"We Are All Settlers"

An Israeli Family in Gaza

Last year, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called for the unilateral withdrawal of all twenty-one Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip by mid-August 2005. These settlements were gradually established and expanded in the years following Israel's occupation of the territory in 1967, eventually becoming home to some 9,000 people.

William Feldman '04, who recently spent a year in Israel on a Fulbright Scholarship, collected an oral history of Jewish settlers throughout Gaza. Here, he relates the tale of one family, the Sroussis, who founded the settlement Moshav Gan Or. Twenty-seven members of the Sroussi family, representing four generations, were spread out over five settlements in the Gaza Strip. He interviewed the Sroussis a few months before the disengagement began.

The Opportunity

In the fall of 1979, Nissim Sroussi, newly married and fresh out of a master's program in agriculture at the Hebrew University, traveled from Rehovot to Jerusalem to the offices of the Jewish Agency. He went just as his brother had gone four years before, just as young patriotic Israelis had been going for dozens of years, to speak with government officials about building a new settlement. Nissim was interested in a moshav, a cooperative for farmers in which individuals owned their own land but lived together communally, something akin to the better-known kibbutz but based on different assumptions about individualism and human nature.

Menachem Begin was prime minister. His right-wing Likkud government succeeded a string of Labor governments that had held power since Israel was founded in 1948. Nissim met with the Jewish Agency not long after the signing of the Camp David Accords, which returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, but during a time when the Israeli government, paradoxically, was promoting the strategic development of the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Gaza Strip.

Nissim, a specialist in arid-land farming and committed to the Zionist ideal of building something from nothing, hoped to settle in the unpopulated Negev, a desert region that makes up almost two-thirds of Israel-proper. "You can go to the Negev," Nissim recalls being told. "We'll give you the property, the land, and you do all the rest. We will not help you with facilities or anything like this. But if you want to go to Gaza Strip or Judea and Samaria or the Golan, of course, we'll help you very much."

The Sroussis: Nissim, front, and, from left, Hagai, Karen, Clila, Ronen, son-in-law Dovi, Oded, and Nirit

The Sroussis: Nissim, front, and, from left, Hagai, Karen, Clila, Ronen, son-in-law Dovi, Oded, and Nirit. Courtesy of Sroussi family.

Help would come in the form of greenhouses, land, and equipment, an offer Nissim felt he should accept. He knew the area from his army service as a paratrooper. He knew that farming conditions in Gaza were similar to those in the Negev, vast stretches of barren sand, and he remembers the beckoning emptiness: "Clean air. The dunes were like gold--pure and empty. And it was a big challenge for us to make this a green place."

The challenge appealed to him, but the decision was complicated. Nissim had promised his wife, Karen, who grew up in the U.S. and considered herself liberal, that they would never live over the Green Line, the pre-1967 border. Karen, though admittedly uninterested in and uninformed about Israeli politics, was not comfortable living in disputed territory. Whether the two actually argued with each other about the principle of moving over the Green Line is unclear. They reflect on their "pact" in much the way my parents debate the circumstances of their first encounter--whether my father, perched atop his 1974 Chevy Malibu, hit on my mother, or my mother, asking the time, hit on my father.

Today, Nissim laughingly acknowledges that there may have been a loose agreement, but quickly reminds me about the nature of living in Gaza at the time. "She didn't know exactly--even I didn't know exactly--what it means to go to live in Gaza. Gaza was empty. All this area, all where we live now [was] dunes and dunes. There was a small town named Gaza, a small town named Rafah, a small town named Khan Yunis. [Gaza was] a small place," he says. "It was like coming to the moon and starting to live." The decision, the two claim, seemed innocuous. Both felt supported by the government and people of Israel. "It wasn't political," says Karen. "It was just an opportunity."

Nissim and Karen began looking for members to join their new moshav, going from synagogue to synagogue to recruit. They drew heavily from B'nai Akeevah, a religious youth movement still active today and known for its connection not just to Judaism but to the principle of Judaism in the land of Israel and inseparable from it. Of the forty people initially interested, thirty-six backed out, some for personal reasons, many after seeing the harsh weather conditions of Gaza, the heavy winds, the scorching heat, and the isolation. But the four who remained became the gar'een--the seed from which the community would spring--and by the summer of 1980, the group had swelled to fifteen.

Paths in Zionism

While the financial support the government offered to the Sroussis was helpful, the true incentive was the idea the money represented--that settling the occupied territories was the most important thing a Zionist could do. The definition Nissim offered for his own Zionism was two-pronged: living in Israel and making decisions with Israel in mind. After his meeting at the Jewish Agency, Nissim says he felt that what was important for Israel "was to build the settlements in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza. So we went."

In this way, his decision was almost identical to a decision his father, Baruch, made more than twenty-five years earlier to settle in the Negev on Moshav Beit Hagedi. "At that time," Nissim says, "the importance of developing this country was to build the moshav and [inhabit] the Negev." Nobody spoke of this need more passionately than former prime minister David Ben-Gurion: "If the state does not liquidate the desert," he would say in 1955, "the desert may liquidate the state."

Although both of Nissim's parents were Tunisian, they came to Israel from different religious and cultural milieus. Devorah, his mother, grew up in Tunis, where the Zionist movement had taken firm hold. She immigrated to Israel with her parents, Zionists themselves, once the state was declared. Baruch, on the other hand, spent his childhood far from the epicenter of Zionism on an island in the southeastern Gabes region. He knew nothing of the movement until the age of sixteen, when he first heard of Israel. "He immediately decided to make aliyah [immigrate]," says Nissim's brother Izzy. Without his parents' knowledge, he left for a machaneh hachshara, a Zionist camp in Marseilles, France, which taught young people skills like farming and Hebrew and served as a launching ground for illegal immigration to British-controlled Palestine.

After a few months in Marseilles, Baruch left with other maapilim (illegal immigrants) on what would prove to be an unsuccessful voyage to Palestine. The British intercepted his ship near Haifa and sent all aboard to Cyprus, where Baruch would live for several months. After the United Nations adopted a resolution calling for the establishment of a Jewish State on November 29, 1947, Baruch made it to Palestine and joined the Palmach, an elite unit in Israel's makeshift army in the years leading up to and during the War of Independence.

"We got from him the spirit, the dedication, the love of this country, the importance of this country," Nissim says. "You cannot describe Zionism more than Palmach and maapilim." Both have become an ineffable part of Israel's founding mythology, like the Boston Tea Party in our own narrative. And they were deeply influential on Nissim and his six siblings, who all settled in either the Gaza Strip or the West Bank. "Zionism is something in your blood," Izzy says. "You should run a blood test on us, and you'll find that we all have Zionism deep in our blood."

Foundations: Karen, holding Hagai, at the Sroussis' home site in Gan Or

Foundations: Karen, holding Hagai, at the Sroussis' home site in Gan Or. Courtesy of Sroussi family.

Karen's route to Zionism was more haphazard. Born in New York in 1956 and raised in California in what she describes as "a very assimilated-American family," Karen never thought about Israel until her senior year of high school. To get away, to do something unusual, something rebellious, she decided to spend a year there studying before college. Karen grew up without a father in the house and with a mother who, though a Holocaust survivor, was a "Yom Kippur Jew," attending synagogue only once a year. When Karen decided to leave home, however, her mother, Lillian, unlike many American parents whose children moved to Israel, was supportive.

Karen's initial impression of Israel was unambiguous. "I hated it, and I went back to the States." She had been at California State University in Los Angles for five semesters when she decided to try Israel again. Why? "I don't know. I just came back. I went on a kibbutz. I did an Ulpan [an intensive language program] there, and I started studying in the university. I don't know if it's because I got married that I decided to stay here. The language the second time around was easier for me. And I began to understand the Israeli society. I was comfortable here."

Map of Israel and the Middle East

Map of Middle East Region

Gail Pheister

Karen began what she called "a long process" of becoming more religious, "not a quick or a fanatic changeover." She experimented with keeping kosher, observing the Sabbath, studying more Torah. "Eventually," she said, "I married my husband, and that helped me change over." While early life in Gaza was difficult even to Nissim, Karen, a fair-skinned California suburbanite, felt like a greenhorn in the nineteenth-century American West: "I used to always joke that I came from the Wild West, and I moved to the Wild West."

Karen spoke to me about her commitment to Israel in very uncertain terms. "I could never say that I was Zionist. I never felt that, sitting here, living here, I was taking some sort of stand. It was just, at the time, a place to live." After pausing for reflection, Karen concedes that perhaps they were pioneers.

"Maybe I can say I am a Zionist. I'm living here, and I've been here for over twenty-seven years now. But at [first] none of that entered my head. It wasn't the reason for us living here."

Romantic Beginnings in Gaza

Before Nissim's group could move into their permanent houses in Gaza, they lived for three years on the army base of Netsarim. The group of fifteen lived as a kibbutz, which meant that instead of farming separately, they worked together, growing tomatoes, melons, cucumbers, squash, eggplant, and flowers. Each family lived in a thirty-square-meter, two-room hut, in which power outages were common and the water supply was unreliable. Nissim's recollection of 1980 sounds like my grandfather's description of 1930--no refrigerators, only ice-chests; no real roads; never-ending hours of work. "I think the community got more hours [of me] than my wife," he jokes.

The group always had at least one or two Arab workers, sometimes as many as eleven or twelve. Karen remembers having tea with them on the Sabbath and inviting them to drop by during the week. Nissim laughs about their friend Abu-Sitah. "I think nobody can understand it. And if I tell it now, it looks like a fairy tale: The babysitter of my daughter was an Arab. He used to come in the car in the morning with his camel, take my daughter--she was five, or four years old--and bring her back at noon, because I was working and her mother was working." For years, even after Nissim and Karen moved away from Netsarim, Abu Sitah would take the children on camel rides around the settlement.

I asked Nissim whether there was any hint at this time of animosity between the Israelis and their Arab neighbors. He said there was not. "I'll tell you something. Even now, if you take all the politics from there and from here, let the people live, we'll live in good friendship."

But the simplicity of relations then, in contrast to the current complexity, reminds me of the famous political cartoon of two Native Americans in San Salvador in 1492. One says to the other, "You think it's okay that these foreigners are coming to live with us?" And the other says, "How bad can it be? It's only three ships."

In 1983, Nissim, Karen, eight other families from Netsarim, and ten new families moved into Gaza's third permanent settlement, Gan Or, "Garden of Light." Twenty-five years later, the Gaza Strip would house twenty-one settlements spread over a third of the land.

Native Gazans

In the intervening years, deaths have defined and punctuated Gan Or's history--and no topic came up more in my oral-history interviews than the souring of Arab-settler relations. For Hagai, one of the four Sroussi children born in the Gaza Strip, now a twenty-four year-old student at the Technion University in Haifa, the violence was inseparable from settlement life.

In 1985, one of Gan Or's residents, Aharon Hazut, was stabbed while shopping in Khan Yunis in what his friend Gershon Perlman, who witnessed the attack, tells me was "the first terrorist incident in Khan Yunis ever." Hagai was four at the time. When he was six, the first intifada broke out, during which tensions expressed themselves mostly in the form of rock-throwing and small-scale vigilante activity.

Oddly, in his interview, Hagai didn't speak about the violence of his childhood. Instead, he remembered an idyllic youth: sliding down the sand-dunes on plastic garbage-container tops, playing basketball, walking by himself around the settlements where, to this day, most doors are unlocked. "[It was] like growing up in a greenhouse," Hagai says, using the Israeli idiom for growing up in a bubble.

Gan Or: a city that includes a lush playground

Gan Or: a city that includes a lush playground
Courtesy of Sroussi family

In March 1993, another Gan Or resident was murdered, this time within the gates of the settlement. Uri Megiddish, a farmer in the moshav, was stabbed seven times by his own Arab workers. Megiddish's death sparked a series of debates that continue today, about the practice of hiring Arab workers. In the immediate aftermath of Megiddish's death, all Arab workers were banned, but, over time, they were allowed to return.

"Agriculture is based on cheap labor," Perlman says. "We tried to employ unemployed Israelis. It didn't work out. Eventually, the moshav brought back in the Arab workers into the greenhouses, but it was decided that people weren't allowed to bring Arab workers into the area of their houses." Megiddish's murder also triggered a move to bring in Thai, Chinese, and Nepalese workers to supplement cheap Arab labor in the Jewish settlements of Gaza.

Karen and Nissim's personal connection to this attack included not only their close relationships with Uri, but also with Abu Sitah. "It was one of his grandsons that stabbed Uri," Karen says. "At that point, my children weren't riding the camel with Abu Sitah"--in part, she says, because growing tensions had made things uncomfortable. "And he also sort of disappeared. No one really knows what happened to him, either. He was an elderly man. I don't think he was any danger. I think he was quite upset that someone in his family was turning against the Jews."

In 1993, after restrictions on Arab workers eased slightly, Zvikah Fixler, another farmer, was stabbed in his greenhouses under bizarre circumstances that speak to the complexities of worker-settler relations in Gan Or, then and now. The attacker's father, another employee, tried to stop his son and stabbed him in the process. In an interview given to the Jerusalem Post, Fixler's wife, Dorit, said she was not surprised the father had tried to help, given his relationship with the family. "Zvikah felt secure with him," she said.

The Story's End

Nissim does not use the word "disengagement" to describe Sharon's plan, because, he says, "it's not 'disengagement.' They are going to throw us from here and that's it." Like many settlers in Gaza, he has not planned for or even thought about the day after evacuation. Doing so, he says, is tacitly accepting defeat. Disengagement will be traumatic for Nissim and Karen on a personal level; they'll have to watch the destruction of roads they saw paved, greenhouses they set up, synagogues, even the cemetery they helped fill, and question what became of their life's work. But they are equally concerned about what this destruction will mean for the State of Israel. "I really believe," Nissim says, "that if it will happen, it's only the beginning of the collapse--of our disappearance."

Gan Or: from a desert, to acity that includes a lush playground

Gan Or: from desert to a city playground, above 
Photo: Courtesy of Sroussi family

When disengagement comes, the Sroussis say, they intend to remain in their house until forcibly removed by soldiers. "I am not going to leave here until the last day," Nissim says, "and even the last day, if they will not come and take me, I'll stay here. Even if everybody will go out, I will stay here."

Hagai, who trained many officers now in the army and who will recognize, he thinks, those present for the evacuation, points out the emotional toll that disengagement will have on the soldiers. "I think very few soldiers could do this order to drag an old woman or a small kid outside. It's not easy."

Shifting focus to himself, he acknowledges the complicated dilemma he expects to feel, though he has trouble even stating it clearly. "I don't think I can stand here and see a policeman or someone dragging my father," he says. "If you ask me if I'll hit a soldier, I won't hit a [Israeli] soldier. But if I see a stupid soldier starting to hit a man with no reason, [he's not] a soldier anymore."

Rethinking Zionism After Gan Or

Drawing a distinction between Jewish settlement fifty years ago and Jewish settlement today--between, for example, the decision Nissim's parents made to settle Moshav Beit Hagedi and his own decision to settle Moshav Gan Or--is arbitrary, according to Nissim. When Sharon announced disengagement, "actually what he did was destroy all our base of Zionism here in Israel. Because what he said [was], Gaza is not ours. We took it by the war, so now we have to give it back. And I said, wait a minute, Tel Aviv, we didn't take it by war? Jerusalem, Haifa, all the country, nobody gave us any centimeter of land for free. We fought for all the soil here. So what's the difference? Why here is not ours, and there is ours? What's the reason, what's the excuse that I'll have to sit in Tel Aviv, to live in a house that used to be an Arab house before we came there, and not in Gaza? What is the basis of my sitting here in this country?" His sentiment is reflected succinctly in a bumper sticker now popular in Israel: Culanu mitnachlim. We are all settlers.

While Nissim did not actively pursue settling over the Green Line thirty years ago, today, Gaza is "ours," he says. "The existence makes it ours. We are here; it's ours. If it's not ours, we have nothing to do here."

"If you come to a place," he continues, "and you start to build it forever, not because you wanted to, but because they sent you, because your government told you this is here forever. So it's yours."

What if Israel took the Gaza Strip in '67 and said, This is not "ours"; would this be different? I ask him. "Yes, of course. Look what happened in '56. They took Sinai, and after a few months they gave it back. It's not ours. We don't want it. No settlement was built there, because they said it's not ours. It's different. It's much different."

Nissim says he is not sure what being Zionist will mean for his children. "They will find a way to impress their Zionism. It depends on the time, on the place, and the needs. I cannot tell you now what will be good in five years for the country. But I know that my son [Hagai], he left his studies last week to stay here and fight against the disaster that is coming to us. I tried to convince him not to do so, but he said, 'What do you think? It's my house, too. I cannot go and continue my life as if nothing happened. I have to do something.' "

Hagai also is uncertain about the form his Zionism will take. "Maybe now, when I [have] finish[ed] the army, now is my test to show how much I am a Zionist. I'm staying here, not going to work someplace else. I'm studying here. I will stay here. I will help build the country. I don't know if I will start a new yishuv [community]. I hope. I don't know. I don't have the idea yet. But [I will do] everything I need to do to prove that I am a Zionist."


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