Editor’s Notes: Bassi’s pendulum

By David Horovitz May 6, 2005

The disengagement chief had believed that Knesset approval would remove the psychological barrier to a smooth evacuation. But Gaza’s settlers, to his dismay, remain paralyzed between hope and despair

The noise is deafening in the corridors outside the headquarters of Yonatan Bassi’s Sela Disengagement Authority, one flight up in an unremarkable government office block on a main road in western Jerusalem. Neighboring offices are being remodelled, and the drilling and hammering are relentless.

But behind the heavy, well-guarded door of Sela, by contrast, all is tranquil. Considerably too tranquil for Sela’s liking. The phones hardly ring. The handful of staffers seem somewhat underemployed. Officials note that Sela has branches and representatives elsewhere, too. But we’re about 100 days away from the scheduled Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria, and the 8,000 or so Jews who will have to conclude compensation arrangements with Bassi’s Sela are plainly not beating a frenzied path to his door.

Of the 200 or so families to be evacuated from the four settlements in northern Samaria, perhaps half have filed formal requests for compensation. But in Gaza, only a handful have signed such paperwork.

Many people, Bassi included, believed that the completion of the Knesset legislative process at the end of March would remove the psychological barrier – that the passage of the budget and the defeat of the referendum initiative would finally persuade Gaza’s settlers that disengagement was unstoppable.

That hasn’t happened.

In fact, the sense in Sela is that many, perhaps most of the 1,500 Gaza Jewish families are riding a pendulum that swings from despair (that disengagement is unstoppable) to hope (that it might yet be thwarted). If the defeats in the Knesset five weeks ago were a crushing blow to their insistence that they would yet prevail, then the flow of outside supporters to Gush Katif on Pessah constituted a new source of elation. If the ongoing progress toward an alternative housing solution centered on Nitzanim is injecting the sour taste of inevitability, then that is being at least partially offset by the likely postponement of the start of the pullout by three weeks, from late July to mid-August, so as to avoid a coincidence with some of the most somber dates in the Jewish calendar.

The way Bassi sees it, his recommendation that the government postpone evacuation for those three weeks was not interpreted in Gaza as the short-term, pain-alleviating gesture it was intended to be. It was, rather, seen as new evidence that salvation could yet be forthcoming – that those three weeks might stretch out to three months, three years, eternity.

Unsurprisingly, Bassi is 100-percent adamant that disengagement will proceed more or less as scheduled. In the highest echelons of the Israeli army and police, the assessment is the same. It will take more or less time to remove the most reluctant settlers, but removed they will be. Government policy will be implemented. Anything else is quite simply unthinkable.

What may be more surprising to those Gaza settlers still refusing to accept any such inevitability is the degree to which even the most outspoken anti-disengagement leaders are also reconciling to defeat.

Arye Eldad, the National Union Knesset member who sparked a brief furor a few days ago with his call to ‘block and paralyze Israel’ in order to prevent the pullout, told me last week that he accepted it would go ahead nonetheless, and that he was now reduced to nursing the faint hope that ‘national trauma’ might prevent its completion. (Specifically, he said, if Prime Minister Ariel Sharon began at the points of least resistance – those non- ideological settlements in northern Samaria and northern Gaza where readiness to leave is highest – there might be no opportunity to galvanize sufficient public momentum to thwart him. But if, said Eldad, Sharon bullishly opted to begin with the hard core Gush Katif settlements, scenes of bitter confrontation might prompt an eleventh-hour public outcry and an enforced policy reversal.)

Meanwhile, as the Post reported three months ago, Zvi Hendel, the only Knesset member living long-term in Gaza, helped late last year to set up the legal forum that has been negotiating compensation terms and exploring alternative housing – hard though he now tries to distance himself from this initiative.

Evidently, there is something of a disconnect between at least some of the settler/political leaders, mouthing anti-disengagement rhetoric, and some of the Gaza residents, fully believing it.

In January, indeed, the secretariat of Hendel’s own settlement, Ganei Tal, went out with Bassi to tour a variety of potential sites for relocation in Israel. And yet, at that settlement and others, some residents, evidently unaware of such contacts, complain about the lack of planning and preparation and basic contact with Sela and the other relevant authorities.

And the calendar clicks relentlessly forward.

A FEW months, of course, is far too short a period for Gaza departees to build new, permanent homes elsewhere. The idea in Sela is that, eventually, most of the families will accept the inevitable, negotiate their precise compensation terms, take advantage of the provision under which their rent is paid for the first two years after the pullout, and use that period to find or build permanent housing.

Bassi (who you’ll notice is not directly quoted in this column, at Sela’s request, but whose thinking it faithfully conveys) believes that about 50 percent of families would ultimately sign up for an en-masse relocation centered at Nitzanim, with the rest moving elsewhere. And he expects that 70% will leave Gaza without a struggle, and that the remaining 30% will not put up a bloody fight. That’s not to say external supporters, coming in to Gush Katif to join the resistance, would be similarly responsible.

Bassi laments that Sela, set up to assist the settlers in remaking their lives, has become a focus of so much antagonism, plenty of it directed at him personally. He evinces profound sympathy for the settlers, as the victims of a radical shift in Israeli government thinking. And Sela has just drafted a proposed amendment to the compensation legislation which would increase payments to some families who would otherwise receive sums too small for them to have any realistic prospect of financing new homes. (Compensation payments are to be reduced by a third after July 20, which for now remains the formal date on which the pullout begins.)

But Bassi is entirely resolute in backing the pullout as the only means to ensure a Jewish and democratic Israel. And while he may be confident that even disengagement’s opponents know deep down that, for Israel’s sake, the pullout must pass without vicious internal violence, he is fundamentally concerned by what he considers the exaggerated, irrational, even messianic worshipping of the physical land and soil of Greater Israel that is consuming Orthodox Judaism.

An Orthodox Zionist himself, he talks of that irrational prizing of land above all else as a veritable strain of idolatry. If it is not checked, he fears, the price this generation pays for turning land into a god will be the same as that paid by previous Jewish inhabitants of Israel, who turned away from divine values and, in so doing, lost their hold on Jewish sovereignty.

Disengagement’s opponents argue that leaving Gaza and northern Samaria land will ultimately spell the downfall of all Israel. Bassi counters that he too fears for the future – but holds that it is those most desperate to retain that disputed land at all costs who risk paving the way to our demise.

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