Reports From Gaza

THE GAZA STRIP – A large hand-written sign on the first house inside the northern Gaza settlement said Eli Sinai will not fall. Next door, a moving truck was being filled with the neighbor’s possessions. The scene encapsulated the feelings of Jews in the Gaza Strip – resignation and defiance.

Just down the street, a Jew who had been evacuated from Yamit was emotionally telling reporters, in a well-rehearsed speech, how painful the experience is for his family and the betrayal he feels toward the government. He has refused to pack and remains in his beautiful villa with a spectacular view of the Mediterranean. Anywhere else in the world this house would probably be worth millions. Soon, despite the owner’s protests, it will be rubble.

Around the corner, more signs of the trauma of the disengagement, homes covered in graffiti left by the owners expressing their feelings, roofs shorn of their red tiles, and homes partially destroyed. Nearby, Cochi Revivo is packing her belongings in a large shipping container. It is half full. She is leaving before the army comes, but after 18 years in a home she and her husband built with their own hands; it is a got-wrenching experience. The Keren Kayemet has already come and taken away one of her trees - the KKL had money to take one tree from each residence to preserve. Her immediate concern is her birds. She’s already given an aviary to her sister, but doesn’t know what to do with two others filled with canaries, parakeets, and love birds.

Through she is among those leaving without a fuss, Chochi still faces a difficult time because her new home will not be ready for two weeks and her family will have to live in a hotel. Meanwhile, she worries whether her family possessions will stand the searing heat in the container while they wait.

Leaving Eli Sinai, we drive along what will become the border with Israel. Just beyond the security fence and the Negev sand dunes, the smoke stacks of the power plant at Ashkelon are visible. After disengagement, the they will be within range of Palestinian rockets, as will Jewish civilian populations between and including Ashkelon.

In the southern settlements of Gush Katif, the feelings are much different. The Jews in this bloc were among the first to move, initially at their government’s suggestion, to Gaza. Few left before receiving eviction notices from the army, and many were determined to resist, although all insisted they would do so peacefully.

In Netzer Hazzani, Anita Tucker conducts a steady stream of interviews and stays on message. She has lived in her home peacefully without bothering anyone for about three decades and sees no reason to leave. “What’s wrong with tuning sand dunes to something beautiful?” she asks.

Tucker hasn’t packed and plans to use various civil disobedience tactics with her neighbors to obstruct the forced evacuation, but she knows that she’ll be living elsewhere soon and is angry that the government has not arranged, as the settlers had requested, for the community to be moved en masse to new homes so they can remain a community. The government was not as cooperative in such planning with communities that were actively refusing to leave than they were with settlers who said they would leave and did go en masse to new homes. Still, the government insists it will provide homes for all who are evacuated.

Moving on through the Gush, we pass the sign for the hotel that was taken over by Jews from outside Gaza and subsequently provoked a confrontation with soldiers. Now the hotel along Miami Beach is controlled by the army. If you look at a photo of the hotel and beach, you’d think you were at any beach resort in the world. The APCs in the hotel parking lot are a reminder that this is Gaza.

Along the road connecting the settlements is the cemetery where 48 graves remain undisturbed, still being visited by friends and relatives leaving stones on top of the markers. Jews who were murdered lie in peace beside victims of terror. Soon they too will be uprooted and interred in the State of Israel.

If you believe the Jews in Neve Dekalim, the dead will not rest for long because the messiah is coming. Two young women staff a booth in the town square and assure me they are not going anywhere. The only thing missing was the rabbi from Fiddler on the Roof who was asked when Anatevka was to be evacuated if it was a good time for the messiah to come. The wise teacher said it would be a good time, but, in the meantime, he told the villagers to start packing.

Whoever expected Israelis to share the fate of Tevya and his family?

Jerusalem - When George Bush made his only visit to Israel, before beginning his first campaign for the White House, he was given a helicopter tour of Israel by Ariel Sharon. That experience has often been cited to explain the good relationship Bush has with Sharon today, as well as Bush’s understanding of Israel’s security dilemma. Given the influence of that simple activity, one might have thought that a similar approach would be used to educate others.

I didn’t fully appreciate the potential until going on one such aerial tour with other journalists invited by The Israel Project. TIP had invited me to Israel to help provide information to journalists here covering disengagement; however, nothing I could say would have anywhere near the impact of the helicopter tour.

My tour was guided by Miri Eisen, a retired Israeli colonel who had worked in military intelligence and served as a spokeswoman for the IDF. She was exactly the type of person American pro-Israel activists have been asking for – extremely knowledgeable, perfect English, quick-thinking, mild-mannered, and attractive. She gave a straightforward 90-minute explanation of the sites we could see from the helicopter and the strategic issues. She didn’t give opinions or stray into politics beyond references to some of the relevant controversies such as the route of the security fence.

So what did we see?

We took off in a four-passenger helicopter from the Sde Dov airport near the beach in Tel Aviv. The route took us along route 5 east toward the city of Ariel. It was clear and we could see the Samarian hills that roughly mark the pre-1967 border. Within seven minutes, we had traversed the width of Israel at its narrowest point – just seven miles.

We flew as far as Qalqilya, a Palestinian city now bounded on the western side by the section of the security barrier that is a wall. You can immediately appreciate why a wall was built in that section because a major road runs on the Israeli side and Miri noted that it was constructed after a 9-year-old girl was shot by a sniper from the town. On the way, we had passed the large Israeli city of Kfar Saba, which was less than a mile from what could one day be the border of Palestine, easily within the range of even crude Qassam rockets.

We followed the route of the fence south toward Jerusalem and could see where it veered beyond the Green Line near Ben-Gurion airport to push back the distance from which terrorists might fire missiles at civilian aircraft. The tour followed Route 443, which goes to Jerusalem but crisscrosses the Green Line. On the Israeli side, we could see the sprawling city of Modiin, Israel’s fastest growing city. On the other side of the road, beyond the Green Line, is the settlement of Modiin Illit, which is considered a consensus settlement that will eventually become part of Israel.

We flew directly over the Knesset and got a good view of the glittering Dome of the Rock and the Old City. As we turned and headed toward Gaza, we had a good view of the narrow Jerusalem corridor and, in the distance, Ramallah and Bethlehem. We flew over another thriving Jewish community, Ramot, and could see the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea. Through not quite visible, we knew Jordan lay just beyond the horizon.

The helicopter flies so fast you barely take in one site and piece of information before you’re upon the next scenic spot. This reinforces the sense of just how small Israel is. It is also instructive to see the incredible changes in the terrain as you go from city to barren area to agricultural farmland.

The next part of the trip was more scenic than political. We passed Hadassah hospital and Mt. Herzl and could see the 3,000- year-old terracing techniques still used in the Jerusalem hills. Trees planted by the Jewish National Fund in the early 20th century now form beautiful forests.

We flew over Bet Shemesh, another of Israel’s rapidly growing cities, and then into the land of the Bible where David fought Goliath and farmers from kibbutzim and moshavim now tend fields using the most modern agricultural techniques. It is also in this area of the northern desert that Jewish refugees from Arab countries were settled and where development towns were established. Even in the heat of summer when most of the land is more brown than green, the terrain below looks nothing like what one associates with a desert. We flew over one of the most successful development towns, Kiryat Gat, and could see the Intel microchip plant, the only one in the world outside the U.S. Another plant is planned for the city.

As we approach Gaza, we flew over Sderot. The town is sprawling and it is easy to see why it is a target for Palestinian rockets. Qassams do not need to be accurate, they can be aimed in the direction of the city and will inevitably hit something. We were not allowed to fly over the Gaza Strip, but no one minded not becoming the potential target of a Palestinian rocket. We did see a number of checkpoints and major crossings that lead into Gaza, and the skyline of Gaza City was easily visible, as were the red tile roofs of the small Israeli settlements at the northern edge of the Strip.

On the return trip, we flew back up the main road out of the Strip, past the Erez crossing and over communities that will now be on the front lines. One, Nativ Asarah, is where a 19-year-old woman was recently killed by a rocket.

Next, we flew over Kibbutz Yad Mordecai, whose courageous members helped slow the Egyptian advance in 1948. It will now be within rocket range, as will the major power plant and port in Ashdod.

Before turning to the Mediterranean and traveling up the coast past Jaffa and Tel Aviv to the airport, we flew over Nitzan, a town Israel built almost overnight, between May and mid-August, to house 350 families evacuated from Gaza. Many were already occupied and we saw other families in the process of moving in.

The tour truly was an eye-opener. In less than two hours, we’d seen the heart of Israel and now the reporters with me, from Canada and Poland, had a much better appreciation of the geostrategic issues Israel faces.

Calev Ben-David, Director of The Israel Project's Jerusalem media center, said he thought this was the fist time any nongovernmental group had ever sponsored such a tour and, he said, the response was terrific. By the time the IDF stopped them from flying because the area around Gaza was a closed military area, 60 journalists had taken the tour, including representatives of most major international news outlets.

No one expects an hour and a half helicopter tour to change the way Israel is covered in the media, but it will undoubtedly give journalists, especially those new to the region, a clearer perspective. This has a much better chance of affecting news coverage than pelting reporters with criticism or feeding them material they readily dismiss as propaganda. In fact, the aerial tour is in the best tradition of what writers are always taught - show don’t tell. And it is a perspective others should have as well, in particular, members of Congress, who I suspect could be taken on similar tours by AIPAC and other groups.

Jerusalem - Jerusalem is the city of peace, so perhaps it is not surprising that the tens of thousands of people who came to the kotel to protest the disengagement were calm and peaceful. It was more of a prayer vigil than a political demonstration with a rabbi leading prayers over a loudspeaker in a cracking voice that conveyed the feeling of mourning that the crowd felt over the loss of a part of what they consider the Land of Israel.

The other feeling one gets from the disengagement opponents here and elsewhere in the country is the complete sense of denial. Almost on the eve of the evacuation, thousands of Israelis still don’t believe it will take place or that they can stop it by praying for divine intervention as the kotel contingent seemed to believe, or through the obstructionist tactics the settlement leaders are advocating.

Meanwhile, the Jews in Gaza are increasingly reconciled to their fate. The three northern settlements were nearly empty before the last Shabbat and, during an aerial tour, it was already possible to see many in their new homes in Nitzan, the new community built to accommodate 350 of the 1,500 families leaving Gaza.

The majority of Israelis still supports the disengagement and find the tactics of the opponents disturbing, but they also express pride in the strength of their democracy. What they find less acceptable is the intrusion of religion on the decision. While certainly not new or shocking, the statements made by rabbis about the religious implications of the disengagement rub the largely secular population the wrong way, especially when religious authorities called on soldiers to disobey orders to carry out the evacuation. Few soldiers heeded those calls and the sense is that the integrity of the IDF has been retained.

Few people have much faith in the Palestinian Authority’s willingness or ability to keep the peace, but, as was the case of the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, the feeling is the risk is worth taking if if means fewer Israelis are sitting ducks for terrorists and fewer soldiers have to die to protect an area that can be defended from another line.