Walk down Agrippas Street in Jerusalem for a few minutes, past the Mahane Yehuda market, and you might come across an old road sign that reads GAZA in Hebrew, English, and Arabic. The sign points in the direction of what appears to be an apartment building, but if you enter it, you will discover that it’s in fact a museum. The Gush Katif Museum, privately owned and run, charges 20 NIS for a short visit to a permanent exhibit that tells the story of Israel’s unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip–or, to use the museum’s language, the evacuation or deportation of the Jewish settlers who called the strip their home for more than thirty years. It has been eight years since the disengagement commenced on August 15, 2005 (it was scheduled to begin a day earlier, but at the last minute the government wised up to the folly of carrying out the plan on Tisha B’Av). As I too spent that summer in Gaza, in uniform, I was curious to visit the museum.
A timeline at the entrance displays Gaza’s Jewish history, from biblical times and throughout much of recorded history, culminating in the post-1967 “Five Fingers” plan for Israeli settlements, dreamed up by Yitzhak Rabin during one of his more hawkish moments, to divide the Gaza Strip and prevent Palestinian contiguity: three settlements bordering the Green Line in the north of the strip, the enclaves of Netzarim and Kfar Darom in the center, and the 17-settlement bloc of Gush Katif running down to the border with Egypt. Photos, videos and assorted knick-knacks showcase the former Israeli communities in Gaza. Though small—only 8,600 settlers left their homes in 2005–they thrived, primarily in agricultural work (accounting for 90 percent of Israel’s organic produce at the time).
The massive public protests against the disengagement plan are featured in the Orange Room, named for the color the protestors adopted for their struggle. Countless bumper stickers and other orange paraphernalia are on display, alongside some particularly nasty caricatures of Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, and Tzipi Livni. There’s a photo album comprised of pictures of graffiti in the Gush, taken by an anonymous soldier in the days leading up to the disengagement: “For the Lord will not cast off his people nor will he forsake his inheritance,” from the Psalms, but also the less refined “A noose for traitors–Gaza for the Jews.” There are two menorahs: one from the Netzarim synagogue and a Hanukkiah made of mortar shrapnel, a reminder that life in Gaza was often harrowing.
The disengagement was largely carried out by cadets and non-combat officers. Combat soldiers like me were relegated to guarding the periphery, and so I spent much of the summer of 2005 standing guard in a concrete pillbox overlooking the main road leading to Gush Katif (the road was called Kisufim, which is Hebrew for longing). By August 22, all of the settlers were gone, but only in early September did the last of the soldiers leave the strip. By that time, my pillbox had been dismantled and we spent our final nights laying watch in the dunes. Of course, less than a year later Gilad Shalit was abducted and I was back in Gaza.
The Black Room is dedicated to the disengagement itself. A television screen shows IDF soldiers in black vests and baseball caps adorned with the Israeli flag dragging settlers out of their homes and synagogues. Paintings by amateur artist Avner Oved take a more impressionist approach: the faceless storm-trooper-like soldiers on horses with backdrops of burning villages are like something out of Chagall’s White Crucifixion, while a protester waves a giant orange flag as if he were in Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. A display of the settlers’ new lives brings the exhibit to its close. The centerpiece is an IDF regulation cardboard box packed with the contents of an evacuated home.
The museum excels in memorializing the beautiful red roofed Jewish settlements by the beach, but the only mention of Palestinian life in Gaza–of the squalor and despair I saw while on patrol in Deir al-Balah and Khan Younis–is in Sharon’s August 15, 2005 statement, which marked the beginning of the disengagement:
We can’t hold on to Gaza forever. Over one million Palestinians live there, with their numbers multiplying every generation. They live in incomparable crowdedness in refugee camps, in poverty and distress, in hotbeds of ever-increasing hatred, and with no hope in sight.
While Sharon’s insistence that the withdrawal be completely unilateral–forfeiting security measures in the process–was certainly misguided in hindsight, perhaps the real tragedy of the Gaza settlements was their inherent lack of viability from the very beginning: too few people occupying too large a space just a stone’s throw away from one of the most densely populated areas on earth. Whether one subscribes to that view or not, the events of August 2005 are certainly worthy of remembrance.
Related: Girls at War
Tal Kra-Oz is a writer based in Tel Aviv.