Homeward bound?

noymansMaybe you really can’t go home again. But for a few former Gush Katif settlers now serving in the IDF, Operation Cast Lead is a long-awaited opportunity to return to the Gaza Strip.

To be sure, it’s not a standard homecoming. Itai Noyman, for example, a 21-year-old tank commander who grew up in the Jewish settlement of Neveh Dekalim, is currently deployed inside Gaza. A few days ago, as the IDF was bisecting the strip to cut off the movement of Hamas gunmen and their weapons, Itai let his parents know that he had reached the ruins of the former settlement of Netzarim.

The irony of the situation is not lost on the Noyman family.

Back in Gush Katif, Itai’s father Yossi owned a cement factory, where he employed Palestinians from Khan Yunis and the Muwassi area.

“Before the ‘expulsion’ they helped us put up our protest signs,” says Yael Noyman, Itai’s mother. “I know, it’s surprising, right? We asked them, do you know what these say? And they said, oh, sure, we understand.”

The family is still in touch with many of those workers, Noyman says, and they aren’t shy about saying how much they miss the Jews. “Boy, are they really crying now,” she says, referring less to the current fighting than to the stagnation and hardship that have characterized the Gaza Strip since the disengagement in 2005. “They’re just waiting for the Israelis to come back in on their tanks and put everything back to the way it was.”

Should one of those tanks turn out to be Itai’s, all the better. “I hope the army finishes this operation like it needs to be done, and doesn’t simply push for a cease-fire,” she says. “If we don’t destroy Hamas, we will have accomplished nothing.”

Even though her son is in the thick of things as the fighting rages in Gaza, Noyman says she hopes the IDF “really goes in and puts things in order there.”

Aside from being engaged in battle, former Gush Katif residents serving in Gaza right now are not authorized to talk to the press. Family members who have been quoted in the past few days, however, report high morale and a special sense of purpose among them.

“Itai is so eager to go into Gaza and fight. It’s how he was raised and what he’s been trained for, after all,” Yael says.

But Itai is not the only Noyman family member involved in the fighting. His father Yossi, a retired major who is no longer required to perform reserve duty because of his age but has volunteered to do so nonetheless, was called up on the first night of the operation to join his unit at the Southern Command’s logistics base.

THAT LEAVES Yael at home in the “caravilla” site at Nitzan, north of Ashkelon, that houses so many of her former neighbors. It’s a place very much clinging to the past, with all sorts of businesses named after Neveh Dekalim and a “museum” documenting the settlement and subsequent “expulsion” of Jews from the Gaza Strip at the entrance to the site.

Nitzan is also a place where people are trying to move on as well, though. Passion fruit vines, heavy with ripening fruit, are thriving, climbing over roofs of dozens of the temporary homes here. Many of the families, including the Noymans, have begun construction on their new (permanent) homes on lots nearby, and younger evacuees are beginning to receive building permits for subsidized housing, too.

The IDF’s incursion into the Gaza Strip is reopening the wounds of the disengagement that had just begun to heal. Itai Noyman, his mother says, is fighting now, but he delayed his induction for two years. “He never thought he wouldn’t serve,” Yael explains, “but he needed time to heal and put things in perspective before he could.”

What remains to be seen is whether Itai and other soldiers like him will be able to maintain that perspective as the fight continues. The early success of Operation Cast Lead is also allowing evacuees to entertain thoughts – three years later, now that they have begun to move forward – of returning to the places they left so reluctantly.

Dror Vanunu, for example, finds the possibility of returning to Neveh Dekalim after an IDF conquest of the Gaza Strip tantalizing. Like a lot of his neighbors, Vanunu blames the current crisis on the “messianic zeal” of Israeli leaders to concede the land and the infrastructure that Gaza’s Jewish settlers developed “in exchange for an illusory peace.”

He is waiting for an expected call-up to reserve duty with mixed emotions, saying he would eagerly fight “if the purpose is to uproot that Nazi-like and Taliban-like regime entirely,” but if the goal is “only to make sure that rockets stop for a short time, or are minimized, then it wouldn’t be worth risking life and limb.”

“We have to destroy Hamas,” Vanunu says, but “if I’m going back to Gaza, I have to know that we’re not going to mess around.”

While Vanunu allows himself to imagine a triumphant return to Neveh Dekalim, the Noymans, Yael says, won’t be joining him. They spent 23 years in the settlement and miss it terribly, and yet…

“To start fighting again? Personally, I couldn’t see myself doing it,” Yael says, sighing. “But if my kids were to be able to go back some time,” she adds, her voice and expression making it clear she holds out little hope of it happening, “I’d be happy.”

NOTHING IS conquered yet, though, and tensions are running high in Nitzan – as in all the towns within range of the rocket fire that persists despite Israel’s massive aerial bombardments in Gaza. Yael, who works for the Education Ministry instructing kindergarten teachers in the Gaza periphery, says the impact of the rocket threat is much greater than what she faced in Neveh Dekalim.

“We had thousands of mortar shells rain down on us,” she recalls, “but the rockets are much more frightening. The Kassams make such a big ‘boom.’

“I don’t know,” she says with a shrug, “maybe it’s just that we have grown older. Maybe it’s that we’re living in these flimsy wooden homes without a reinforced room. But sitting here and wondering what we can do, and where we can go, is terrible.”

The spread of the threat beyond the immediate Gaza area, far into Israel, is a bitter and unsatisfying vindication of the warnings that Gaza settlers made for years.

“When we said there would be rockets in Ashkelon, everyone laughed at us. They said there wouldn’t even be one single rocket. “Now, there are rockets in Beersheba, and everyone can see that we were right,” Noyman says.

“Before,” she continues, “we absorbed the blows. Now others are seeing what it’s like. Now everyone is seeing that you can’t just build a bypass road and consider the problem solved.”

OUTSIDE, WORKERS are installing massive concrete sewage pipes that will serve as improvised protective measures. Coming in place of shelters or reinforced “safe rooms” for the 500 families living at the Nitzan caravilla site, they are meant to provide a modicum of protection from the impact of a rocket strike.

“I don’t understand why it took until now for the government to set these up here,” Noyman says. “I mean, in [nearby] Carmiyah, they were provided with reinforced security rooms immediately after the first rocket strike. Here, we have just waited and prayed. I have drilled taking cover under the table with the kids over and over… but what good would that do?”

“Ahh,” she says, trying to let the fear and frustration go, “the very idea of a ‘secure room’ in a caravilla is an oxymoron anyway.”

In any case, she says, the answer to the rockets lies in offense rather than defense.

“We can’t just sit around and wait for a miracle,” she says.

In so much as they represent an improvement from what she has had until now, Noyman is relieved to see the pipes in place. But, she says, “I’m not sure we’d make it into them. I mean, I imagine the Color Red alarm going off in the middle of the night, and I don’t know how I could possibly get there, with my children, by myself, in 30 seconds. And that’s just us. There are 40 of us in this cul-de-sac. How are we all going to fit in there?”

Not everyone is taking the cautious approach to the pipes, however. In one, someone has wedged plywood slabs and mattresses, as if they were expecting an extended stay inside. Might as well make themselves at home.

All across Nitzan, children are eagerly playing around and inside the pipes, some of them inventing games that incorporate the pipes as they go along. Although they are simple, dusty concrete tubes marked only with “Home Front Command” and “Defense Ministry Construction Department” in dark stenciled paint, almost immediately they become blank canvases in the hands of eager little graffiti artists. Stick figures in brightly colored chalk spring up in twos and threes – usually identified as either “Hamas” or “Arabs” – with what are meant to be F-16s scrawled above them, dropping bombs. Along one such rudimentary narrative are large English block letters reading “Kasm” and “bom,” in classic children’s misspelling.

Watching the children outside her door decorating the pipe in her driveway, Noyman thinks back to her 23 years in Neveh Dekalim and ponders what kind of graffiti she would like to leave.

“I think,” she says after a long while, “I would just write, ‘We told you so!’”

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