Friday, November 25, 2005

Israel's Katrina

The Bush Administration and FEMA were sharply criticized because they ignored reliable warnings that a huge storm was on its way and then when the storm hit, their response was delayed and consequently there were additional victims and damage. Both of these lapses were measured in days. Yet, our government was faulted and deservedly so.

How are we then to judge Israel and the Sharon government's treatment of the Israel Gazans who were forced out of their homes? Three months have passed since the last Gush Katif settlers left. Although their total number was fewer than 10,000 - a figure that is certainly manageable - many continue to live in tents and hotels and enormous harm, perhaps permanent, has been done to family stability. The socio-psychological toll is mounting, with little prospect for a quick turn-around. The most fortunate of the ex-Gazans live in caravans or small homes, some in clusters and others in places that they scarcely recognize. Too many have not gotten what they were promised, as Israel's High Court of justice or Supreme Court has acknowledged in recent decisions in which Chief Judge Aharon Barak has admonished the government.

Unlike Katrina, where advanced notice was obviously limited, Mr. Sharon and his Disengagement Authority knew for more than a year what lay ahead. Timetables had been set and a substantial bureaucracy was created to see that Israelis who in good faith had built their homes in Gaza and contributed to Israel's welfare and security would be fairly treated. The fact that relatively few of the Gazans welcomed what was looming and not many signed up in advance on the dotted line does not in any way absolve the government from its obligation to see to it that those who were removed are properly recompensed and resettled.

It turns out that those who adhered to the government's timetable have not fared much better than those who did not. While the military and police did their job, generally with empathy, from the standpoint of Israelis, disengagement is a mess. What is striking about this is that Israel manages to build highways in what seems to be a jiffy and other expensive capital projects move quickly. Yet, it is beyond the capability of the government to provide adequate housing, even of a temporary nature, for approximately 1,500 families. As I write, there are children not yet in school, families in disintegration, much pain and heartbreak and people going to pieces. While the sad saga continues, Mr. Sharon and Ms. Rice break bread and decide, I believe understandably, how to make life easier for those who have moved into what Israel abandoned.

As with Katrina, a good chunk of the explanation for what has gone wrong is that public bureaucracies tend to be insensitive and inefficient, not because they want to be but because their focus is overly on rules and forms and not on those who desperately need help. Even accounting for a high dosage of bureaucratic ineptitude, Israel's post-disengagement record is dreadful, perhaps to some extent because of insufficient caring about those who have lost so much.

Israel is at the brink of winter and the rainy season and the winter usually is harsh so what awaits those who still await resettlement is greater hardship still.

Is there are role in this for American Jews? Probably not because we are not there, although the proper attitude might help. If we were polled about Katrina, I believe that at least 90% of us would criticize the Bush Administration. For nearly sixty years we have given the Jewish State much slack, usually but not always for good reasons. Relatively few American Jews empathized with the Israeli Gazans, regarding them as occupiers and fanatics. We should have another look at their situation and change our tune.

The primary thrust of American Jews, most of them Orthodox, who want to help these Israelis is to provide clothing and other items that will improve their lot. It is hard to argue with charitable initiatives, yet they make me uncomfortable because they may breed a culture of dependency among people who had been self-reliant. Once embedded, dependency is difficult to shake off.

We are also letting the Sharon government get off the hook too easily. It bears responsibility for what has gone wrong and is obligated to take corrective action. This is more likely to happen if we would not be Jews of silence regarding Israel's mistreatment of some of its Jews. Unless our media and organizations speak out, prospects are not good that the lot of the ex-Gazans will improve any time soon.

Unless there is a dramatic change in Israel's treatment of those whom it has made homeless, we need to consider diverting financial support for Israel from conventional causes to the emergency engendered by disengagement, perhaps by contributing to funds that go directly to providing new housing for the ex-Gazans.

It is not only for the sake of these Israelis that we need to pressure Mr. Sharon and his allies. The pull-out from Gaza and four small and isolated West Bank settlements is a first-stage Road Map activity that is to lead to further territorial concessions and population withdrawals. The U.S. has upped pressure on Israel. Given the public statements of Mr. Sharon and Amir Peretz, the new Labor Party leader who is a pronounced dove, it seems inevitable that before long there will be additional West Bank evacuations. In a sense, therefore, Gaza serves as a test-run. If Israel cannot get it right for 10,000 evacuees after a year and a half of advanced notice and planning, what can we expect when 50,000 are to be removed?