GADID, Gaza Strip -- Plots of flowers grow outside most of the homes we pass as we drive through this small agricultural cooperative in southern Gaza. I point out a particularly lavish one, and the driver, a gruff 55-year-old, stops the car.
"What are those white ones?" I ask, motioning through the window. "And those yellow ones with the orange tips?"
Jewish children at a greenhouse in Gadid a few days before 'disengagement.' Jewish settlers in Gaza built some of the most state-of-the-art agricultural facilities in the world.
From the back seat, Rafi Horowitz, a veteran of four Arab-Israeli wars, calls out a Hebrew name for one of them. Debbie Rosen, a resident of nearby Neveh Dekalim and a spokeswoman for Gaza's Jewish communities, isn't sure he's got it right. I get out of the car to take a closer look, and a moment later all three Israelis are in the garden with me, admiring the flowers and arguing about their names. A consensus is reached on the begonias, hibiscus, and pimpernel, but the white ones remain an enigma.
Rosen knocks on the front door and tells the man who opens it about the botanical debate underway in his front yard. He steps back inside, then reappears with a well-worn guide to the flora of the Holy Land. In it we find a picture of our mystery flower: white bougainvillea.
A visitor would have to be strangely obtuse not to sense the deep attachment of Gaza's Jews to the land they live on. Gadid is the kind of place where even tough army veterans take an interest in flowers -- a place whose streets and kindergartens are named for the seven biblical species of fruits and grains. "Gadid" itself is an old Hebrew word for the date harvest, and the names of other settlements, like Pe'at Sadeh ("edge of the field") or Netzarim ("sprouts"), similarly evoke the agricultural yearnings of their founders.
When those founders arrived, Jewish Gaza was all yearning and no agriculture: These settlements were mostly built on barren sand dunes where no one lived and nothing grew. Today it is a horticultural powerhouse, supplying two-thirds of the organic vegetables and cherry tomatoes Israel exports, and renowned for its bug-free lettuce and other greens. Gaza's legal status may be complicated (it is technically an unallocated portion of the League of Nations' 1922 Palestine Mandate), but the moral status of this land is as clear as day: As a matter of justice and sweat equity, the Jewish homesteaders whose faith and hard work have made the sand dunes bloom surely have as much right to their homes in Gadid and Neveh Dekalim as the Arabs have to theirs in nearby Khan Yunis and Dir El Balah.
Yet in just 10 weeks, if Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's "disengagement" program goes forward, the 8,000 Jews who live in Gaza -- men, women, and a great many children -- will be expelled. Their homes and property will be taken over by the Palestinian Authority. And the green revolution that has transformed Gaza's sandy wastes into an oasis of hothouses, nurseries, and flower gardens will almost certainly come to an end.
It will be a tragic upheaval. But Jews won't be the only victims of Sharon's plan.
At Tnuvot Katif, a large produce packaging plant here, I watch for a while as about two dozen workers, most of them local Arabs, get heads of tall leaf lettuce ready for export. More than half of Tnuvot's 127 year-round employees are Arab; they in turn account for about 2 percent of the 3,500 Arabs employed by Gaza's Jewish firms.
During a break in the shift, I ask some of workers if they like their jobs. They shrug -- rinsing and bagging lettuce is no one's idea of exciting work. But when I ask what they think of the coming Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, they grow animated. If the Israelis go, some of them tell me through an interpreter, they'll lose their jobs. If this plant shuts down, they'll be out of work, and if the Palestinian Authority takes it over, they'll still be out of work -- the jobs will go to workers with better connections to the PA's ruling thugs.
"If that's how you feel," I ask, "why don't you oppose the disengagement publicly? Why don't you tell the PA that you want your Jewish neighbors to stay?"
When my question is translated, the men look at me as if I'm crazy.
"It's forbidden!" replies Randoor, the only one of the workers who would give even his first name. "We're not allowed to say that!"
I press him: Why not? What would be so bad about saying that Jews and Arabs should be able to live together? But Randoor shakes his head and crosses his wrists, as if being handcuffed. "They might put us in jail," he says. "They might call us 'collaborators.' " In the jungle that is Palestinian society, being called a "collaborator" can be a death sentence. Indeed, the PA's newly elevated security chief -- a cold-blooded killer named Rashid Abu Shabak -- is known in Gaza as the "collaborator hunter." In recent years, reports Khaled Abu Toameh of the Jerusalem Post, Abu Shabak has "hunted down" scores of Palestinians accused of helping Israel prevent terror attacks. Who knows what he might do to any Palestinian who would dare to call for the Israelis to stay?
All the world over, politicians and pundits are applauding Sharon's coming retreat. Yet a simple lettuce-packer like Randoor seems to grasp what so many of them cannot: The lives of Gaza's Arabs will not be improved by expelling Gaza's Jews.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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