The energy in the room was simply dazzling. This past Sunday night over 1,500 young Israelis crammed into Jerusalem's Malha sports arena for what was billed as the final Championship Game of the annual Gush Katif Basketball Tournament.
Though just five months had passed since most of the players, and spectators, had been evicted from their homes by Israeli soldiers, that didn't stop them from having a few hours of good, ol'-fashioned and much-deserved fun.
They cheered and clapped, bellowed and roared, as the two teen squads, formerly of Neveh Dekalim and Netzer Hazani, faced off against each other on the court in what had become a yearly tradition for Gush Katif youth.
Each team had won the tournament six times previously, so this was shaping up to be "the mother of all championships," the winner of which could claim bragging rights as the true title holder. At first glance it might seem strange that a game between teams representing communities that no longer exist could elicit such drama and emotion. But anyone who doubts the ability of sporting events to lift people's spirits need only have seen the smiles and cheers on display that evening. And anyone pessimistic about the future of religious Zionist youth could not help but be reassured.
TO BE sure, the Gush Katif evacuees have known better days. After the trauma of being tossed out of their homes insult was added to their injury by a government that failed to prepare appropriate lodging and adequate solutions for the evictees.
According to statistics compiled by the Gush Katif Council, which continues to represent them, some 25% of those expelled continue to languish in interim accommodations. This includes 224 families, many with large numbers of children, who are stuck in hotels, and another 109 families dwelling in tent cities near Yad Mordechai and Netivot.
The majority of those expelled from Gush Katif have yet to be given the full compensation promised them by the government, and 50% have not yet even received an initial down payment. Only 3% of business owners and farmers have been compensated for the destruction of the enterprises they toiled for years to build.
Worse yet, the government's Disengagement Authority has been strangling the evacuees with red tape and bureaucracy, often requiring them to locate and submit piles of old documents in order to prove they lived in the area. In at least one instance an applicant was asked to provide phone bills from 17 years ago.
And since their plight has gotten little attention in the Israeli media, the myriad social, economic and employment problems they face continue to fester.
A FORMER youth counselor from Gush Katif told me how the withdrawal from Gaza had hit the young people in the community especially hard. At least three youths he knew personally were so broken-hearted they had to be institutionalized in mental hospitals. Just a few weeks ago he intervened successfully when a group of four young girls, formerly of Gush Katif, began talking about possible suicide.
It was in part to give these kids something to cheer about, as they try to rebuild their lives, that gave birth to the idea of convening the tournament one more time.
Indeed, most of those attending the event, known as the Yulis Tournament after 14-year-old Itai Yulis who passed away in 1991, were bused in from the caravans, hotel rooms and other temporary quarters where they have been living since the expulsion, giving them an opportunity to get away, however briefly, from their problems at home.
The event was co-sponsored by Ra'anana's HaMinyan HeChadash synagogue, the Jerusalem Municipality and the LeMaan Acheinu organization, underscoring the fact that people from across the country have not forgotten our brethren from Gush Katif. Not surprisingly, there were many poignant scenes outside the arena, as former Gush Katif residents greeted one another, many for the first time since being banished from Gaza.
BUT THE real excitement, of course, was on the court, where the two teams played a gritty and determined four quarters of hoops, complete with foul shots, three-point baskets and a good deal of sweat.
Though Neveh Dekalim ultimately prevailed by a score of 54-46, even supporters of the opposing team came away content because it was obvious to everyone in that arena that the spirit of Gush Katif had not been extinguished. Of course, many of the families and young people leaving the arena had to go back to the challenging task of reconstructing their lives and their futures, despite all the uncertainties they face.
But their energy and commitment, to both the Jewish people and its destiny, remains strong, and they will almost certainly play an important role in helping to shape the future of the country. As NBA Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain once said, when asked why he never fouled out a single time in his career: "I've learned I can't help the team sitting on the bench."
Even with all the difficulties they have been forced to endure, it's a safe bet that the youth of Gush Katif won't be sitting on Israel's national bench for very long, either. Brimming with idealism and filled with vigor, they will undoubtedly rebound from the blow they have suffered and continue to score baskets both on and off the court.
For, as the old basketball adage goes, "The harder you fall down, the higher up you will bounce back."
The writer served as an aide in the Prime Minister's Office to former premier Binyamin Netanyahu.