Gush Katif Museum with Shlomo Wasserteil

shlomo-wasserteilOn Monday, I met with Shlomo Wasserteil, the curator and director of the Gush Katif Museum in Jerusalem. I had independently visited the museum back in August, and gotten a sense of the institution and its basic message. For deeper insight into the program of the museum and the message of its founders, I turned to Shlomo.

As I have highlighted previously, the Gush Katif Museum is a small establishment packed with artwork, explanatory posters, video presentations, and objects taken from the former Gaza settlement bloc which tell the story of the long history of Jewish presence in the territory, its modern-day history, day-to-day life, and, especially, the 2005 expulsion and Gush Katif’s destruction. Most of the museum’s materials are presented in Hebrew, although limited English translations are provided and tours in English can be arranged in advance. So too was my conversation with Shlomo entirely in Hebrew; always a good challenge.

Shlomo began by explaining to me what he sees as the purpose of the museum. While it does tell the long history of 3000 years of Jewish history in the coastal territory, the story in focus is undoubtedly its last 30 years. What was Gush Katif, who lived there, and what made it a special place for its residents? Before the establishment of the larger settlements in the bloc, there was nothing but sand dunes at these sites. On this unlikely ground, the settlers built up lively and flourishing communities which produced some 90% of Israel’s organic produce and much of its raw dairy.

Shlomo described the block as a heterogeneous place, in which people of religious and secular backgrounds, long-time Israeli citizens and new olim from around the world lived together as “pioneers”. They were a people who he described as first in agriculture, first in Torah, and first in community. Yet their story ended in tragedy. And to what end? No one in Israel, he asserted, believes that the expulsion from Gush Katif and the withdrawal from Gaza in any way benefited the country.

What did the government hope to achieve through the disengagement? Peace, security, that the world might love Israel more, he suggested with no small hint of sarcasm. Yet in Gush Katif, he argues, there was peace. The 6000 rocket attacks into the Gush from the beginning of the Second Intifada onward as well as numerous other roadside ambushes, bombings, and shootings significantly belie this image. That said, when politicians argued that should Israel withdraw, such attacks would end clearly proved to be false. Also when it was suggested that if Israel would withdraw, a single Palestinian bullet would result in massive retaliation also proved false.

But why should Israelis be living in Gaza in the first place? The Palestinian population is enormous, densely concentrated, and deeply antithetical to an Israeli presence. The inception of Jewish settlement of the territory after 1967, under Yitzchak Rabin’s “five fingers plan,” was designed to disrupt Palestinian population contiguity in the Strip, arguably to enhance Israeli security control. Yet many proponents of withdrawal came to see Gush Katif over the course of the Second Intifada as a strategic drain on Israel’s resources, a constant irritant that required massive numbers of Israeli troops to defend far fewer Jewish residents.

Shlomo’s explanation for Israeli residence in Gaza, however, had nothing to do with security. Indeed, he argued that the withdrawal from Gaza made Israel’s security situation worse, but this is not why Israelis should be there. In part, he argued that Israelis should be living there because they were doing so prior to 1948, both in the city of Gaza and in several settlements including Kfar Darom. Jewish residents were evacuated or expelled however first by the British following the 1929 Arab riots, and during the Egyptian siege of the territory in 1948.

So too should Israelis be allowed to live there as they built up their homes and communities from the bottom-up. This place, for many expellees, is still home. This is especially true for the hundreds of families who are still living in temporary housing in Nitzan, where former Gush Katif residents live in quite poor, densely packed conditions despite Israeli government promises that after evacuation, they would be relocated to permanent housing. I now have the contact details for some residents there and will hopefully be speaking to them in the near future.

The primary reason, however, why Shlomo believes that Jews should be allowed to live in Gaza is that the land is an integral part of Eretz Yisrael. It is a mitzvah to live there, and just as Jews are and should be able to fulfill mitzvat yishuv eretz yisrael elsewhere in the land, whether it be Jerusalem, the Golan, Herzliya, or Tel Aviv, it is no different in Gaza. I asked if Gaza is really such an important place, why are more Israelis not emphasizing this argument whereas they do in places like Jerusalem and the West Bank. He said that someone may take the example of Hebron, that this is a different story. In a sense this is true, yet when compared to a place like Tel Aviv, a new city to which Jews have no biblical or ancient historical ties, so much more so should Jews be allowed to live in Gaza where they do.

He recognizes that there was substantial international criticism regarding Israeli settlement in Gaza as there is elsewhere in the country. This both because the territory has not been recognized as a part of Israel and because of its enormous Arab population. But this is the same problem that Israel faces everywhere in the country where there are Arabs. When Israel conquered the land in 1967, he argues that they did nothing offensive to the residents in Gaza. The military just worked to maintain peace and quiet. Yet when Israel “gave the land away,” it invited catastrophe.

Moreover, Shlomo wonders why the world thinks that it should be so easy for Israel to give away territory. Pointing to the Kuril Islands dispute between Russia and Japan, he argued that for even an enormous country like Russia, they are not willing to give up even a meter of disputed territory to another country no matter how little its importance to national security. Is Israel so big that it should be able to do what Russia apparently cannot?

And what of the demographic argument? If Jews were to return to Gush Katif, would this not merely further enmesh the state in a population which threatens to out-populate it? This, he replied, is only demography. The British argued even before the Second World War that there was not enough room in the country for even one more cat, let alone another Jew, yet Jews still managed to return to the country and their population grew. Israelis believed for nineteen years, between 1948 and 1967, that they would never return to Gush Etzion, conquered by the Jordanians, yet they did. Many did not believe that Gush Katif would be able to grow and thrive because of the surrounding Arab population, yet it did. If Israel will control these areas, let them give the Arabs there limited citizenship. If they want not to be second class citizens, let them participate in the state as Israelis do, paying taxes and serving in the army or national service.

Today, he asserted, many Israelis, both in politics and in the public at large, believe that it was a mistake to leave Gaza. The museum’s guestbook is filled such sentiments: notes and well-wishes from famous Israeli politicians, musicians, artists, and rabbis, as well as numerous international dignitaries. While not all the letters expressed support for reestablishing Gush Katif, they certainly all empathized with the situation of the expellees and regretted the trauma that the withdrawal engendered. It is sentiments such as these that give Shlomo hope that one day Israelis will return to Gush Katif.

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