Two months passed. One day a 15-month-old baby named Ariel was playing outside his home in the town of Atzmona. Three rockets fell on the town, and one sent pieces of shrapnel into Ariel’s brain and body, injuring him grievously. His mother, hanging laundry nearby, was also wounded.
A picture of Ariel hangs in the museum. Now a big boy, he is still healing from his wounds. “Everyone helped in his rehabilitation,” explains Rabbi Yigal Kirschenzaft, who is also visiting the museum, “and now he’s studying in a regular class.”
For many years Rabbi Kirschenzaft ran the Chabad House in Neve Dekalim, the largest town in the Gush. “I lived in Gush Katif for twenty-four years,” he says simply, leaving no need for further explanation.
“When Yigal first visited here,” Shlomo recalls, “he simply couldn’t conceal his deep emotion. Every picture ‘spoke’ to him, and he couldn’t stop explaining every picture’s background. Locating his house on the aerial picture of Neve Dekalim, he pointed it out, saying, ‘Every house in this picture arouses memories. I knew the map of Gush Katif like the palm of my hand!’ ”
A month before the expulsion, Yigal was injured by shrapnel from a rocket attack. Pointing to the cemetery of the Arab city of Khan Yunis, he explains, “From here they used to fire rockets at us regularly. That morning I was standing in the middle of my town with a friend from Los Angeles, and a mortar fell on the car park and injured us.”
More than 5,000 rockets fell on Gush Katif. Those attacks, along with so many other terror acts and shootings, claimed the lives of dozens of Jews; hundreds more were injured. The dead were buried in the sand of Gush Katif, but even they were dragged out of their repose when the Israeli government carried out the disengagement.
Rabbi Shai Gefen, one of the museum’s founders and directors, gives me the honor of lighting the eternal lamp perpetuating the memory of Gush Katif’s martyrs, whose names and pictures are exhibited in the Memorial Corner.
“Despite all the attacks,” says Rabbi Gefen, “the idealism of the residents would not let them leave. The terror could not convince them to give in, because you don’t give in when this concerns the Holy Land. They always insisted that if they wouldn’t be located there, the rockets would be fired at the population centers in the heart of Israel.”
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“Sometimes visitors surprise us,” says Shlomo. “We might have expected only right-wing people to come. But ever since it opened, the museum has attracted visitors from the entire political spectrum, including many media figures, who cover the museum in a sympathetic manner.”
On the day the government established a commission of inquiry to investigate the treatment of the Gaza evacuees, Yaakov Achimeir of the Israel Broadcasting Authority paid a visit. In an article for the Israel Hayom newspaper he wrote, “Before my visit, I thought I would soon be subjected to a barrage of acrimonious ideological propaganda. But no! What I saw consisted of pictures, facts illustrated by modest graphic design, an exhibition of paintings, and videos of the evacuation of Gush Katif. The museum has the atmosphere of an art gallery, with revealing documentation that leaves one with a most painful sensation.”
An elderly Jewish couple examines the exhibits, groaning audibly. “Where are you from?” I ask. “From Sderot,” they reply. “This is how [then-Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon brought us to this great pitfall. We, who have endured years of Kassam attacks, understand better than anyone else how this entire operation was a bad joke right from the start! Sharon knew the Arabs will never change.”
They find it difficult to endure the museum’s pictures. When they see, in the wing called the Black Room, a picture of soldiers dragging an elderly Jew from the synagogue of Kfar Darom, the woman nearly collapses, crying out, “How could they possibly do this?” Her husband tries to calm her.
Shlomo has his own memories of that terrible time. A week before the evacuation, two New York Times reporters visited him at home. During their conversation they asked, “Haven’t you packed yet?” He told them he hadn’t. “I won’t do the executioner’s job for them,” he said. “Don’t you believe the day of expulsion will come?” they persisted. “No,” he had answered confidently. “I can’t believe it.”
A year later, the reporters came back, this time to his decrepit mobile home at Yad Binyamin. “You said then that you couldn’t believe it,” they reminded him. “What do you say now?” He replied, “Jews answer one question with another. Let me ask you: If you had been told, after the expulsion, that our worst enemies would gain control of the Gaza Strip, would you have believed it?” They had no answer.