Dividing the Land / Balancing act
FROM HAARETZ ARCHIVES '05
By Ari Shavit
The two farmers who met with Yonatan Bassi in his office in Sderot at the end of last week were distraught. Up until the past few days they did not believe the disengagement plan would be implemented. Even now they find it hard to believe it will happen. It can't be, they tell Bassi, who is the head of the government's Disengagement Administration. The grass is growing, the hothouses are full. The thought that all this will be uprooted is so insane. So inconceivable. However, when orders for produce suddenly stopped arriving at the beginning of the week, the penny dropped. Suddenly they looked up from their work and understood that maybe it will happen, after all. Even though there is no way it can. After all, they put everything they had into the hothouses. Into the saplings. Into the rare species. Into the irrigation system and the packing house. Twenty-five years of hard work.
Around the table sat members of Bassi's team. For months they have been conducting quiet negotiations with the residents of Gush Katif, the Gaza Strip settlement bloc, which is to be evacuated. They meet with them in distant coffee shops and in remote villages, like Shin Bet security service handlers. They try to persuade them, to break down their wall of denial. In the end, though, it is Bassi himself who is conducting the dialogue with the two agitated farmers. He is the one who shows them the maps. Here, this is the alternative land that has been prepared near Kibbutz Zikim, just north of the Gaza Strip. If they only say the word, if they will only fill out the forms, they can start to move the plants on Sunday. And the rare species. And the irrigation system and the packing house. The 25 years they invested in the receding soil of Gush Katif.
Bassi has a round, kind face. In jeans, sandals and knitted skullcap, he talks to the two men as one farmer to another. He suggests that they start slowly, 10 dunams (2.5 acres) at first. They should use the compensation money they will receive for the house to finance the transportation. There is no need to decide now on permanent housing; it is better to wait as the tragedy unfolds, as the emotional storm gathers and passes; it is wrong to make long-term decisions now. But the forms must be filled out immediately. The hothouses. To dismantle the farm. To pack up the house. Within less than four days to move it all inside the Green Line.
Bassi is 57. He was born in 1948 in Sde Eliahu, a religious kibbutz. He is the offspring of an old Venetian family, and believes he is bringing the spirit of Italian Jewry to this job, too. The moderation, the humanism, the recoiling from fanaticism. And everything that exists in the Zionism of the Torah and labor. Everything that was lost in the spoilage of 1967. For the past 20 years, Bassi has held a series of land-settlement posts: deputy chairman of the Beit She'an Valley Regional Council; director general of the Beit She'an Valley regional industrial plants; director general of the Agriculture Ministry in Yitzhak Rabin's government; chairman of Mehadrin, a real estate company. However, since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appointed him head of the Disengagement Administration late last summer, Bassi has been perceived as a traitor by many in the religious Zionist movement. As the evil figure of the disengagement scheme.
Like a leper
Bassi is pained by this ostracism, but does not regret accepting the appointment. He describes the difficulties faced by his six children, the abuse two of his grandchildren have suffered. He talks about beloved members of the kibbutz who cut him off, treat him like a leper. But he clears his throat and with an embarrassed laugh he says that in retrospect, even the ostracizers will understand. As will the boycotters. Because at this time disengagement is necessary. At this time, disengagement is Zionism.
Yonatan Bassi, 40 days before disengagement, is it clear to you what we are facing? Can you tell me what is going to happen?
"The scenario looks very clear to me. In the two weeks before the disengagement takes place there will be an exodus. The exodus from Gush Katif. The people who are now trickling out at a very slow pace will become a flow. Two days before `D-Day,' the flow will become a tidal wave. And then, on August 16, there will be a great silence. In my view, when the Israel Defense Forces enters, it will be met by only about a third of the settlers."
What you are saying is that just as in some wars the IDF found empty Arab villages, at the moment of the disengagement it will find empty settlements.
"Ganim and Kadim [settlements in the northern West Bank] are already outside. They are all on the way to Afula. We have finished paying compensation to the great majority of their residents. Homesh [in the same area] is expected to move to Kibbutz Yad Hannah. The contracts have already been signed. In the northern area [of Gaza] - in Elei Sinai, Dugit and Nisanit - there are about 400 families who, in my estimation, will all leave voluntarily. What remains is Gush Katif. My assessment is that of the 1,100 families there, about half will leave before D-Day and the rest will stay."
Meaning that of 8,000 settlers who are slated for evacuation, only about 2,500 will still be in their homes when the IDF knocks at the door.
"Correct. But even among those who remain there are many who will board the buses without resisting. Many will be in a situation in which the entire contents of their homes will already have been removed. They will eat breakfast, there will be a knock on the door and they will leave. Very few will resist by force."
If that is true, then the trauma everyone is anticipating will not take place.
"Don't get confused: The trauma will be terrible. Even for those who will experience it over a cup of coffee, it will be terrible. But the images will not be what people are concerned they will be. There will be resistance at Netzarim, at Atzmona. And maybe by a few families in Neveh Dekalim. But in principle the population of Gush Katif is one of good people who aren't lawbreakers. The one place where things might be different is in Sa-Nur [in the northern West Bank]. Something very bad is liable to develop there."
What will it look like in actual fact? On evacuation day, will people have somewhere else to go?
"In the first two-three days they will be in hotels. We have prepared a large number of hotel rooms in Be'er Sheva and in Ashkelon. We will sort things out there. If anyone is injured, heaven forbid, during the evacuation, they will be treated. If families are split up, they will be reunited. And then, when the storm passes, whose who have organized a temporary home for themselves will be sent to it. Those who have not will be sent to one of the 600 apartments we have rented or to one of the 600 mobile homes we have prepared."
What about their belongings? After all, those who will not leave on time will leave all their property behind.
"The State of Israel has prepared a shipping container for every family. Those who leave voluntarily will have the container brought to their home so they can pack their things properly. Those who do not leave voluntarily will have their belongings packed by the IDF in the container, which will then be sealed. All the containers will be concentrated at an army base in the south until the people are established in their temporary homes and ask for the container."
What about permanent solutions?
"In the first stage almost everyone will move to interim quarters. But in the end about 450 families will live in Nitzan and about the same number in the Nitzanim communities [all in the Ashkelon region]. About 200 families will live in Ashkelon and another 200 in the Ashkelon periphery. There will be a community at Yad Hannah and a community at Hafetz Haim [a religious kibbutz] and a community at Mavki'im [a moshav] and perhaps at other places as well. A few hundred others will be scattered around the country."
Are there solutions for the farmers, too?
"All told, there are about 160 active farmers in Gush Katif. Only 50 of them will want to continue farming. We have allocated them about 1,600 dunams [400 acres] in Zikim and about 400 dunams [100 acres] around Ashkelon. There will be a solution for everyone who wants to go on farming. At most they will have to travel 15 minutes from their house to the hothouse. That is not terrible. It is not a tragedy."
According to what you're saying, everything is just fine.
"Until not long ago we were under assault. The papers reported that the state is not ready for the evacuation. When I read that I guffawed inside. The state took a giant stride in its preparation for the evacuation. There is nothing that could have been done that we did not do. Look, in the army I was a battalion commander, a brigade commander and a deputy division commander. And I tell you that the IDF did not prepare for any war the way it has prepared for disengagement. The Ministries of Social Affairs, Housing and Education also did incredible work. Contrary to the external image, the State of Israel is a powerful system. It has immense strengths. And I think that the organizing for disengagement is a certificate of maturity for the State of Israel. There are not many democracies that are capable of shouldering a decision like this during peacetime and carrying it out the way Israel is about to do."
Do you yourself have any doubts about the decision?
"There are about 10 million people living between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. Of them, more than four million are Palestinians. If we say that a population transfer is neither moral not practical, we are left with two alternatives: either to divide the land or to turn Israel into a binational state. Therefore, if we want to maintain a country that is both Jewish and democratic, we have to reduce the geography to augment the demography. To bring about a separation between Jews and Arabs along the ridge of a hillside is difficult. I don't see how it can be done. But to leave Gaza is possible. It can be implemented. At the price of removing 1,500 families from the Gaza Strip, we are ridding ourselves of the demographic and democratic responsibility for 1.4 million Palestinians. This act is so necessary, this act is so right, that in my opinion no rational person can oppose it. The disengagement is a move to save the State of Israel. I am perfectly in harmony with it."
Preserving the state
Do you view the disengagement as a Zionist act?
"Zionism is the desire to build a national home for the Jewish people here. If we do not carry out the disengagement, there will not be a Jewish national home here. There will be only one state, which is liable to be Palestinian. Therefore the disengagement is the realization of Zionism. Anyone who wants to preserve the world's only Jewish state must support disengagement. Without it Zionism does not have a future."
But Zionism means planting and you are about to uproot. You are about to carry out a vast act of uprooting.
"When the prime minister summoned me and gave me this assignment, he said that only someone who had built and planted could execute it. Only someone who understands what a house is and what a tree is and what a cow is can do this work. And the truth is that today I am a torn individual. I am totally in accord with the rationale of the evacuation, but the feeling is terrible. Terrible. I was the one who established the Gush Katif dairy when I was director general of the Agriculture Ministry. And now I have to retract my own decision. And the people of the moshavim who own the dairy are not cooperating. Because of the political struggle they are not seeing to the future of the cattle.
"I have organized an alternative dairy in Be'er Tuvia. And I have also suggested other solutions. It is inconceivable that the dairy will go down the tubes. I am begging the people of Gush Katif to see to the cattle. Have pity on the cows. If we do not evacuate the cows on time and if there is no one to milk them on evacuation day, they will die in great agony."
What other issues that you have to deal with do you find especially difficult?
"The cemetery. There are 47 graves at Neveh Dekalim, 47 bereaved families. Of them about a dozen are cooperating with us in transferring the graves elsewhere. Two or three say they will commit suicide on the graves of their children. The rest are torn. They don't know what to do.
"I, of course, have no complaints to anyone. I do not even judge the political leadership, which is putting heavy pressure on the families. Everyone here is a victim. Everyone is caught up in a tragedy. But in the meantime I have to organize a temporary cemetery and make preparations for the moment when the graves will be evacuated, which is not a simple task. The cemetery stands on soft sand and we have to be very careful to ensure that the bones do not get mixed with one another. And we have to be ready for a situation in which people will have to go to a second funeral for their children a week after they are evacuated. It is one vast hardship after another. A person is still experiencing the trauma of the uprooting and is licking his wounds in a hotel or a caravan he has just arrived at - and already he has to rebury his loved one at a new and strange place, which is not of his choosing. The truth is that it is horrific."
`Hamas flag on ruins'
You do not like the idea of demolishing the homes, either. Do you find it horrific, too?
"I do not like the plan to demolish everything. I really do not like that plan. I do not understand why a Hamas flag on a heap of ruins is better than a Hamas flag on a house that is standing. Symbolically, it may even be worse. It is a kind of symbol of destruction. But in my view it goes beyond that. When all is said and done, we wanted the disengagement to carry some sort of message of a budding of reconciliation. We did not want the message to be one of Nakba ["Catastrophe," the Palestinians' term for what happened after 1948]. But here they are going for a bulldozer solution. They are going to send the treads of the D-9 bulldozers over everything. I find that appalling. I find that contrary to history.
"Maybe I am naive. Maybe we need a whole generation of severance so that we can talk with the Palestinians. Still, I hoped that a solution would be found. That the Dutch would pay or that the Americans would buy, so that the hothouses, at least, would remain. So the houses would remain. But now we are going to leave mounds of ruins behind us. We are going to leave behind us an area that will look like an atom bomb was dropped on it. With monstrosities of the twisted steel of the demolished hothouses. With the jutting silhouettes of the destroyed houses. What can I tell you - I think it is terrible. It is a nightmare. This is not what peace looks like; this is what war looks like."
Will the demolition be carried out immediately after the evacuation?
"No. It is a lot worse. It will be done concurrently. To make sure the settlers do not return, the D-9s will advance with the forces and demolish one settlement after another. And the waste will not be removed, of course. It will remain there for generations. The thought of it gives me chills."
But you nevertheless bear the responsibility for all of it. You are the uprooter, the evicter, the demolisher. You are the Sennacherib of Gush Katif.
"Why only Sennacherib? They call me Eichmann, you know. Judenrat. I will tell you sincerely: It could be that one of the reasons I supported the idea of leaving the houses is to avoid the need to destroy lawns, trees, streets and homes. Because I truly am a `creating' individual. A builder. And here, suddenly, I am about to plunge the land back into chaos. And the closer it gets, the harder it is for me. The thought of a bulldozer crushing the garden of a family and the house of a family is a nightmare for me. But I remind myself that in Ecclesiastes it says that there is a time to plant and a time to uproot. And even though there is something shocking in all this, I understand that this act is essential. And I think that my role is to see to it that things are facilitated for the settlers, who are undergoing a terrible thing. I think the cardinal test for the State of Israel today is whether it will have the capacity to embrace them, to understand them, identify with them and rehabilitate them."
Is Israel doing that?
"There are many manifestations of sympathy and empathy. There is a great deal of good will. But, on the other hand, there are expressions of alienation. I was especially outraged by a senior journalist who wrote that he does not understand what the big deal is - after all, it's just moving and he himself has already moved two or three times and it's not so terrible."
Why did that anger you so much?
"Because it's like not understanding the difference between marriage and rape. The act is the same act. But if it is done voluntarily it has one meaning and if by coercion it has the opposite meaning. Not to understand that the evacuation of Gush Katif is totally different from moving in Tel Aviv is to show terrible insensitivity. That insensitivity infuriates me. I went out of my mind when I read it."
It is not your place to be outraged: In your own metaphor you are the rapist.
"No. Absolutely not. The rapist is the nation of Israel. The Knesset of Israel, the government of Israel. My task is to be the social worker who is with the rape victim on the day after, and in the year after, until she recovers. And my task is to remember that even though the move is right and necessary, the residents of Gush Katif are its victims. They are the victims of the contradictory decisions of the government of Israel in the 1970s and in the new century."
What is the mental state of the settlers? Are you able to conduct a dialogue with them, to discover first-hand what they are undergoing?
"They are in a state of vast bewilderment. About half of them are still in a state of denial. Either they do not believe that it will happen or they move between faith and despair. But even among the others, only about 250 families have crossed the Rubicon and submitted forms for compensation. Hundreds of other families are talking to us. But they are afraid. A great many, a very great many, are living a double life. The pressure they are under is really inhuman."
Do you accuse the settlers' leadership for in effect terrorizing them?
"I do not accuse anyone. My task in this episode is neither that of prosecutor nor judge. After all, I am not being expelled from my home. I do not have the right to judge anyone. But there is one thing that bothers me very much: the children. More than anything else I want to spare the children a trauma. I think that a child must not see his father being dragged off forcefully by soldiers. I think a child must not see his father weeping for his home, which has just been demolished. Experiences like that are liable to cause not only a trauma, but also post-trauma. They are liable to cause the children unimaginable harm.
"Therefore, I say that getting children involved in the struggle was a mistake. And the promise the children were given that the evacuation would not take place was dangerous. Even at this late hour I ask the settlers to remove the children from the game. I say to those who intend to resist by force: Fine, resist, but evacuate the children first. Spare the children."
You are not talking like the director general of the evacuation; you are talking like a psychologist.
"The first thing I did when I assumed this post was to study the evacuation of Yamit [the Israeli area of settlements in northern Sinai, which was evacuated in 1982 under the peace treaty with Egypt]. Studies of the Yamit evacuees show clearly that the greatest harm was done to the children. And the greatest harm was done to those who did not prepare - to those who believed until the last minute that it would not happen, those who continued to work their hothouses until they lifted their eyes and saw IDF soldiers standing at the entrance.
"In this I fear that we have failed: We did not succeed in preventing the recurrence of this pattern. We did not succeed in breaching the consciousness of a large number of settlers. That is what concerns me at this time. The resistance will not be great. There is heightened preparedness. But there has been no internalization of what is going to happen. The result is that there will be a terrible trauma and also post-trauma."
The trauma will not be confined only to these 8,000 particular settlers - it will affect the entire religious Zionist movement.
"True. But there is a positive aspect to that, too. Since the Six-Day War, and more intensively since the Yom Kippur War, the national-religious public has undergone a dangerous process. It has rejected the rational element in the face of the irrational. Instead of going with [Prof. Yeshayahu] Leibowitz and understanding that the concept of `am sgula' [a "chosen," "treasured" or "special" people; see Deuteronomy 7:6] is a demand, they went with Rabbi Kook and believed that am sgula is a promise. That we have the beginning of redemption. That we are promised that the third commonwealth will not be destroyed. That we are on track toward the third Temple.
"I think one of the most important results of the disengagement is that it will force the religious Zionist movement to go back to making rational considerations. There will be a great crisis, a severe blow of faith. It is possible that we will see Haredization [a move to ultra-Orthodoxy] on the one hand, and the abandonment of religion on the other. But in the end, I believe that we will return to the correct balance between the rational basis and the irrational basis, between the metaphysical and the physical."
What you're saying is that from your point of view, the disengagement is not only the evacuation of 25 settlements, but also a kind of huge act of education - an attempt to bring about the rationalization of religious Zionism.
"Just so. We pray three times a day, `May we see your return to Zion in mercy.' We want to return to the Land of Israel. But the question of whether it is the whole land of Israel or half the Land of Israel or a quarter of the Land of Israel is not a religious question. Nowhere in our sources, nowhere, does the concept of `not one inch' appear. There is no imperative of `not one inch.' On the contrary: The concept is one of proceeding slowly, of weighing things realistically. Even if you want Gilead [the biblical area east of the Jordan] to be yours in the end, even if you want Damascus to be yours in the end, you are charged with responsibility for the here-and-now. You are charged with responsibility for the reality in which you live. And if after all the horrors of the 20th century five million Jews have at long last gathered here, we all bear responsibility for them. We must not behave wantonly. And we must also not behave immorally."
Has the messianism proved corrupting?
"I think that there are elements in messianism which, if we do not struggle against them, are fraught with terrible dangers."
Has the occupation inflicted a disaster on us?
"Yes. But the occupation was only an instrument. It released from within us the flight from freedom, the flight from rationalism. I am not against messianism. But I am against totalistic messianism. Because totalistic messianism can be lethal. It is liable to bring about a situation in which we will lose this country."
You sound like a prominent student of Leibowitz.
"There is not a line of Leibowitz's writings that I have not read. He influenced me very deeply. But Leibowitz himself was an extreme person. He too was attracted to the edge, whereas I am looking for the middle. And I am trying to say to my friends: Do not go to the edge. Return to the middle. Return to the balance that we lost immediately after the Six-Day War."
Yavneh and its sages?
"Yes, Yavneh and its sages. Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai is my exemplary model. An exemplary model of acting within the reality of the situation, of saving Judaism by operating within the reality. My enlistment in this task and my readiness to absorb what I have been absorbing in the past few months stems precisely from that. I see my role in the Disengagement Administration as a mission. The mission is to reduce the trauma, but also to call on my friends to diminish the metaphysical component in our worldview and to expand the realistic component."
You know full well that reality will not be content with Gaza, that reality will take us to the next stage, to the West Bank.
"The large context of the disengagement plan is two states for two peoples. That is clear. Only the establishment of a Palestinian state will save the Jewish state. But it is clear to me today that it will be impossible to continue along the path in which there is an Arab minority in the Jewish state, but no Jewish minority in the Palestinian state. That is an equation we will not be able to live with over time. It is not fair. It contains an element of Judenrein. Therefore I say today that to the demand for the establishment of two states must be added categorically a demand that a minority of the other nation remain in it."
What you are actually saying is that it will be impossible to return to a move of total uprooting of this kind in the West Bank.
"Let there be no doubt: We are doing an injustice to 1,500 families. I find that difficult to take. Very difficult. I do not see that we have the internal resilience to cause a similar injustice to a far larger number of families in a different place. When I see how hard it is to move 1,500 families, I ask myself how we will move 15,000."
So an additional evacuation in the West Bank is impossible?
"I do not know what is possible and what is not. But I don't think that democracy can withstand an act like that. I don't understand those who speak offhandedly of uprooting 50,000 or 60,000 people. When I try to imagine what Gush Katif is soon going to look like, I shudder. Have you ever been to Neveh Dekalim? Can you imagine Neveh Dekalim laid waste? I get chills. Therefore I think that Israel should allow those Jews who so desire, to remain as a minority in Palestinian territory in the future. It will be far better if there are 20 percent Arabs on this side of the line and 20 percent Jews on the other side of the line. Anyone who forgoes that demand is forgoing the demand for peace."
If so, the disengagement is the last evacuation.
"If the need arises to evacuate, it will be done. If lines have to be shortened, lines will be shortened. But as a comprehensive solution, evacuation is not the right solution. It is not a solution of peace. The right solution is two states for two people with two large minorities."
- Joels W.
- I am an independent research historian and genealogist and currently working on my first book that will explore the Sephardic origin of many Eastern European Jews, entitled EASTERN EUROPEAN JEWS IN SEARCH OF IBERIAN ROOTS. I hope to correspond on this blog with like minded individuals and learn more about the subjects being discussed as well as impart some of my own knowledge to others. Please be considerate and give proper credits when reproducing anything from this site. Thank you.