My family recently spent a long weekend in Avnei Eitan, the southernmost religious settlement in the Golan Heights, east of the Kinneret. Avnei Eitan has a very rustic and peaceful feel, especially noticeable in our somewhat isolated tzimmer (small house or bungalow) overlooking the beautiful fields. Despite the heat, the air was fresh, the skies were clear, and I didn’t mind at all being woken up to the cackling of roosters and chickens walking through the garden. On Friday night, those of us who went to shul davened in a tented outdoor minyan, a remnant of the earlier corona restrictions. My children recognized the man who gave an eloquent d’var Torah in between Kabbalas Shabbos and Maariv from a video they had watched as young children about life in Gush Katif. In August 2005, the 8,600 residents of Gush Katif were forcefully removed from their homes, their communities demolished, as part of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. When I told the man how much my kids had enjoyed his video, he told me that although he had traveled to Gush Katif to film the video, he had never actually lived there. In 1982, he had moved to Avnei Eitan from Yamit, an Israeli settlement in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula, which had been sadly given over to Egypt at that time. It seems that settlement ideology flows through his veins.
As it turns out, approximately 20 families evicted from Gush Katif came to settle in Avnei Eitan, among them our hosts. As opposed to other Gush Katif communities that resettled as a unit in a new location, the families that settled in Avnei Eitan came from several yishuvim in Gush Katif: Neve Dekalim, Kfar Darom, Netzer Hazani, Gadid, Ganei Tal, and Tel Katifa. They consider themselves to be the Gush Katif Community of the Golan. They have not remained a separate entity in the yishuv, but rather have integrated themselves into the wider family-like community. Most Israelis view the north as a wonderful vacation destination, and perceive the residents of the north as being perpetually on vacation. However, living over the green line or in a location distant from the center of the country is a great sacrifice and a form of mesirut nefesh that the former residents of Gush Katif believe in and are accustomed to. Those who moved to Avnei Eitan made a conscious choice to continue their lives of mesirut nefesh by living in the north.
Besides the families who were removed from Gush Katif, there are families who have never actually lived there; however, they passionately identified with the cause. During the summer of 2005, they could not live their lives as usual while whole communities were suffering greatly. They felt the pain of those who were losing their jobs, schools, homes, shuls, and community life as they knew it in one fell swoop. Besides the Neila-style tefilot that took place at the Kotel three times a day for six weeks, and besides the formation of a human chain with people holding hands from Gush Katif all the way to the Kotel in an expression of solidarity and support, these families desperately wanted to help in some tangible way. So, they picked up and moved their entire families to Gush Katif for the final seven weeks. There were Yeshivot, Ulpanot (girls’ high schools), and Midrashot (institutes of study for women) that moved their student body to Gush Katif and continued to learn during what in normal times would have been summer vacation. Some of them went knocking door to door, asking the residents what their plans were and how they could be of help to them. Except for the intermittent sirens and the knowledge that this physically and spiritually beautiful atmosphere would soon come to a very sorrowful end, these “temporary residents” had a very uplifting experience. They still look back at that period of time as one filled with strength, achdus, and emunah.
It is now the sixteenth anniversary of the story of Gush Katif. While the country still suffers from the fallout of the events of that fateful summer, the families who once called Gush Katif “home,” obviously do so even more. Having heard about the many difficulties the families had faced over the years, I was happy to see that those who settled in Avnei Eitan seem to have recovered to a great degree and have gone on to rebuild their lives. While they definitely still feel they were betrayed and abandoned, they don’t let those feelings stand in the way of living their lives. There is one woman who was injured in a terror attack in Kfar Darom many years ago when she was a child. She is now married, raising three children, and works as a nurse in the community. Some of the families rebuilt their occupations with their own hands using the knowledge, skills, and experience from their lives in Gush Katif. Many continue to work in agriculture, growing oranges, nectarines, peppers, bug-free leafy vegetables, broccoli, and cauliflower. Some opened a winery and an olive press and are involved in export. Others opened businesses near their homes: tzimmerim (bungalow rentals), clothing stores, art galleries, a ceramic studio, and tourist attractions (archery, berry picking, jeep tours, and SUV rentals).
About 10 years ago, the residents of Avnei Eitan established The Gush Katif Legacy Center, describing the touching story of Gush Katif. While the museum tells of the tragedy and hardship of the withdrawal from Gush Katif, the focus is more on the strength and power that the evacuees found within themselves which they used and continue to use to rehabilitate their lives. Anyone who would like to feel the positive atmosphere and help perpetuate the legacy of Gush Katif is encouraged to visit the museum and take part in its mission. It is very inspiring to see how the Gush Katif families in Avnei Eitan were able to pick themselves up, roll up their sleeves, and rebuild what was lost. Not only did they survive the traumatic events they experienced, they are thriving and leading meaningful and contributory lives.
Suzie (nee Schapiro) Steinberg grew up in Kew Gardens Hills. She works as a social worker and lives with her husband and children in Ramat Beit Shemesh.