Unsettled: how Israelis are adapting to life after withdrawal

Donald Macintyre spent a day with the Slaters as they prepared to leave their Neve Dekalim home. Two weeks on, he meets them again in their hotel refuge and discovers a family facing the future
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Certainly they seemed more cheerful than they did then. "That was like a funeral, we were all crying," says Mrs Slater, 45. There had been a sarcastic edge in Mrs Slater's voice when, on the day before their eviction, she said: "What do I feel? Sadness, frustration, anger. Is that enough?"

The next day, the Slaters and about 25 other families from Neve Dekalim came to the Caesar. "You could tell by looking at people's faces when they had been thrown out of their houses. The first day they looked so unhappy and then each day after that they looked a little better," Mrs Slater says.

The Israeli press today is full of post-disengagement analysis. Was this a defeat of theocracy by democracy? Had the state of Israel finally asserted itself over the concept of the "land of Israel" from the Jordan to the Mediterranean? Would the dismantling of 25 settlements - out of about 140 throughout the occupied Palestinian territories - presage the abandonment of more? Or had the Army sacrificed too much of its independent authority to the far right by showing such sensitivity and restraint towards the settlers? Here in the lobby, noisy with shouting children, the Slaters' main preoccupations seemed more mundane.

One of their younger daughters was up early, excited at the prospect of a visit with a group of pro-settler girl volunteers from the city to Ein Yael, the famous "living museum" in the Jerusalem hills where you can do everything from milk goats to Turkish make-up and pottery. Now she's decided she doesn't want to leave her parents and has to be gracefully coaxed into it by her mother and two of the volunteers.

Life at the Caesar - courtesy of the Israeli taxpayer, and if Israel manages to recoup up to $2bn it is seeking for disengagement, perhaps the US taxpayer as well - is not treating the Slaters that badly. "The manager could not have been kinder," says Mrs Slater." Everyone in the hotel is very nice to us. And people have been coming in all day begging us to let them do something for us. I never thought that people would be so happy for us to give them our laundry." Local children, she says, bring sweets, little gifts, clothes. And the local alternative therapy centre is offering free massages to settlers.

This treatment may seem more appropriate for refugees from a war than for the amply-compensated residents of a Jewish colony in Palestinian territory, long deemed illegal under international law, but the children are making the most of their stay - the length of which has not yet been reliably defined for the Slaters. "From the morning they make plans. It's like being on holiday for them. We are not the sort of family who ever normally stay in hotels," Mrs Slater says.

And that's before the care they have been receiving from friends. The Slaters met while they were doing compulsory Army service 25 years ago. Now, old Army friends welcome them at the hotel with hot soup and the keys to a car they can borrow for as long as they want. And one of Mrs Slater's brothers, a "left-wing" official in the Foreign Ministry has felt able to visit them every day in the hotel. For 10 years he refused to visit because he disagreed with the settlements in Neve Dekalim.

But it would be a grave error to think that the attitude to their eviction and its architect Ariel Sharon had been remotely modified by the relative ease of this transition. Mr Slater, 46, will say only that he feels " betrayed."

Agreeing, Mrs Slater adds: "And not just by the government. By the justice system as well [which turned down repeated petitions against disengagement]. And I thought the whole country would converge on Gush Katif, in cars and on foot, the way people said they would. But it wasn't like that. I was disappointed."

And what about the settlers' leadership on the Yesha Council with their promise that disengagement could be stopped? Mr Slater, who unlike some other long-standing residents of the settlements, refuses to condemn the "hilltop youth" who took advantage of the Army's extraordinary restraint by tormenting them during the evacuation, says: "Yes I am disappointed, though I am not sure any ordinary citizen could have done anything more against 40,000 soldiers."

Mr Slater will not have it that all this was inevitable given the consistent poll evidence that disengagement was supported by most Israelis. That's what they said, he insists, about the referendum of Likud members in May last year. But people like Mr Slater had knocked on doors and changed a presumed 70 per cent majority for disengagement into a 60 per cent majority against. If there had been a referendum of all Israelis the same result could have been achieved, he says. His activity in Likud has disillusioned him.

As a former supporter of the hard-right National Union, which opposes a Palestinian state, he was persuaded to join Likud by the doctrines of Moshe Feiglin, the extreme-right rabble rouser whose Jewish Leadership Movement plays a role in Likud not unlike that of the Militant tendency in the 1980s British Labour Party. "He told us that we should join Likud because it's the biggest party and that's where we could have the greatest influence, " says Mr Slater. But now he sees no future in Likud or any leadership candidate in the party worth fighting for.

But if they are disillusioned about politics, their religious faith has remained more durable. Mr Slater says his faith in God has helped him stay calm. His wife says she, being more "normal" than her consistently impassive husband, was much less sanguine. Feeling ill, probably because of stress, she collapsed on the Friday after they reached Jerusalem. But she is adamant that her faith has not been shaken.

But Mrs Slater, wholly rational in manner, insists she will still believe the decision can be reversed "as long as our house is standing and until the last soldier leaves". And after that? Both appear to believe that sooner or later they will be back in Gaza. For Mr Slater this is a function of the conflict.

"There is not going to be peace. This didn't finish the conflict. The Arabs won't be content with Gush Katif, they want Haifa and Jerusalem too. They want the land from the sea to Jordan." Just like the Slaters do? Mr Slater doesn't demur.

Indeed, the absoluteness of their belief in greater Israel is utterly unaffected by what has happened. It is, presumably, what disconnects them from the fact that they are suffering so much less than the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who lost their homes in and since 1948.

"It's our land, and any nation knows you do not give away your land to your enemies."

Like so many settlers, the Slaters didn't, when they first went to Gush Katif in the now scarcely comprehensible days between the Six-Day War and the first intifada when there were no fences or troops between the settlements and Palestinian Gaza, go for primarily ideological reasons. It seems incredible now, but as Mrs Slater says: "I learnt to drive with an Arab instructor in Khan Yunis. It wasn't frightening at all." Mr Slater adds: "There was someone who tried to open a vegetable shop in Neve Dekalim but he couldn't make any money because everyone went to Khan Yunis to do their shopping because it was cheaper."

What future does he see for the Palestinians now? "They can be our neighbours if they want to be near us. But this," and Mr Slater doesn't have to spell out that he means Gaza and the West Bank too, "is our country and they have to know it."

As to the issue of their own house's destruction, the couple do not agree. Mrs Slater did not want the house destroyed, even if it meant a Palestinian living in it - temporarily, as she sees it. "If someone was going to look after my garden, why should I mind." But Mr Slater wanted his house flattened, as it will be this week, rather than given as a "prize for terror" to the Palestinians.

On one point, at least, Moti Slater feels vindicated. Families like the Slaters who stayed illegally in their Gush Katif settlements beyond the midnight deadline for voluntary departure on 16 August, were warned they would forfeit their chance to pack up their worldly goods and would lose up a third of their compensation. Last weekend, 10 days after their forced eviction and rather fewer before the Army bulldozers move into destroy it, Mr Slater went back to the house and supervised the soldiers who were packing their property into two shipping containers for temporary removal to the Army base at Kastina, north of Ashkelon. And meanwhile, Ariel Sharon has indicated he wants to see settlers like Mr Slater paid full compensation - a package worth $450,000 (£250,000) on average - along with those who left before the deadline. Mr Slater always told his wife and children that this was a ruse to pressure them to leave voluntarily; now he seems to have been proved right. Even if he hadn't been, he says, it wouldn't have made any difference to their decision not to pack up before the Army came: " We'll take the money, but it's really not that important."

But wouldn't it have been better, if only for the children, to have planned for the future by negotiating with the government rather than face, as they now do, uncertainty about where they can live? At the very least they could, like many other settlers, already be living in caravans within sight of where their new houses will be built.

"You can't fight for your house and pursue finding another house," says Mrs Slater. "I couldn't do it. I don't regret it." One possibility is that they will get a caravan close to the "tent city" near Netivot, housing the recalcitrant settlers from Atzmona, where Mrs Slater taught at the kindergarten and where the children are missing her. In the longer term they want, like so many other settlers, to move with their closest friends from Neve Dekalim. They have no desire to move to the West Bank settlements, because as Mrs Slater puts it: "I don't like the mountains. I want somewhere green."

Their dream is establish a community of Neve Dekalim families in Galilee. But either way "God gives us strength. We are looking forward not back. We are crying but we are looking forward."