Gaza refugees continue to live in fear and squalor

Forcibly removed from their homes in Gaza by their own government, Israeli refugees feel betrayed and uncertain about their future and still live in constant fear of Hamas missile attacks.

In most parts of the world sewer pipes are used as intended, but in Israel they serve a completely different purpose.

When an air raid goes off, Rachel Saperstein has ten seconds to get from her house to the concrete slab which becomes her shelter.

“We feel like refugees. When we left there were perhaps two hundred houses that were built in this area to take in 1,300 families,” Rachel told RT.

She says their plasterboard houses are no protection from bombs, but they are happy to have at least those pipes:

“Of course this would never take a direct hit by one of those rockets, but it would protect us from shrapnel if a bomb did fall close by.”

Rachel is one of 8,000 Israeli settlers evacuated from Gaza just over four years ago. Then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made the decision for Israel to move its citizens and army out of Gaza after 38 years of living there, but the move was controversial. While most Israelis supported it as a step towards peace, the Gaza settlers felt betrayed.

Four years on and many of the refugees are still living in temporary shelters which accommodate 500 families. They can’t afford to leave – most of them don’t have the money for a mortgage and cannot find work.

When the refugees were brought into Israel proper, the missiles followed them. During the Gaza war in January rockets rained down on their new shelters.

Raanan Gissen admits in some way the government failed to rehabilitate them. He was Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s advisor at the time. He says the sewer pipes – like everything else the Israeli government did then – were a practical solution to an urgent problem.

“These missiles are very crude missiles – they could fall on your head and they could kill you. So in terms of being able to minimize collateral damage – giving some people some sort of protection before they have a shelter – that was a practical solution at the time and that is because deterrence failed,” Gissen explains.

Peace activists believe the settlers are taking advantage of the situation, convinced of a conspiracy between them and the Sharon government.

“They had an implicit common interest and that was to show how painful and how unsuccessful it is to remove settlers so that it would create a barrier to remove settlers from the West Bank,” believes Adam Keller, spokesman for the Peace Now movement. “And then the argument which is heard quite often by right wingers – you see how difficult it was to remove 9,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip and you see how terrible their lives are now and how they are not yet integrated into Israeli society. So how can you even think about removing settlers from the West Bank?”

Shlomo Bashan used to live in Gush Katif in the southern Gaza Strip. He can’t bring himself to live in Nitzan or any of the other temporary shelters built for the Gaza refugees. He felt so depressed and lost after being evacuated that he even left the country for a while. Yet after founding the Gush Katif museum, he now finds comfort in telling his story:

“To put our story in a museum is to say you don’t belong any more to the present, you belong to the past. Most of the people from Gush Katif said they did not like the idea of making a museum of their story, but the people who decided to create this museum understood that the story of Gush Katif has to be remembered forever. That is why you build a museum – to remember something forever.”

The refugees from Gaza will never forget. Wherever they look, the bomb shelters are there to remind them.

Meanwhile, the UN Human Rights Council is set to examine a report it commissioned that accuses both Israel and Hamas militants of war crimes during the Gaza War of December 2008-January 2009. Human rights groups say the report is the result of one of the most balanced and constructive investigations into a conflict. Thirteen Israelis were killed, while more than a thousand Palestinians lost their lives in that period, many of which were civilians.