Re-Burying Their Dead: A Gush Katif Saga

hero image
14 Aug 2019

Fourteen years ago this week, 10,000 Jews were expelled from the twenty one diversified communities of Gush Katif. They lost their homes, their livelihoods, their shuls, their yeshivot, as well as the cemetery where forty-six of their beloved ones were buried.

With the black cloud of being expelled from Gush Katif hanging over their heads, the families of those buried in Gush Katif— three of them soldiers— wanted to leave the graves of their deceased family members in the sands of the Neve Dekalim Regional Cemetery. The government would not allow it, for fear of Gaza residents desecrating and destroying the graves after the Gush Katif residents’ expulsion.

Generally, in Israel, only soldiers are buried in coffins. This is because, sometimes, there are only parts of the soldier’s body remaining, or even nothing at all. In the Gush Katif cemetery, only the soldiers were buried in coffins. The rest were buried in white shrouds, so that they could be at one with the earth of Israel. This made the collection of all the remains more difficult.

During the recent “nine days” period, I attended a screening of the film Double Grave, a documentary which deals with the poignant issue of exhuming the Jews who had been buried in Gush Katif. The film was shown as part of an evening to mark fourteen years since the expulsion.

The evening was arranged by the fourteen volunteer women who run the Gush Katif Kallot Fund. They have succeeded in aiding approximately 2,000 kallot/chatanim from Gush Katif. (Read more about their incredible work.)

Lisa Goldenhersh, the emcee of the evening, described how a bride, who was helped by the fund, stated, “After so much moving around, I really feel the sorrow of the Shechina.”

After the emotionally-draining film concluded, Debby Rosen, who helps run the Gush Katif Heritage Center in the town of Nitzan in southern Israel, interviewed Bryna Hilburg, whose son was killed in Lebanon.

Yochanan, hy”d, was the second of six children born to Bryna and Shemuel Hilburg, who made aliyah two years before Yochanan was born. After living in several different communities, the Hilburgs made the community of Netzer Chazani in Gush Katif, their home. Yochanan loved the Mediterranean Sea. This led to his desire to be accepted into the elite Shayetet 13 naval commando unit. Despite his being thin, he gave all he had to succeed in getting accepted. Eventually, he became a commander. He was admired by his soldiers, not because of his physical strength, but because of his patience and sensitivity. On September 5, 1997, he and other soldiers went on a secret mission to Lebanon. He and eleven others lost their lives when a road-side bomb planted by terrorists exploded.

Bryna’s mother suggested that Yochanan be buried in Har Herzl. Bryna envisioned the masses of people who visit Har Herzl on Yom HaZikaron, and she decided that she wanted a quieter place. “Yochanan loved the sea. He would take walks with his dog on the beach. They decided to bury him in Gush Katif.

Yochanan’s mother could not believe that the government would carry out its expulsion plan. “A Jew can’t do this to another Jew!” she exclaimed. She and the other bereaved families could not believe that the government would uproot their loved ones without permission from the families. Bryna declared in tears, “My son was killed for his country, and now the country wants to kill him again.”

When the family had to decide where to bury Yochanan the second time, they did not choose Har HaZeitim, as did many other families. They didn’t want a burial place over the green line. “No one could promise that, in five years’ time, the land would still be ours.” They searched for a burial place and finally decided upon the community of Nitzan where many Gush Katif families were “temporarily” settled. It was by the sea that Yochanan loved so much.

At Yochanan’s second burial, Bryna declared, “I am angry and feel humiliated that we lost our home, our income, and now this terrible thing that they have violated the resting of the dead…including soldiers that died for their country.” At the graveside, she sobbed and said, “I ask for your forgiveness. I tried. I ask for your forgiveness.”

According to halacha, at a re-internment, a mourner sits for one day. At the time, The Hilburgs were living far away, in the Golan, and so they sat at the home of their son in Ashkelon. Bryna said, “Our friend Stuie Tucker had nowhere to sit, so he sat in the cemetery.”

On January 12, 2005, Gideon Rivlin accompanied army forces to show them where the fence around the hot houses in the nearby community of Morag would be erected. The jeep that he was riding in drove over some explosives and he was killed. He was fifty at the time, and a father of five.

In the film, his wife Simcha relates, “The first burial was an operation with anesthetics; the second burial was an operation without any anesthetics… At the first funeral, I felt pain. At the second, I felt anger… I asked him (Gideon) for forgiveness. Forgiveness that we didn’t give him eternal rest in this place. Forgiveness that we didn’t succeed in our struggle to keep our home, that we are disturbing his peace, and, in fact, he sacrificed his life for this place, and it didn’t remain with us.”

For three years, Itai Yulis battled leukemia, but succumbed to it at the age of fourteen-and-a-half. When his parents, Shlomo and Udi, as well as Itai, understood that he was not going to get well, Itai said, “I don’t know what will be tomorrow. Maybe the government will say that we must leave Gush Katif and then, if you bury me here, then perhaps you will have to undergo all the suffering again in re-burying me. What I feel is that here is my home. I need to be buried here, but I am thinking of you.” His parents decided to bury Itai in Gush Katif.

On March 9, 2002, Elkana Goobi, a twenty-one-year-old soldier in the elite Duvdevani unit, was driving his older brother, Boaz, back to his army base, with a younger brother in the back seat. They were on the infamous Kesufim Road when they heard gunfire. Arabs were shooting at passing vehicles. Elkana stopped the car. He and Boaz pulled out their rifles, exited their vehicle and opened fire on the Arabs. The Arabs fled, leaving a trail of grenades behind them. An army jeep mistook the brothers for terrorists and fatally ran Elkanan down. Boaz raised his arms and screamed, “We are Jews!”

Elkana’s mother Miri related, “When the army came to ask us where we wanted to bury Elkana, we said that Elkana told us that he wanted to be here forever and ever. That was his oral will. Our home was the home of his dreams. He was so connected to here. We didn’t consider any other option… When we buried Elkana, our last sentence to him was, ‘Lie here peacefully until techiyat ha’meitim.’ And now, suddenly, we are moving his body, his soul.”

The second time around, his parents decided to have him buried in Har Herzl. “It is safe,” explained Miri. She confided, “It was harder with the second funeral, because for the first funeral, we were still in shock. We hadn’t absorbed the fact that Elkana was no longer with us. During the second burial, we had begun to really feel that he was not with us.”

On Erev Yom Kippur of 1995, Rivka (Becky) Winter’s husband, Nechemiah, went with some friends to tovel in the sea, but he drowned. Becky said, “There was no question as to where to bury Nechemiah. There we lived; there we raised our children.” With the uprooting of the cemetery looming in the summer of 2005, Becky had a recurrent dream that she was carrying a dead body and didn’t know where to place it.

On May 24, 2001, Shifra and Yehuda Hymnart’s daughter, Tiferet, 24, and her boyfriend attended a wedding at the Versailles Hall in Jerusalem. The dance floor collapsed, killing twenty-three people, including Tiferet, and injuring three-hundred. Tiferet was buried in the Gush Katif cemetery next to a little girl who she had volunteered with and who had died of meningitis.

In a somber voice and with a beyond sad look, Shifra tells the viewers, “The thought that they are desecrating the grave— opening it up and taking her out— for us it was a desecration of the holy. Our children would talk about this while crying… The first thing that the families said to each other about the second funeral was, ‘Did you see how it looks? You feel that you’re carrying bones… It’s a horrible thing.’” Shifra has recurrent dreams that she is sitting shiva for Tiferet.

In 2005, I attended the hespedim on King George Street in Jerusalem for the people who were to be re-interred. Thousands of people filled the streets. It was a difficult sight to see so many flag-draped coffins.

Eighteen were buried on Har HaZeitim, and the others in Nitzan, Har Herzl, or Masuot Yitzchak. May their memories continue to be a blessing.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.