Ariel Sharon died on Saturday, and his last major political act was to evict my cousins from the Gaza Strip.
When Israel “disengaged” from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005, I was The Economist’s Jerusalem correspondent, and spent quite a bit of my time reporting on how Israel mistreated Palestinians. Two of my cousins were settlers in Gaza who believed it was part of the land God had promised to the Jews. I was gay, atheist, and single; they were strictly religious, married, and had 16 children between them. Aside from our common great-grandfather, we might as well have come from different planets. But they were at the center of the biggest story of the year, I was a journalist, and they were my relatives. So I went to talk to them.
Sharon had always been the settlers’ champion—a hawkish, storied general who, after Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, did everything he could to help the Jewish religious nationalists who wanted to move there. But while they saw settlement as a biblical commandment, for the secular Sharon it was always a strategic one—colonizing the land under Israel’s control to make it more secure. And after the Second Intifada Sharon decided that Gaza, with its 8,000 Jews surrounded by 1.5 million Palestinians, had become a strategic liability. So to the nationalists’ fury, he ordered the settlers evacuated and the settlements razed.
The settlements felt like a bubble outside of normal space and time. After the two-hour drive from Jerusalem—past featureless, low-rise towns and service stations that felt a lot like middle America—I went through the Kissufim army checkpoint reserved for settlers and their visitors. Gaza is largely flat, and as I drove in I could see little other than the dusty road ahead and barbed wire on either side.
Then the road rose on to a low bridge, and suddenly almost all of the central Gaza Strip hove into view. In the near distance was wasteland that the army had cleared of Palestinian inhabitants to create a buffer zone. All that remained were the shells of a few abandoned houses speckled with bullet holes. Further off, Gaza City itself, a grey anthill of boxy, half-finished concrete buildings, shimmered in the heat.
The bridge curved and descended, the wasteland vanished, and I dropped into a gaggle of little Edens. Gush Katif, the main settlement bloc, was a network of communities ranging in population from a couple of thousand to a few dozen. Large houses with sloping red-tiled roofs nestled among lawns, palms, fruit trees, and flowering bushes. Cars moved sedately along the streets, children walked without adults, and drivers and pedestrians waved and smiled at each other; it was like some film about the golden age of American suburbia. Grassy embankments around some settlements kept the Palestinians and their impoverished scrubland hidden from view. Unlike in the hilly West Bank, where Jews and Arabs can often see each others’ homes across the valleys, here it was possible to forget the Palestinians even existed.
It was this idyll, not ideology, that kept the settlers there. Religious Zionists didn’t even agree on whether Gaza was part of God’s original zoning plan for the Holy Land, Gideon Aran, a sociologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told me. What Gush Katif meant to them was largely something more practical: a tranquil, self-contained community with big houses, shared values, and great education for their kids, as opposed to an Israel “of unemployment, dirty roads, high taxes, bad services, [and] road rage,” Aran said. He continued: “They’re not just surrounded by one and a half million Palestinians, but absolutely isolated and protected. And to give up on this land is to return to be a rank-and-file citizen, in a stinking political and civic reality.”
Still, there was a religious subtext to the settlers’ view of themselves. They frequently described Gush Katif in Hebrew as a gan eden, a Garden of Eden. They talked about “waiting for a miracle” to save them. And instead of hitnatkut, or ”disengagement”—the antiseptic, Orwellian term coined by the government and adopted by the media—they called their impending departure a girush, “banishment,” a biblically charged word reminiscent of the flight of Adam and Eve. Except that, unlike Adam and Eve, they believed they had committed no sin.
I agonized over what gifts to bring my cousins. They read only religious books. Toys for the children would have to be vetted for appropriateness, and besides, there were so many of them. Even food or wine would be tricky; since Judaism has no formal hierarchy like the church, one way rabbis establish their authority is by issuing their own rulings on minute points of Jewish law, so a cake or bottle bearing a hekhsher, a kosher certificate, from one rabbinic court might be rejected by the followers of another. The best suggestion I could get, after making phone calls to various other family members, was to bring fresh fruit, which of course enjoys a hekhsher from the Almighty Himself. Before leaving Jerusalem I had bought several pounds of grapes and mangoes.
These turned out to be a good choice. Yael, the wife of my cousin Bnaya, was rushed off her feet and glad of something to be able to give visitors. They lived in a house in the largest settlement, Neve Dekalim, that was mean and spartan by Gush Katif standards, with their seven children crowded two and three to a room. The furniture and decorations were all minimal, and Yael dished up meals of tinned food on disposable plastic plates.
The ice broke quickly. The young children were a delightful and unruly bunch, who after a few stares were climbing all over me. The eldest son, six-year-old Naftali—named after his deceased great-grandfather, my great-uncle—was boisterous, mischievous, and opinionated, bouncing on the furniture and talking non-stop.
As Yael and I discussed the disengagement—I used their word for it, girush—Naftali butted in, displaying his grasp of the settlers’ political arguments against it. “If they make us leave the terror will only get worse because they’ll fire rockets at all the other towns near here,” he said. Then he took me outside to show me where a Qassam rocket or a mortar shell had fallen a few days before, just across the street from their house. It was a pockmark in the tarmac, the size of a couple of fists. Had it not been for the shattered rear window of a van next to it, it could have been a small pothole.