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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 November 2005, 10:40 GMT
Israel's 'forgotten' settlers
By Raffi Berg
BBC News website, Jerusalem

Children playing in the car park in Jerusalem
Settlers' children have nowhere to play but in a car park
Rachel Saperstein watches the children playing chase, a dour expression on her face.

"Look, you see what this is?" she asks. "This is no playground, it's a car park!"

On second take, it is obvious, given the white lines of the parking bays. It has been roped off because there is nowhere else for children to run around, but it is hardly safe.

The car park belongs to the Jerusalem Gold Hotel, situated just off one of the city's busiest roads and a major interchange.

We have lost everything, including our dignity
Rachel Saperstein

It is also home to some 42 families who do not want to be there.

They are the former residents of the Gaza Strip settlement of Neve Dekalim, forced out of their homes under Israel's disengagement plan, bussed to Jerusalem and resettled in accommodation meant for tourists and transients.

"We have lost everything," said Rachel, a 64-year-old English teacher, her Brooklyn accent still strong after 37-years in Israel, "including our dignity."

'Destitute'

For those former settlers who did not have housing solutions of their own, (the vast majority of the 8,500 evicted from Gaza), the government rented more than 2,000 hotel rooms meant as a temporary measure for just days, before planning to move the settlers to rented flats and prefabricated housing units for two years, and finally to new, permanent homes.

The Jerusalem Gold Hotel
The hotel now houses more than 40 families of former Gaza settlers

But the days have turned to weeks and the weeks to months, and, Rachel says, there is no end in sight.

"We are the story that nobody wants to know about. We're destitute and forgotten. The government announced everyone's been paid off, but that's just a big lie - hardly anyone has received a penny compensation and the government has just swept the issue under the carpet."

Many of the former settlers have run out of money and are relying on handouts. Some, says Rachel, are too modest to accept even that.

"When we arrived, many of us did not have a change of clothes. We even had to club together to buy toothbrushes and shoes for the children."

In addition, Rachel says, the settlers are still having to pay mortgages on homes which have been reduced to rubble, rent for the containers holding their belongings and $450 a month towards the hotel bill, which, she says, will be deducted from their compensation if it ever arrives.

Under the disengagament law, only settlers who left Gaza by the 16 August deadline were entitled to compensation.

The Sapersteins were among those who refused to leave voluntarily, but the government has since agreed to compensate all settlers in full, including those evicted after the deadline.

'Lost everything'

In their cramped room on the fifth floor, Rachel's husband, Moshe, sits at a tiny desk, typing an email as the soothing sound of classical music wafts gently in the background.

Rachel in her hotel room
Rachel says she misses the privacy most of all

"This is my study," he says, drolly. "This is our bedroom and over there the lounge and kitchen," pointing to a bed, a chair and a kettle.

"I'm sorry, but a sense of humour is all I've got left," he adds.

A former nature reserve warden, Moshe lost an arm and an eye in the 1973 Middle East war, and was badly wounded again in an attack by Palestinian militants in 2002.

But he says he considers himself one of the lucky ones. As a disabled war veteran he receives a monthly pension from the government, while friends who were farmers and fishermen lost their livelihoods when the pull-out occurred.

"These are people who have always worked and have always been active, and suddenly they're completely inactive - there's absolutely nothing for them to do, and because they don't know where they're going to live from one week to the next, no-one's going to hire them. The sense of insecurity is really devastating," he says.

'Uncomfortable feeling'

Sitting in his confined space, Moshe recalls Neve Dekalim as "close to paradise as you could imagine - absolutely heavenly", with the Mediterranean Sea in front and rolling sand dunes all around.

Rachel and Moshe in the hotel canteen
The Sapersteins say they are refugees in their own country

"Now at the age of 65 I've been reduced to living in a hotel room. I feel like I've died and I'm just waiting to be buried."

Downstairs in the dining room, lunch is served, as it is at the same time every day.

Children jostle for position at the buffet as they help themselves, the noise like a school canteen.

JEWISH SETTLEMENTS
Widely regarded by international community as illegal under international law according to Fourth Geneva Convention (article 49), which prohibits an occupying power transferring citizens from its own territory to occupied territory
8,500 Jewish settlers lived in 21 settlements in Gaza amid 1.3m Palestinians
Israel argues international conventions relating to occupied land do not apply to West Bank because they were not under the legitimate sovereignty of any state in the first place

"The hotel staff do their best and the food is alright," says Rachel, "but you can't eat a meal just with your spouse - you eat with everyone else and with children running around."

"It's the privacy I miss the most - not being able to cook for my husband, walk into my own living room, not being able to invite friends over. I miss having an address. It's a very uncomfortable feeling to say I don't have a home - I'm a refugee in my own country," she says.

For families like the Sapersteins who left behind their way of life along with their homes in Gaza, the hardest part of their ordeal may have only just begun.


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