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April 20, 2014 / 20 Nisan, 5774
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Gush Katif Memories

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Gush Katif is the name of the set of Jewish settlements at the western end of the Gaza Strip. Just recently, Ariel Sharon pushed through his plan for unilateral Israeli disengagement from Gaza, thus ensuring that he will go down in history as part of the Oslo appeasement and capitulation pantheon.

Sharon showed that his concept of democracy differs little from that of a Third World dictator; after calling a Likud national referendum on the plan, which was defeated 60 percent to 40 percent, Sharon declared that Likud voters could get stuffed because he was going to implement the plan anyhow.

The disengagement plan is not conditioned upon anything the Palestinians may or may not do – not even on whether they will refrain from using Gaza for terrorism and rocket attacks against Jews.

What exactly does Sharon think the Palestinians will do in Gaza once the Jews expelled – take up quilting? Since the Peel Plan in 1937, each and every suggestion for partitioning Palestine west of the Jordan River between Arabs and Jews has been met with waves of pogroms and Arab atrocities. Why should anyone expect anything different to result from Sharon’s proposal?

The main victims of the Sharon’s plan will be the Gush Katif settlements, which will be reduced to rubble, or, worse, handed over to the jihadniks and mass murderers.

Thinking about Gush Katif, I am taken back to an earlier, more peaceful time – and my own tour of duty there.

Gush Katif: Winter 1994.

“Fare thee well, O Gaza, for we are parting; Fare thee well, O Gaza, and let’s not see one another any more.”

The words are from one of the more popular songs heard on Israeli radio these days, with ‘Oriental’ melody and instrumentation. The song screams out in high decibels from the ghetto-blaster in the room of the regular soldiers next door in the barracks.

The scene is an Israel Defense Force base deep inside the Strip. In semi-tropical Gaza in February during one of Israel’s worst winter droughts, it has been raining nonstop since our group of reservists checked in to the base for a 22-day tour of duty amid the sand dunes along the Gaza Coast.

Gaza, land of the Philistines, land of Islamic terrorists. One can see Egypt off in the distance. North is Gaza City, a cesspool of Islamic fanaticism and violence, the city in which the chained and blinded Samson brought the house down upon his Philistine tormentors.

We are near the Gush Katif settlements, a collection of Jewish farming settlements populated mostly by Orthodox Jews from the center of Israel and immigrants. Just over yonder behind the dunes sits one of the strip’s seamier refugee camps.

The strip is home to some 800,000 Palestinian Arabs, most of whom would like nothing better than to see us and our ilk buried deep beneath the sand and mud here. The northern two-thirds of the Strip are covered with citrus orchards stretching in all directions, now lush and green from the rains. The southern third is mostly desolate sand dunes.

Our camp is a mound of sand and dirt with a few barracks. We reservists have the honor of serving as guards for the station and its indigenous inhabitants, a group of young men and women doing their mandatory army service, the ‘regulars’ or ‘sadirniks.’ They are 19 and 20.

Reservists are Israeli men who have finished their regular service and continue to spend quality time away from their homes and families in military service, up to the age of 50. The reservists, miluimniks, are mostly recent dischargees in their 20′s. I am nearly twice their age, the oldest man here – eight years older than the commanding officer.

As these things go, this base is considered to be a relatively soft reserve assignment. It is quiet and the surrounding countryside is beautiful and tropical, the sea switching intermittently from stormy to delightful. If one ignored the geography and politics, it could be a hill anywhere along the central California coast. The flora is the same.

In some ways the surroundings look like a photo from a tourist brochure: countless palm and date trees, flocks of sheep and goats tended by Bedouin shepherds and shepherdesses, the occasional camel or donkey cart.

The nights are filled with the croaking of millions of Gazan frogs, enjoying the puddles and pools formed by the recent unusually hard rains. When the sea is calm, it fills with fishing boats, some actually run by Gazan smugglers.

The food in the navy is considered edible, relatively speaking. We sleep in real barracks, although unheated, and my room has no glass in the window. We have real, albeit unheated, showers with real hot water.

By contrast, the infantry who fill the strip consider the navy soldiers to be pampered sissies who actually need food, toilets and hot water to function.

On the other hand, some of the more elite units, like the paratroopers, look down their noses at the infantry because they actually need sleep.

The navy is also considered a relatively civilized branch of the military. The soldiers are well-behaved, and even follow orders – well, sort of, after a fashion, Israeli-style. Our duties are actually quite simple. Guard the place. Just guard. That, and occasionally riding shotgun on convoys racing around the strip.

The night we arrive, the commander spells out our duties. Back in the center of Israel the army has a tough job, he explains. It has to locate the terrorists. We are blessed with a far simpler assignment. Here we do not have to search for the terrorists because we know exactly where they are. He then traces out a 360-degree circle around himself.

Once within the barbed wire, the main features of life are the cold and the boredom. We do day and night watches and patrols, each lasting four grueling hours.

The time passes at an excruciatingly slow pace. In one sense I have lucked out. I am serving with Don, a childhood buddy from Philadelphia who grew up with me in the Habonim youth movement.

Doing reserves with a childhood chum is the army equivalent of winning the lottery. We pass the time gossiping and reminiscing, and when that gets boring, we try to recreate dialogue from old TV shows, tell jokes, and so on. In our drab green uniforms we look like a couple of large middle-aged olives.

It is Friday morning, the Muslim Sabbath. It is the last week of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. I am on the bus heading back to camp after spending nearly 20 hours at home on a short furlough. Suddenly the radio blasts a news flash: there has been a massacre in the Machpelah shrine of Hebron perpetrated by one Baruch Goldstein, an ex-American and a fanatic. The passengers are shocked, none more than me.

In the evening I am dozing when the camp siren goes off. The entire base scrambles to battle positions. The loudspeaker tells us this is not a drill but a real alert.

Groggily I climb into the fortified trench, banging my knee in my half-awake rush. My helmet is on my arm, as there is not a single one in the entire base that fits my head. Don sarcastically tells me to prepare photon torpedoes and phasers. A short while later the alert is canceled. For the next week similar alerts and scrambles will help us pass the time.

The violence is not restricted to the ‘territories.’ Arabs are rioting in Jaffa and Nazareth and even in the Bedouin town of Rahat outside Beer Sheba. (The Bedouins serve in the Israeli army and are usually considered as loyal and moderate as Israel could hope for.)

Israeli Arabs attack soldiers and police with rocks and knives. The hatred in their faces, after two generations of citizenship and democratic education, matches anything that can be seen here in Gaza.

Despite the media myth concerning the ‘brutality’ of the Israeli army as it ‘suppresses’ the Palestinians, the foremost concern of the military seems to be to avoid shooting rioting Arabs, no matter what the provocation.

At least once a day – sometimes more – we drill the Procedures for Opening Fire (POF), a long list of instructions and prohibitions designed for dealing with rioters, attackers, and suspicious persons, starting with warnings and ending with shooting into the air and then, where there is no choice, at an attacker’s legs or car tires.

It is my 43rd birthday today, and I have celebrated by pulling the very worst guard duty possible, the double-whammy. It begins with an evening shift – 6 to 10 p.m. – followed by a 2 to 6 a.m. shift. In between the two shifts one can sleep for maybe ten or twenty seconds at a time.

In the morning I have also been selected for the honor of riding shotgun on one of the convoys. By Murphy’s Law, I conjecture, a convoy on my birthday should get attacked by rock-throwers. Don and I survived the 60′s together. If they throw rocks at us, he notes, at least this will give a new meaning to the expression ‘getting stoned for your birthday.’

Gaza is filled with eccentrics and the bizarre. On Sabbath, the settlers, mostly religious, go for long strolls, oblivious to any dangers. Among them is a group of Burmese – members of a tribe from the jungles of East Asia who believe they are descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel – who converted and live as Orthodox Jews in Gaza. One sees them all over the strip. The men sport yarmulkes and their tzitzit dangle down their sides. Two walk by on Saturday and point at us, probably saying to one another, “That’s funny, they don’t look Jewish.”

Exactly one week has passed since the massacre in Hebron. It is early Friday morning. I have lucked out and got a weekend furlough, good until Sunday morning. The sun has just come up and it will be a warm sunny day.

At 7 a.m. I am outside the perimeter awaiting the bus, carrying my laundry, my M-16 and two or three clips of bullets. There is a mist over the palms and the birds are singing.

With the world outside the perimeter filled with madness, the insanity of army life is starting to seem normal and sensible.

A hawk has landed in the field opposite the watchtower, munching on something. Through the field binoculars I can see it is a chocolate pudding container, a treasure stolen from the scraps upon which our infantry neighbors subsist. Seagulls are bobbing on the gentle swell of the sea.

The warm sun makes it harder and harder to keep my eyes open. My kingdom for a nap. Never mind the violence and terror out beyond the dunes. Forget the politicians. I can make my peace with the filth, the food, the cold. Just let me sleep.

Like in the old Song of the Valley of the pioneers: “Rest comes to the weary, and slumber to the toiler.” Let me close my eyes. Let me curl up in fetal position. Just for an hour or two.

*****

As part of the propaganda juggernaut designed to panic Israelis into withdrawing from the Gaza Strip and leave it judenrein, the Left – a term that these days also means large parts of the Likud – has been blustering about how Gaza was ‘never Jewish land,’ never had Jews living in it, is not at all part of the Jews’ national heritage, and so on.

For example, Israeli Minister of Defense Shaul Mofaz has declared that “Gaza is not at all Jewish heritage.”

Oh, really?

Well, let’s put aside for the moment all those stories in the Bible about Jews spending time in Gaza, from King David to Samson. Let’s talk about the historically unassailable evidence of Gaza being an integral part of the Jewish homeland long before the Gush Katif settlements were set up.

Gaza had a thriving Jewish community until the Jews were ethnically cleansed from Gaza in the 1948-9 war. When you hear the mindless Left blabbing about how ‘ethnic cleansing’ took place in the Israeli War of Independence, understand that the only ethnic cleansing that took place was of Jews expelled from Gaza (and the West Bank), and later of Jews from all the Arab countries.

For some strange reason, the Left has never heard about any of those ethnic cleansings.

The Gaza Jewish community had as its rabbi starting in 1906 one Nissim Ohana, born in Algeria and trained as a rabbi in Jerusalem, who also served later as an important spiritual leader in Alexandria, Egypt, in Malta, in New York, in Cairo (where he was chief rabbi of Egypt), and in Haifa (where he was Sephardic chief rabbi in the 1950′s).

Not long ago the Israeli religious newspaper Hatzofe devoted an article to Rabbi Ohana and to the Jews living in Gaza in the first half of the 20th century. Rabbi Ohana was on warm cordial terms with the Muslim Mufti of Gaza, the article reports, and the two wrote a book together.

There is one other detail worth knowing about this famous rabbi of Gaza: I am married to his granddaughter. In fact, the rabbi is one of the figures discussed in my book The Scout.

So when Shaul Mofaz states that Jews have no heritage to preserve in Gaza, let him speak for himself.

Steven Plaut is a professor at Haifa University. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at steven_plaut@yahoo.com

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About the Author: Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa. He can be contacted at steveneplaut@yahoo.com.


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