Former residents of Gush Katif attended a ceremony Monday inaugurating the two new towns in the middle of the Negev desert they are to now settle.

Ezra HaLevi , | updated: 16:46

Former residents of Gush Katif attended a ceremony Monday inaugurating the two new towns in the middle of the Negev desert they are to now settle.

“Well there is sand, just like Gush Katif,” joked one attendee bitterly, “but seems like a much longer walk to the ocean.”

The new communities are located in the Halutza Sands, an area in the southwest Negev that is completely barren and uninhabited. Signs leading to the ceremony begin at the end of the highway running south along the Israeli side of the Gaza border, parallel to the infamous Philadelphi Corridor, through which weapons and explosives have been flowing since the Disengagement.

The signs point down a road bulldozed into the sandy desert. Miles go by and by the time the first “Halutzit A to be Built Here” sign is visible, nothing but sand can be seen in every direction.

A cart used for hauling potatoes in Atzmona lies in the desert sands.

Bulldozers and other heavy equipment are on the move on all sides - flattening the ground and erecting electric lines. Infrastructure is being laid for the first of what will be four towns and two cities in the Halutza region. The former residents of Netzarim and Atzmona will be settling Halutzit A and Halutzit D.

A small elevated area rises above the flatlands. Below, 75 hothouses from Netzarim and Atzmona have been erected and are already filled to the brim with ripening potatoes and other organic produce. Residents live in small pre-fab “caravillas” (enlarged trailer homes), closer to civilization and travel to the site of their future communities to tend their crops.

The path leading from the security tents up to the ceremony.
Hothouses from their former communities are the first structures erected at Halutzit.

Tents have been set up for the day. Two small ones filled with security people and metal detectors - part of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s security team – and a larger tent at the top of the hill, filled with people awaiting the prime minister’s arrival and the start of the ceremony.

In the background, a video plays on a loop. It begins with footage from the forced eviction of Gush Katif residents, going on to outline the vision of the Halutza Sands region of the Negev as a haven for tourism, wine-production, agriculture, solar power and futuristic cities.

Former residents of Atzmona and Netzarim
Olmert's helicopter touches down on the desert sand.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Vice-Premier Shimon Peres look at the future sites of the Halutzit communities as Mayor of the Eshkol Regional Council Uri Naamati explains the layout.

New Partners
The head of the Eshkol regional municipality takes the podium following the sandstorm caused by the arrival of the helicopter carrying Olmert, Vice-Premier Shimon Peres and Housing Minister Roni Bar-On. “When we first called upon the residents of Gush Katif to help us settle the Negev, they were still in their homes. They dismissed the idea out of hand. We didn’t give up, and now we are honored and happy to be able to be partners with you in settling the Negev,” he said, addressing the former residents attending the invitation-only event.

Eliyahu Uzan, the former secretary of Netzarim. "I did not prepare a speech, choosing rather to speak from the heart today," he said.

Eliyahu Uzan, the former secretary of the community of Netzarim, spoke in a somber manner, as though a mourner at a wedding. “We are partners in the building of this project, despite the fact that we do not come from the same Beit Midrash (house of study),” said Rosen. “But this government is our government, this state is our state - and its honor our own honor. We have chosen to bless the government and the land and hope the government and land will bless us. We made a decision that during these times - when the government, for whatever reasons, is refraining from building in other parts of the Land of Israel - we would take part in the building of this part of the land, which still is in need of being built.”

Our Song is One of Faith in This Nation
Rabbi Rafi Peretz, who heads the Atzmona mechina (pre-military academy), relocated to the nearby community of Yated following the Disengagement, spoke about the decision of the expelled residents to choose a path that is no easier than the one that brought them to Gaza.

Rabbi Rafi Peretz, head of the Atzmona mechina, now in Yated.

“We awoke this morning to the renewal of a very ancient song,” Peretz said. “True, the decision to come here looked almost forced at the beginning. But we decided that our song is one of faith in this nation. Our song is one of settlement and Zionism. Our song is one of agriculture.

“I am not a farmer, but I deal with the planting of good soldiers firmly upon this land. I will tell you today what I told my students at the mechina over a year ago. ‘We are not exempt due to our experience. We are not able to stand on the sidelines. There is no sitting on the fence. This is our state. This is our land. This is our army, and with them we must prepare our forces.”

Peretz believes that the wounds of Gush Katif must not be allowed to interfere with the unity necessary for the nation to be victorious over its enemies. “More than a year ago I warned my students, ‘On the horizon there looms a war.’ Within the year it happened and it is not over. Hundreds, hundreds of students from the mechina took part. One of the pilots in the fallen helicopter during the war [in Lebanon –ed] last summer was from the mechina. This Sunday is the circumcision of his son. I am an instructor in the IDF’s pilot training course. It was my students that were sent to evacuate me. I returned to teaching there within two weeks. I told them, 'I come to you as my house is still on wheels, because there are priorities in life. I am very much with you,' I said, 'even though less than a month ago I disagreed with you completely.'”

He recalled how two months after he was expelled from his home, then-PM Ariel Sharon invited him to a meeting at his office. “I told him how I felt in a similar manner. That we still wanted to build, to bring about a fixing of the situation. He stood up and said, “Go to Halutza. I promise you that there we will build.” And we are here.

“We sense from you a similar spirit,” Peretz said, addressing members of the local municipality. “In that spirit, we have come to Halutza. With G-d’s help we will build and plant young people upon this land.”

From right to left: Housing Minister Roni Bar-On, Vice-Premier Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert listening to a former resident of Gush Katif speak.

Peres and Olmert Speak
Shimon Peres reluctantly addressed the crowd, saying, “Although we are not from the same beit midrash, we inhabit the same land.” Peres added that he hoped the region would one day be a center of regional cooperation with the Arabs of Gaza.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert then took the podium. Hours earlier, at the memorial for David Ben-Gurion, Olmert insisted that Israel would continue to carry out withdrawals, this time in Judea and Samaria.

“The future of the nation of Israel lies in the Negev,” he told those gathered in Halutzit. “I cannot say that we didn’t come from the same Beit Midrash,” he said, gesturing toward the expellees in the crowd. “My story is a bit more complicated, but it can certainly be said that I didn’t come from the same Beit Midrash as Ben Gurion.

“When Ben-Gurion had his dream he didn’t know that in 2006 Israel would the world’s leader in advanced water technology, that organic farming would flourish here, and be a basis for export worth millions of dollars a year – and all with Avoda Ivrit (Jewish labor), by the way.

A young organic cactus farm growing sabras (prickly pears) along the road to Halutzit.

“I didn’t come to you today to give a victory speech. I agree with you much more than I disagree. My deep feelings are that of connection to our land – which was always our land – and even when we won’t be on it will remain our land – but I don’t want to enter into a debate today…It is at this place that the entire Land of Israel shall meet. Whoever loves this land shall meet here. Here the arguments end. It is the place of national consensus. If we were younger we would join you with our own hands and feet.”

Olmert made a surprise announcement, instructing his office director to begin preparations for the construction of a highway from Be’er Sheva to the Halutza region, and to make every effort to cut through the bureaucracy and accelerate the process. “The connection of this region to the metropolis of the south will make all the difference.”

Olmert praised the residents for their fortitude and promised full government backing – something those residents have not experienced in decades. “The bottomless wellspring of excitement and energy moves this public forward even where there are deep feelings of pain, hatred and competition…You are really involved in the fulfillment of the Zionist future. You will receive support and solid assistance from the State of Israel.”

The prime minister, on the second day of a seemingly unilateral cease-fire and just moments before two more rockets struck the city of Sderot, said that the founding of Halutzit should signal to the nation that the government was not all about retreat and destruction. “The second part of the Disengagement is building. The exit from Gaza was not a retreat from the Land of Israel, but the building of the Negev. This is the great consensus point of meeting, where ours and the vision of Ben-Gurion meet.”

Almost Given to Arafat
While the Halutza region is indeed within Israel’s pre-1967 borders, that did not stop former prime minister Ehud Barak from offering the entire region to PLO chairman Yassir Arafat at the failed Camp David summit in 2000, in return for Israel’s retention of the so-called settlement blocs now being enclosed by the Partition Wall. Meretz chairman and Barak-era justice minister Yossi Beilin criticized the Sharon government’s decision to settle the region in 2001, saying: "This was simply another move by the present government to block any future options for a possible deal with the Palestinians…This was simply the best alternative. Other areas [within Israel’s pre-1967 borders that we considered reliquishing] were too close to major population centers. At Camp David and the subsequent Taba talks we were quite close to reaching an agreement on such an exchange.”

Many of the residents of Atzmona were originally evicted from the Sinai, following a treaty signed by Menachem Begin. They remember settling in Gaza thinking that Atzmona was their final stop.

One of the exhausted-looking expelled residents said to his friend as he left the tent, overlooking the vast expanse of sand and nothingness: “Was there really such a shortage of folks crazy enough to come live in the desert that they had to do the whole Disengagement just to get us out here? Yallah, let’s get it over with. Once this is established we can finally rebuild Gush Katif and get some rest.”

(Photos: Josh Shamsi, Arutz-7 Photojournalist)