Ileft a letter on the front door of our house in Gaza when I closed it for the last time. I had written it for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers who were being sent to evacuate us. "Gush Katif is our whole life," it said. "We know no other. But if this was fated to happen, it must be God's will. Even if we do not understand His reasons, we believe that everything that happens in this world is due to His will. So, I am getting up and leaving my home."
I tacked the letter to the door and turned away because it was too painful for me to wait and see the soldiers come.
You know what homeless is? We are now homeless.
We have left behind the farm where our children grew alongside the flowers in our greenhouses, and we're living in a kibbutz, near Tel Aviv. Oh, some things are familiar here. We're with the families from our old community -- that's 70 families altogether -- and in the evenings the young children play and laugh as we gather in the restaurant where we all eat. And most of our own children are with us -- though one adult son is in Jerusalem with our grandchildren. We'll be here maybe for two months. And, eventually, together with the state, we hope to build a new home. We want it to be a farm, so that we can grow flowers again. We look forward to building a new life, but it won't be the same as the one we left behind. It takes years to build a home. It takes mere minutes to be made homeless.
We could never have imagined this moment back in 1978 when we decided to join a group of 27 families who were going to establish the village of Ganei Tal. I was a student of educational psychology at Bar-Ilan University at the time and my husband, Moti, was head of the export exchange department at the United Mizrahi Bank. But after three years of city life with two small children in the Israeli town of Petach Tikva, we realized that this was not what we wanted. We preferred to make our livelihood from agriculture, to live as part of a community and to raise our children in peace and quiet. We wanted a better quality of life.
The people of the Jewish Agency took us to see where our village would be built, with government subsidies. They brought us to a golden shining dune from which we saw the blue sky running down to the blue sea and all around us just sand: no trees, no flowers, no birds and no butterflies. "This is where you'll build your village," they said, "one of many that will be built here." The view was enchanting, and we immediately felt that we belonged.
Friends, neighbors and relatives asked us: "What can you grow in the sand over there? Nothing can succeed in that desert. That is why it is such a desolate place." But we went anyway; we saw potential where others saw desert.
For the first year we lived in nearby Katif, where we set up our first farm -- a small greenhouse where we grew baby's breath, the decorative plant used in making flower arrangements. We both worked in the greenhouse. Since there were no day-care centers or kindergartens yet and Grandma was far away, we used to take the kids with us each morning in a baby carriage and crib, together with a lot of toys and sweets, and we prayed that it would not get too hot and that the kids wouldn't nag too much and let us do our work.
When the time for planting was on hand, we were forced to improvise. We worked with what little we had so as not to miss the planting season. Then the time came to pick the flowers and we had no packing house. So we turned our small home into one. Once the working day was over, our living room floor was all green. The kids running around the house were green too, from the leaves. But we were happy with our lives.
A year later, we moved to our own village of Ganei Tal. We doubled the size of our farm and grew roses and chrysanthemums.
But we quickly realized that this was not enough. At the end of every season we would discuss what would grow best in our climate and what would be most profitable. We grew flowers of all kinds as well as tomatoes, sweet peppers, chili peppers, cucumbers and more. Then 13 years ago we began growing houseplants. We built a nursery more than 10 times the size of our original greenhouse where we grew mostly plants from Australia whose native habitat was similar to our desert-like coastal area. Later we specialized, and myrtles became the signature plant of the Sender Nursery. Most of our produce was exported and what was left over was sold on the local market. We thus contributed to our country's foreign exchange earnings.
Obviously when we expanded our activities, we needed more manpower. In this we were helped by our Arab neighbors. Gradually, more and more Arab workers came and worked together with us, doing everything that needed doing. At first we had very friendly relations with them, not just at work. We visited them in their homes and their families visited us in our home. We would buy shoes and clothes in Gaza City and go to Khan Yunis to buy household utensils and medicines and then vegetables in the market.
Our family also expanded over the years, with four more children who helped in the greenhouses, each according to his age and ability. Life in Gush Katif, especially for children, was as if in a greenhouse, too: Everything the children needed was provided, beginning with day nurseries for 3-month-old babies, then kindergartens, elementary and high schools and yeshivas. After school there were extracurricular activities at the community center, music lessons, movies or just hanging around with friends. Most memorable of all was the beautiful beach of Gush Katif where we spent long hours surfing, swimming or just sitting around.
It was a model place for our children to grow up, just as it was a model of coexistence with our Arab neighbors.
Until the first intifada broke out. Then things changed. The workers no longer came and we had to bring in laborers from abroad. We had between seven and 10 workers with us. Since the Jewish New Year in 2000, we have had to become familiar with such concepts as explosive charges, mortar bombs, Qassam rockets. Every child of kindergarten age learned to recognize the distinctive whistles of mortars, rockets and sometimes the sounds of shots fired by the IDF forces protecting us.
It is very hard to lose friends, neighbors, to see how the injured fight to stay alive, to support their families, to go to one funeral after another, from one hospital to another. So many tears fell during those last years in Gush Katif. The IDF soldiers who came to protect us were the same soldiers who have now evicted us.
But no, we did not give up. We believed in our way: This is our land, the land of our forefathers, we would say. We were sent to settle this area by the government of Israel, and no mortar bomb or Qassam rocket was going to expel us from our homes. We continued to live our everyday lives. Our children went to school, went on outings and did everything as usual, playing in the sand and on the lawns with smiles on their faces. Every day we went out to work in the greenhouses. We continued to export potted plants until the end. The final shipment abroad from the Sender Nursery went out on Aug. 9, 2005.
Guests who came to stay with us would often wonder and say: "I didn't know there were so many children here. How can they play outside and even ride their bicycles?" After all, according to the media, there were just a tiny group of Jewish settlers living inside shelters.
It was on Aug. 15 that Moti and I, our son Shmulik, his wife, Avital, and their three children; our son Haim and his wife, Nurit; our daughter Rachel, her husband, Ariel, and their two children; our son Elhanan, our daughter Lea and our son Yehuda were expelled from our homes. Now, after 27 years, we are homeless, but I do not accept this as a defeat. In that letter that I left on the front door of the house I wrote to the soldiers, "We won because our struggle will never be forgotten.
"We won because Gush Katif will never be forgotten. Gush Katif will become part of Jewish and Zionist history; it will become not just another chapter, but a symbol, a model to be imitated.
"We won because we believe that our task is not finished.
"We won because we know that we must go on."
And even as we sit in the kibbutz and reflect on what the future may hold, I still believe that in my heart.
Author's e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Hanna Sender is hoping to move into temporary housing in Israel in a couple of months.