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As Gaza cease-fire holds, ousted settlers call for Israel to hit harder

Shira RubinThe Christian Science Monitor

Neta Baranetz remembers an idyllic childhood in the Netzer Hazani settlement near the Gaza beach, where a tranquil, family-oriented atmosphere resembled more a Jewish-American suburb than a volatile Palestinian enclave. 

Today she lives in a dilapidated trailer home in Nitzan, the largest community of former Gaza settlers only 20 minutes from the Gaza border. When Baranetz was a teenager, the Second Intifada erupted in 2000, and the settlers proudly carried out “our new mission – to absorb all the rockets so that the rest of the Israel wouldn’t be exposed.”

On the nine-year anniversary of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal of troops and more than 8,000 Jewish settlers from Gaza, Ms. Baranetz says that returning land to the Palestinians was “a knife in the back and the heart.” As well as forcibly uprooting Jews, she and other settlers argue that it was a strategic blunder that shattered any hope for peace.

In its latest month-long war with Israel, Hamas has launched thousands of rockets towards Israeli cities including Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. A three-day cease-fire expired Friday, and fighting resumed over the weekend. A new cease-fire took effect today, as Egyptian-backed peace talks continue in Cairo. 

Residents here recall the Gush Katif bloc – the string of settlements between the Palestinian city of Khan Younis and the Mediterranean – as “Paradise,” and view the 2005 pullout as girush, or expulsion, in reference to the biblical story of Adam and Eve's expulsion. 

Today, hundreds of evacuee families are still living in government-issued pre-fab housing units, outfitted with improvised bomb shelters. Their yards are dotted with plastic playgrounds and old road signs that read, “Rafah – Sea."

Fair-weather friends

A former settler of Nisanit, Daniella Shmuel was disappointed to hear of the latest ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. She says her government has betrayed its people by using "tweezers, when an army needs to fight."

“When we get to the shelter I’m shaking uncontrollably like I have Parkinson’s, hugging my son so hard, thinking, if we die, we die together.  But why do we have to live this?” she screams.

Like most of her neighbors, she sees the US and Europe as fair-weather friends, and their censure of Israel’s campaign – that has claimed more than 1,900 Palestinian lives – as irrelevant.

Shlomo Wasertal, who hopes to return to his former Gush Katif home, says that the world’s reaction is merely one episode in a long history of anti-Semitism. “After two thousand years of living in the Diaspora, of pogroms, and then the Holocaust, we are fighting stronger than ever for our homeland,” he says.

He says it was a mistake to pull out of Gaza and that Israel needs to "hold on tightly to Judea and Samaria”  – biblical names for the West Bank, a land currently settled by 500,000 Israelis, and which Palestinians see as part of their future state.

While the conclusion of Israel’s operation in Gaza – the third in just a decade – is still unclear, residents here and throughout Israel are asking: How long until the next war?

Nitzan resident Nofar Damri says that Israel is too timid, and too compassionate, to finish the job in Gaza. “Hamas’ most powerful weapon is the mercy of the Jews,” she says.

“There’s no reason that [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] doesn’t give them the order to do whatever they want, however they want, and then they wouldn’t even have to make an effort – in a few months there would be no Gaza,” she adds, clapping her hands sharply.