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Shocked Gaza evacuees prepare for new lives

Orange ribbons hung from the antennas of cars parked outside the King Saul Hotel in Ashkelon, Israel,  on Friday, remnants of the fight against Israel's withdrawal from Gaza.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Orange ribbons hung limply from the antennas of cars parked outside the King Saul Hotel in Ashkelon on Friday, remnants of the fight against Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Inside, dozens of settler families sat in quiet shock after being forcibly removed from their Gaza homes — a scene repeated in hotels across the country. Many could not even begin planning for their new lives.

With the school year approaching, Moshe Aricha, a 52-year-old father of five from the largest Gaza settlement of Neve Dekalim, had no idea where to send his children to school. He did not even know where he would move his family after the government stops paying his hotel bill in 10 days.

"Right now, we don't know what will happen tomorrow, much less next week," Aricha said as he sat with his family in the lobby of the shabby King Saul Hotel.

Some evacuees feeling slighted
Some settlers blamed their poor accommodations and their uncertain futures on the government, saying it did not make proper preparations for them after the pullout. Several lawmakers on Friday called for an investigation into the treatment of the evacuees.

The government, which was providing emergency housing for 10 days for people forcibly removed from their homes, erected about 400 temporary homes on a beach north of Ashkelon and relocated other evacuated settlers to several nearby communities.

But the list for those accommodations was filled months ago by settlers who left their homes voluntarily.

Many others spent the months leading up to the withdrawal trying to block it and refusing to plan for the future. Shunning the agency charged with helping them cope was a key part of that strategy.

Settlers spread among 60 hotels
By Friday, the government had provided temporary housing to the thousands of former Gaza settlers in 60 different hotels across Israel.

"There is not even one person among these 5,000 people who doesn't have a bed to put his head on," said Yonatan Bassi, head of the compensation agency.

The government also was compensating settlers with between $200,000 and $300,000 per family, including interim rent. Those who stayed in Gaza after Tuesday's deadline were supposed to lose up to a third of their compensation, but government officials have yet to clarify whether they would enforce that decision.

Bassi was barraged with complaints from evacuated settlers Friday during a call-in show on Israel Radio. He said the government was providing housing for people who had not even requested it.

"We are doing the best we can," he said.

Speedier evacuation than expected
Other government officials said the agency was overwhelmed by the speed of the evacuation and ensuing flood of evacuees. The pullout originally was planned to take at least three weeks, but was nearly complete in 2 1/2 days.

In the end, some settlers were booked into luxury hotels while others were sent to fleabags.

The former residents of Shirat Hayam, who had barricaded themselves in their beachfront settlement Thursday, were so disgusted with the mouse-ridden hotel they were sent to in the southern city of Beersheva that they decided to leave en masse.

Psychologists helping settlers
The 20 families chartered a bus Friday afternoon to take them to the West Bank settlement of Kedumim, where they will stay at an empty girls school. Kedumim residents offered to bring them food for the Sabbath.

The King Saul hotel in Ashkelon rapidly filled up with about 50 families. Government social workers, education officials and psychologists were assigned to the hotel to help the evacuees cope with their dislocation.

Nati Zarbiv, a 31-year-old former resident of Neve Dekalim, said the evacuees suffered "a terrible trauma" that was further compounded by the state of the hotel.

The red industrial carpets in the hallway smelled of mildew and were riddled with stains and rips. A dirty swimming pool out back was closed.

"This is not a hotel that kids should be living in," he said.

The government set up a nursery school in the hotel staffed by soldiers from the army's education unit and an arts and crafts class in the hotel's basement bomb shelter.

The evacuees said the older children had little to do. While some residents watched television on the hotel's two sets, a group of teenagers smoked cigarettes in the lobby.

Attempts to brighten the situation
The mood was lightened by well-wishers bringing candy, soda and invitations for Sabbath dinner to the evacuees. Gifts of chocolate and traditional Sabbath candles were placed outside the door of every room and nearly every child got a blue plastic box filled with treats.

Some Ashkelon residents washed the settlers' laundry.

Sabbath candles on a table near the communal dining area were arranged to spell out "Gush Katif," the name of the Gaza settlement cluster that has been almost completely emptied.

Zarbiv said the settlers from Neve Dekalim were having trouble planning for the future because they were waiting for a solution that would keep their community of about 2,700 people intact.

"We need to take this," he said, looking around the hotel, "take everything, and soldier on."