. At the same time, former residents remain deeply pessimistic about the future.

“I can’t see the end for the situation in the Gaza Strip. I don’t know if it will happen in our lifetime,” Harpaz says.

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