Friday, 4 March 2005

Future uncertain for the living and the dead

Fate of a tiny cemetery in the Gaza Strip preoccupies loved one facing eviction

Friday, March 4, 2005 - Page A10

Special to The Globe and Mail

GUSH KATIF CEMETERY, GAZA STRIP -- On the eve of the 12th anniversary of his son's death, Shlomo Yulis sat by the grave in this hilltop cemetery and looked out over the sand dunes at the sun sinking into the blue waters of the Mediterranean.

If all goes to plan, Mr. Yulis and his family will be evicted from their homes in July when Israel withdraws from the Gaza Strip. They have received no official information about what compensation they will receive or where they will go. Their fears have been increased by the fact that no one has told them what will happen to the grave of Etai, who died in 1993 at the age of 14 after a three-year battle with leukemia.

As the 7,000 residents of the Gush Katif settlement prepare to fight a last-ditch political battle to save their homes and jobs, fears for the fate of the 46 dead lying in the community's tiny cemetery is adding to the pain of the living.

"He wanted to be buried here, because this was where he was born and lived all his life," said Mr. Yulis, a retired teacher.

"Just before he died, there was talk of moving us out and he hesitated, thinking of the pain it would cause us to have to move his grave. But in the end he decided he wanted it to be here. I can't believe that they will come and put 46 families through this suffering. It's wicked."

The cemetery was established in 1987, when a young local boy died of an illness. The residents believed it was an act of faith that their presence in the area would be permanent and peaceful. But the second grave they dug was for the local rabbi, killed in a terrorist attack at the entrance to his settlement. Four other local terror victims are buried alongside him.

Eliezer Orbach, director of the Gush Katif Religious Council, which supervises the cemetery, said the burials continued even after the talk of disengagement began last year.

"A few months ago, a soldier called Eli Lutati was killed in an attack on an army outpost nearby," Mr. Orbach said. "We asked the father where his son should be buried, because there was already talk about what [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon was planning. He said it didn't interest him. He said we live here, he will be buried here and God will help us."

Mr. Orbach said there were religious objections to moving the dead once they were buried in the Holy Land, but they were not insurmountable. But he added that no plans have been prepared because no one from the Israeli government or army has contacted the settlers directly.

Gush Katif residents said this week they do not believe the planned disengagement will ever occur. In a place where more than 5,400 mortar shells and other missiles have landed in the past four years and only one person has been killed, it is not surprising to hear the religious members of the community speak of miracles.

Mr. Orbach has been told by at least two revered rabbis that the disengagement plan will be reversed before July.

Mr. Yulis, who was born in the ultra-orthodox Mea Shearim neighbourhood in Jerusalem, said his faith remains strong. "God wouldn't have done all these miracles for us in the past four years if He meant us to leave."

Battling against his faith is the thought of his son's remains being shipped from place to place or, even worse in his view, being left to their fate.

"They cannot leave my son here so those animals will come and defile his grave as they defiled the cemetery on the Mount of Olives," he said, referring to the ancient Jewish cemetery in Jerusalem that was systematically desecrated under Jordanian rule until 1967.

The "animals," he said, are not the local Palestinians, with whom Mr. Yulis and the other settlers of Gush Katif have enjoyed amiable relations for 10 years. He said he was referring to the "people from Tunis" who arrived with the late Yasser Arafat, who was the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, after the Oslo accords in 1994, and turned the place into "a bad dream."

"When we arrived, there was nothing here -- no green, no buildings, just sand," Mr. Yulis said.

"The locals thought we were crazy wanting to live here, but they welcomed us. We gave them work and it built the local economy. We went shopping in Khan Younis and Dir Al-Balah. The prosperity grew. Then Arafat and his men came and spoiled everything.

"The settlements support 3,000 families from Khan Younis. They don't want this either. What for?"

Mr. Yulis, 66, and his wife, Udi, moved to this deserted patch of the Gaza Strip beachfront between the Arab town of Khan Younis and the sea in 1982. The area, occupied by Egypt in 1948, was captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War.

A lifelong member of Mr. Sharon's Likud Party and its various predecessors, he said he feels betrayed by his own leader. "He took my vote and did the precise opposite of what he promised before the election. I feel as though he has spat in my face."

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