Original photos courtesy Hodaya Azoulay; IDF; Wikipedia
Israel Story

The Princess

Most Israelis remember the 2005 disengagement from Gaza as a dramatic moment of national upheaval. But for Hodaya Azulay of the Jewish settlement of Netzarim, the drama was of a different nature altogether—it marked a traumatic turning point in her relationship with her favorite mare, Sheleg.

December 1, 2020
Original photos courtesy Hodaya Azoulay; IDF; Wikipedia

In 2005, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon put forward a highly contentious plan to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip and four isolated settlements in northern Samaria. His explosive proposal triggered an unprecedented public debate, full of raw emotion, that split the nation. Doomsday prophets talked of an impending civil war and the end of Zionism. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets in support of, and opposition to, the evacuation. An entire nation held its breath to see what would happen.

But for Hodaya Azulay of Netzarim—a Jewish settlement just south of Gaza City—the drama was much more personal. Having grown up in an atheist family in communist East Germany, she had—through a mixture of tragic circumstances and dogged determination—found herself in Israel, in search of a home and a sense of belonging. After many difficult years, she had finally found that serenity, in the heart of Gush Katif. There, she ran a small petting zoo with sheep, goats, rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, ducks, dogs, hens, turtles, and little snails. But the undisputed stars of this menagerie—which quickly became the main attraction for Netzarim’s children—were its horses, and especially Sheleg, a beautiful Arabian horse with a flowing white mane and tail. For years Azulay cared for Sheleg and offered therapeutic riding lessons to members of a community that was dealing with a nearly constant, violent onslaught.

Azulay and Sheleg were companions and shared a deep bond. But all that came to a head when the Israeli government decided to withdraw from Gaza and dismantle all the Jewish settlements in Gush Katif. Where would they go? And how would their bond survive the forced eviction?

Our episode today—the second in a two-part, equine-centered series—takes us back to those hot and dramatic days of August 2005. But it isn’t a story about political ramifications or national lessons learned. Instead, it is a deeply personal story of a bond between a woman and her horse. A bond that endured pain, uncertainty, and betrayal. Senior producer Yochai Maital, who tells the story, first heard it on the ground, as it was unfolding, in the midst of all the chaos.

Yochai Maital scored and sound-designed the episode, which was recorded by Tony Hernandez at the Seltzer Sounds Studio in Brooklyn. Sela Waisblum created the mix. Thanks to Ishay Ribo and Motty Steinmetz for giving us permission to use their song “Nafshi,” and to Lior Carmeli, Aharon and Temira Feinsilver, Shlomo Maital, and Michael Vivier. The end song, “Sus” (“Horse”), is by Oded Gadir, with lyrics by Azriel Kaufman.

Listen to the episode here, or download it from Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or Spotify. You can hear all of Israel Story’s episodes in English here and in Hebrew here.

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