GAZA STRIP — When Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005, ending 38 years of occupation, Israelis and Palestinians agreed it was one of the most significant events of the modern Middle East. ¶ That's about all they agreed on. ¶ For Basil Eleiwa, owner of Gaza City's trendiest restaurant, the pullout meant he and other Palestinians were finally free to begin building a vibrant nation of their own. He envisioned Gaza as a tourist mecca, drawing wealthy Arabs to its fine Mediterranean beaches. ¶ For Rachel and Moshe Saperstein, displaced Gaza settlers, the pullout meant Palestinians were free to ramp up their attacks on Jews. They envisioned Gaza as a terrorist haven smack on Israel's border.
Now, nearly four years and thousands of missiles, bombs and rockets later, Gaza is even more ravaged and impoverished than it was when Israel withdrew. Hopes that Palestinians were close to statehood have been dashed by a violent internal power struggle and a growing Israeli reluctance to cede any more land or control.
"We were dreaming,'' says Eleiwa, surveying his nearly empty Gaza restaurant. "To say I was naive is a very nice way of putting it.''
Less than 20 miles away in Israel, the Sapersteins peer out the window of the flimsy house they rented after leaving Gaza. The view is of a large sewer pipe, hauled in last month to serve as a bomb shelter during a three-week war that killed 13 Israelis and more than 1,300 Palestinians.
Says Moshe Saperstein: "The fact is, almost everything we said would happen, has happened.''
The Sapersteins and other settlers have such good memories of life in the Gaza Strip that they would gladly go back.
They miss their airy homes with the orange-tiled roofs, the lushly landscaped lawns, the gorgeous sunset views over the sea. They speak fondly of "the Arabs'' — they don't call them Palestinians, for that would imply support of a Palestinian state — who tended the strawberries and peppers grown in the world-famous settler greenhouses.
For many of Gaza's 1.4 million Palestinians, though, the 8,000 Jewish settlers were the unwelcome faces of an occupation that began after Israel captured the small coastal strip from Egypt in the 1967 Mideast War. Gazans resented the water diverted for the settlers' use, the long delays as Israeli soldiers closed major roads so buses could carry Jewish kids to school or the beach.
After two Palestinian uprisings that repeatedly targeted the small Gaza settlements, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had had enough. Most Israelis agreed with him that the cost of protecting a few thousand Jews in hostile territory was too great — an estimated $1 billion a year, or $125,000 per settler.
On a sweltering August day in 2005, Israeli soldiers began dragging out settlers who had refused to go voluntarily. One man, determined to leave nothing for the Palestinians, burned his own greenhouses.
As the Israelis left, Palestinians made ambitious plans for new housing and commercial projects on settler land. Farmers took over the surviving greenhouses and again raised produce for export. But as suicide bombings and other attacks continued, Israel closed the border for weeks at a time. Strawberries rotted in their boxes, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reverted to its familiar patterns.
As a step toward peace, the Gaza withdrawal was likely doomed from the start.
"The outcome that did materialize was very close to the one that Israel confronted in Lebanon, where unilateral withdrawal (in 2000) turned into a sign of weakness,'' says Aaron David Miller, an analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
The Gaza pullout strengthened the radical group Hamas, which claimed it showed that Israel responded better to violence than to negotiations. It emboldened Hezbollah, another Islamist group, which within a year was fighting a war with Israel in Lebanon. And it soured Israelis on withdrawing from the far bigger settlements in the West Bank, now home to more than 270,000 Jews.
From the day Israeli soldiers began evicting Israeli settlers in Gaza, Miller says, "an unhappy outcome was inevitable.''
Life for Gazans
Eleiwa, who opened Roots the Restaurant shortly before the Gaza withdrawal, calls himself "a normal businessman'' with no particular ideology. His wife is Gaza correspondent for Al-Arabiya, the moderate Mideast satellite TV network to which Barack Obama gave his first interview as U.S. president.
When Hamas won parliamentary elections a few months after the pullout, Eleiwa thought the group's reputation for honesty and social service would help transform the notoriously corrupt, inept Palestinian Authority.
"I'm not Hamas and I'm not for Hamas,'' he says, "but for me, having Hamas in our legislative council was a good sign that it would control all those corrupt people.''
Instead, a brutal power struggle between Hamas and the rival Fatah Party ended in 2007 with Fatah controlling the West Bank and Hamas, the Gaza Strip. Hamas' refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist led to an economic blockade of Gaza that has devastated Roots and other businesses, nearly 3,000 of which have closed in the past few years.
With Israel refusing to admit what it considers "nonpriority'' items, Eleiwa's restaurant is often unable to get whipped cream, cheeses, even canned juices and Coca-Cola. Despite his qualms, he joined thousands of other Gazans who now rely on goods smuggled in from Egypt through underground tunnels.
"We used to get 24 cans of Coke from Israel at 40 shekels ($10),'' he says. "We ended up paying 107 shekels a box for less good quality soda from Egypt.''
Trying to hang on to his customers, mostly upper middle class professionals unable to leave Gaza, Eleiwa refuses to raise menu prices as his own costs jump. By cutting hours, he has kept all 75 employees, knowing that hundreds of people depend on Roots for their livelihood. But for the first time, he is seriously considering a move to Cairo.
"All my life I've been accused of being ultra optimistic," he says, "but now I find it extremely difficult to be optimistic.''
Eleiwa is still convinced that Palestinians have a just cause, one that would be helped immeasurably, he says, if their own leaders weren't at each other's throats. He also criticizes Israel for not doing enough to advance peace, though he acknowledges that withdrawing from Gaza gave Palestinians a chance to prove they could manage their affairs.
Says Eleiwa ruefully: "It was a golden opportunity.''
Life for ex-settlers
The Sapersteins agree that Palestinians blew an opportunity, though their words are harsher.
The Israeli government "handed them Gaza on a silver platter,'' Rachel Saperstein says. "Instead of building it up, it became a launch pad for the killing of Jews.''
Though nothing like the conditions in which most Gazans live, the Sapersteins and many other settlers have had a rocky time since the 2005 withdrawal. They spent weeks in a Jerusalem hotel, then moved into what was intended to be a temporary community near the city of Ashkelon while they looked for permanent homes elsewhere in Israel.
Nearly four years later, most of the settlers are still there, along with synagogues, a museum, a community center, schools, a clinic, a grocery store and a playground transported in its entirety from Gaza so no Palestinian child would ever enjoy it.
"The Arabs said, 'We can't wait for our kids to come play on this,' and the donors said, 'No, this is for Jewish children,' '' says Rachel Saperstein, a teacher and speaker who raises money for the settler movement on trips to the United States.
If the Sapersteins are critical of Palestinians, they're no kinder toward Israeli leaders, who they say treated them like garbage and have refused to adequately compensate settlers for their Gaza property. In Israel's recent elections, most settlers voted for a hard-line nationalist party that opposes a two-state solution and withdrawal from the West Bank.
"A great number of us dream of nothing but going back,'' says Moshe Saperstein, a former Jerusalem Post columnist who lost his right arm in the 1973 Mideast War. "The Arabs who worked with us are in constant telephonic contact, saying, 'You've got to come back, nothing is growing.' "
(In reality, Gazans are still growing — at the Dutch government's request, Israel opened the border long enough to allow a shipment of 25,000 carnations to Holland for Valentine's Day.)
At the time of the Gaza withdrawal, many Israelis viewed the settlers as arrogant extremists who put their own interests ahead of the nation's. But after wars with Hezbollah and Hamas, polls suggest growing numbers of Israelis feel that the pullout was a mistake and that peace with the Palestinians is as far away as ever.
That doesn't totally satisfy the Sapersteins.
"We are here because we say God gave this land to us while they say God gave it to them,'' is how Moshe Saperstein explains the root of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "It's very hard to come to an agreement when both beliefs are theologically based. The side with the stronger belief generally wins, which is why we're doing so badly. There aren't that many Israeli Jews who feel as strongly as we do.''
Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at email@example.com.