Photo Credit: Elie Poltorak
Elie Poltorak teaching at the yeshiva he started in Neve Dekalim shortly before the Disengagement.

Fifteen years ago, Ariel Sharon, facing indictment along with his sons for far-reaching corruption, decided to protect himself from prosecution by rendering Gaza and the northern Shomron Judenrein. Once he announced his treasonous plan, the Leftist elites of Israeli society – in government, media, the judicial system, etc. – protected him at all costs, creating a new verb in Hebrew: “l’atreg,” to protect and coddle someone as one protects a prized etrog.

I could not stand idly by. The Lubavitcher Rebbe incessantly drilled into his chassidim the grave danger posed by even so much as talking about territorial compromise, never mind actually ceding land to terrorists. Having just graduated law school and having previously taught in a yeshiva, I decided to fly to Israel and start a Chabad yeshiva in Neve Dekalim, in the hope and prayer that “Torah protects and saves.” I also wished to support to the brave residents of Gush Katif in their hour of need.

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We started with a group of a dozen students who came with me from New York but were soon joined by tens of Israeli students.

In Neve Dekalim, I discovered a warm, tight-knit community consisting of tsaddikim – Jews who were willing to endanger their lives, knowing that their presence in Gaza protected every Jew in Eretz Yisrael. They lived with absolute emunah that Hashem would avert the terrible decree that had befallen them. Despite the constant drumbeat of “disengagement” and “evacuation,” the residents went about their daily lives, planting gardens and building their futures in complete faith that they would remain on their plot of our homeland.

Meanwhile, the local Chabad House carried on construction of a beautiful mikveh. Others made a point of renovating their homes. More than anything, the ongoing construction illustrated the community’s complete faith in a favorable outcome.

The days leading up to the expulsion were surreal. On the one hand, the entire Gush was sealed off with multiple roadblocks, and preparations for the expulsion were everywhere. Thousands of soldiers and policemen streamed in, surveying the area, gathering intelligence, and planning the expulsion.

Preparations were even under way by the military rabbinate to dig up the local cemetery containing the kedoshim, Hy”d – the holy martyrs who were murdered by the very terrorists to whom Sharon was ceding Gaza, whether by mortars, bombs, anti-tank rockets, IEDs, or roadside ambushes – along with soldiers who had fallen al Kiddush Hashem, defending Am Yisrael.

Despite Sharon’s repeated assurances that Israel would not withdraw under fire, the terrorists increased their attacks by the day, knowing how empty Sharon’s threats were. As the expulsion date approached, mortars and rockets rained down on us. We were forced to spend much of our time in the bomb shelter I had rented for the yeshiva.

Two weeks before the expulsion, the legendary Chabad shliach to Gush Katif, Rabbi Yigal Kirshenzaft sheyichye, was critically wounded when a mortar shell landed inches from him, shrapnel piercing his jugular. A visitor who was with him was also seriously wounded, his foot shredded by the explosion.

The home I rented had its roof blown off by a Kassam rocket as did dozens of other homes throughout town. It became impossible to sleep at night, as the ground trembled and the walls shook with the force of the constant bombardment. But Sharon refused to respond militarily, continuing to kowtow to the far Left to save his own skin and protect his sons from imprisonment.

Throughout all of this, the locals managed to carry on life as close to normally as possible. I did not see any hint of resignation or sorrow. Their complete bitachon in Hashem did not waiver. They cheerfully opened their hearts and homes to the thousands who had come to join them in the struggle against expulsion. Wherever you looked, you would see orange signs, decals, and t-shirts proclaiming, “Hashem hu hamelech” – only Hashem is sovereign.

Our final Shabbos in Neve Dekalim – Shabbos Chazon and Erev Tisha B’Av – was especially moving. Friday night, after the meal, everyone gathered on the lawn of the central shul. Many prominent rabbanim and activists spoke, including former Chief Rabbi Yisroel Meir Lau, shlit”a, Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, shlit”a, who spoke in the name of his father, former Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, zt”l, and Rabbi Leibel Mochkin, a”h, a legendary Chabad activist who had defied the N.K.V.D. in Stalinist Russia, arranging the escape of thousands of chassidim under false papers and had travelled from New York, despite his advanced age, to oppose the expulsion.

Alas, our tefillos were not answered. On Tisha B’Av – the day we mourn the destruction of both our batei mikdash and myriad tragedies throughout Jewish history—the expulsion began. After Shabbos ended and Eicha was read, everyone sang “she’yibaneh beis hamikdash” with joy mixed with tears.

On Sunday, I accompanied several students from the yeshiva on a Mitzvah Tank to Atzmona, in an attempt to bring comfort and encouragement to the residents. Unlike the residents of Neve Dekalim, the Atzmona community had decided that resistance was futile and planned to leave on their own, rather than being dragged out.

The Minchah we davened there is seared into my memory. Tears flowed freely, as the residents davened in their shul for the final time. After Minchah, the Sifrei Torah were taken out of the aron kodesh and accompanied out to a waiting vehicle, to the sound of heart-rending cries.

Normally, an aron is emptied of its Sifrei Torah only for joyous hakofos – either on Simchas Torah or when welcoming a new Sefer Torah. This procession was the mirror image of a festive Hachnasas Sefer Torah. It felt like a funeral procession – a funeral for the beautiful, flowering communities being destroyed and surrendered to our mortal enemies.

After the Sifrei Torah were removed, the men lined up to surrender their military-issued weapons. These brave men, who had frequently engaged in pitched battles with terrorists to protect their homes and families, were now being disarmed by their own government. Others began emptying the shul, removing whatever they could before it was surrendered to the Hamas terrorists, y”s, who would of course desecrate and destroy anything Jewish.

As we broke our fast that night, word spread that soldiers were streaming toward the main entrance to Neve Dekalim. Everyone ran down to the entrance and barricaded the gate. After hours of struggling with the police (I dislocated my shoulder in the tussling), the soldiers left the main gate, only to return a few hours later. Eventually, they removed the gate altogether.

The next day, Monday, the soldiers returned, attempting to bring in shipping containers for the residents to pack their belongings. However, no one was interested in packing. People attempted to block the containers from entering, but eventually the police pushed their way through. Rows of soldiers went from house to house in an attempt to distribute the formal military order expelling Jews from Gaza, but they were uniformly rebuffed by the residents.

By Tuesday, any semblance of normalcy was gone. The streets were littered with burning garbage and other improvised obstacles. Skirmishes frequently broke out between police and youth. Everyone was on edge. Nevertheless, the entire community came out to celebrate the chanukas habayis of the beautiful Chabad mikveh, which had just been completed, along with a Hachnasas Sefer Torah, commissioned in the merit of Gush Katif by Rabbi Sholom Ber Wolpo, shlit”a.

The dissonance was remarkable. While all around us fires raged and thousands of soldiers and policemen poured into the Neve Dekalim to destroy it, for a few brief hours, both residents and guests celebrated with great joy, momentarily forgetting the dark cloud hanging over our heads. In fact, many of the soldiers and policemen got swept up in the occasion and joined the festive dancing in the streets. But the festivities rapidly gave way to bitter tears…

Wednesday morning, we awoke to rows of soldiers as far as the eye could see. Each home was approached by a unit of 10-20 soldiers lined up in two rows. In a cynical attempt to exploit the locals’ patriotism, the army outfitted the soldiers in special uniforms made for the occasions. The black uniforms were festooned with multiple Israeli flags on their caps and vests, as well as Israel’s national seal, depicting the Menorah, on their chests. The commanding officer of each unit knocked on the door and informed the home’s occupants that they must leave immediately, or they would be forcibly removed.

No one imagined how quick and efficient the expulsion would be. I stockpiled many months’ worth of shelf-stable food and drinks for the yeshiva, in the expectation that we would face a siege like Yamit had in 5742 (1982), prior to the Sinai’s tragic handover to Egypt. The students had spent weeks fortifying the concrete bunker they would live in, such that it was nearly impossible to open the door from the outside.

The conventional wisdom was that, as in Sinai, the smaller, more “moderate” communities would be removed first, leaving Neve Dekalim and Kfar Darom for last. Neve Dekalim was by far the largest town in the Gush and the nerve-center of the struggle against the expulsion. Similarly, Kfar Darom was a relatively large town with a deeply religious population, committed to resisting the expulsion, and many youth who had come to join the struggle.

Alas, we were very naïve. The security forces deliberately targeted the strongholds, from which they expected the fiercest opposition, on the very first day of the expulsion. They headed straight to the yeshivos and shuls where the youth had gathered, thereby crushing any hope of successful resistance. Many of the soldiers were sobbing inconsolably as they were cruelly pressed to participate in this crime.

While I had to stay home with my then-seven-months-pregnant wife, I was next door to the bomb shelter in which the yeshiva students had barricaded themselves. But the IDF outsmarted us. Rather than attempting to open the door to the bunker, they simply brought a truck with a huge circular saw attached and began cutting right through the massive concrete walls.

Realizing that we had no good options left as far as resisting was concerned, I sat down to write to the Rebbe, asking what to do. After placing the letter in a volume of the Rebbe’s collected letters (Igros Kodesh), I opened the sefer to a letter written to a soldier. The Rebbe writes to the soldier that he should not be discouraged, as the fact that he is in an environment surrounded by other Jewish soldiers is evidence that his mission is to be mekarev those soldiers by influencing them to don tefillin.

The Rebbe’s instructions to me were clear: All that we could do in this hopeless situation was to wrap tefillin on the soldiers, in an attempt to awaken their pinteleh Yid.

Accordingly, I made a deal with the senior commander on the scene that the students and I would not actively resist our removal, provided all the soldiers first put on tefillin. The commander agreed and gave the order, and over 50 soldiers lined up with their sleeves rolled up.

Once all the soldiers had put on tefilin, the officer asked us to board the buses to leave Gush Katif, but I reminded him that our deal was that we would not actively resist – not that we would leave voluntarily, G-d forbid. Thus, we were carried onto the buses one at a time, passively resisting as much as we could to slow down the process.

Once we were on the bus, several soldiers who were guarding us also put on tefillin and wept openly, wondering if they could ever be forgiven for committing this terrible sin. I explained to them that “following orders” was certainly no excuse, and they were complicit in this monstrous crime. However, nothing stands in the way of teshuvah, and if they truly regret their actions and vow never again to participate in expelling Jews from their homes, no matter their orders, Hashem would forgive them. Many of the soldiers agreed and tearfully swore never again to expel Jews from his homes.

As we sat on the bus, we watched heart-rending scenes. Infants were ripped from the arms of their mothers. People were dragged out of their homes kicking and screaming. Some could not bear the situation and completely broke down. To this day, these images haunt me.

As the buses left Gaza, we encountered another scene, which, to me, was even more shocking than the first: Normalcy! I was certain the entire land would be in flames, every street blocked by protesters, hundreds of thousands of Jews standing up for their brethren. Instead, people went about their daily affairs, oblivious to the ethnic cleansing being perpetrated by their government a scant few miles away.

Sharon had cleverly bled the protesters dry over many months of struggle. Shortly before the expulsion, hundreds of thousands of protesters marched toward Gush Katif, only to be tricked into stopping in Kfar Maimon, where they were fenced in by the police.

The buses transported us to Yad Binyamin, a small, religious yishuv. Thousands of residents of Gush Katif were simply dropped off there, with all the government’s promises of alternate living quarters amounting to nothing. We recognized many people we had gotten to know in Neve Dekalim, now wandering about shell-shocked. Several of them thanked us for coming to support them and founding the Chabad yeshiva.

Their entire belief structure centered on the supposed sanctity of the State of Israel. When the state turned on them, it rattled their core beliefs. As Lubavitchers, they told us, we offered another perspective, one that does not sanctify the secular state, but rather focuses on the integrity of the Torah, Am Yisrael, and Eretz Yisrael.

Fifteen years have elapsed since these events, but the wound is still raw. Hashem has publicly punished the reshaim who planned and perpetrated this atrocity. Shortly thereafter, Sharon had a stroke, leaving him in a comatose state for eight years; then-President Moshe Katzav and Ehud Olmert, then a senior minister and close political ally to Sharon, spent several years in prison; IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz was forced out of office in disgrace, after miserably failing at his job in the Second Lebanon War; and the list goes on.

The Disengagement from Gaza created a quagmire, costing countless lives in several wars Israel has been forced to fight against Hamas. The south of Israel has continuously suffered barrages of rockets and the fear of terror tunnels. In light of these events, no sane person can possibly doubt that the retreat from Gaza was an epic disaster.

The only silver lining is that the trauma of the expulsion has made any repeat performance unthinkable. Today, no mainstream Israeli politician speaks of dismantling Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria. May we return to Gush Katif speedily, with the coming of Moshiach now!

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