Sinai evacuation nears, but; Israeli nationalists dig in their heels

With Israel's evacuation of Sinai only a few months off, die-hards here are hoping to thwart the pullback by a doomsday confrontation with their government.

Dozens of nationalists have filtered into the region with their families in recent weeks -- the spearhead of a large-scale, well-organized incursion.

"We will have so many people here that the government just won't be able to do it," says Meir Shilo, whose family is one of 16 that settled this week in houses in the agricultural settlement of Talmei Yosef, abandoned by evacuees.

Although the majority of militants speak only of passive resistance, the potential for violence is regarded in Israel as extremely serious. Some officials have called for speedy action by the Army to evict the nationalist infiltrators before the situation gets out of hand.

"There are handguns and rifles in every house," says a housewife in Yamit. "They're frustrated enough to use them. It's all so schizophrenic. I'm afraid to live here."

Yamit, which has about 2,000 residents, is located on the curve of the Mediterranean where Asia and Africa meet. Around it in northern Sinai are 13 Israeli agricultural settlements. All are to be handed over to Egypt next April 28 in the final stage of Israel's Sinai withdrawal under the Camp David peace accords. Final evacuation of the settlers, however, may come as early as December, according to some reports.

This is the first time since the peace process got under way that Israel will be evacuating civilian settlements, and the effect is expected to be traumatic, particularly in Israel's nationalist camp.

The major resistance is being organized by a new movement -- Stop the Retreat in Sinai (SRS) -- whose leader is Vito Weizman, a farmer from Moshav Sadot.

"Our fight is a national fight," he says. "You don't achieve peace by uprooting settlements. Real peace is when two peoples live side by side -- when my sheep stray over to their land and they return them -- not when you build tunnels under the Suez Canal for the movement of tanks, as Sadat has done."

Although Mr. Weizman is not Orthodox, most of his allies in SRS are religious nationalists from the Gush Emunim movement, which was the principal force behind Israeli settlement on the West Bank.

"This is part of Eretz Yisrael [the biblical land of Israel]," says Rabbi Yisrael Ariel of the Yamit Yeshiva.

"Jews must die for Eretz Yisrael, not give it up. I say die, not kill. We will not fight Jewish soldiers. But whoever wants to take us out of here will take us from under the ruins of our buildings. To fight for the sands of Yamit or for the stones of the Western Wall is for me the same."

In addition to the value they place on preserving the Yamit region under Israeli rule, many nationalists see it as a testing ground on which the fate of the West Bank settlements may ultimately hinge. They believe that Israeli governments in the future will be less inclined to evacuate West Bank settlements is made painful enough. SRS plans to continue to send in supporters to take over houses abandoned in the coming months by evacuees from the Yamit region.

The most violent talk comes not from the nationalists but from disgruntled businessmen and plant owners in Yamit who say the compensation offers made by the government are not commensurate with the years, energy, and money invested in this desert town. "The best years of our lives," said one merchant this week.

The volatile leader of this group is Yossi Sela, a factory owner who was one of the founders of Yamit six years ago. "I've been in three wars and I'm not afraid of bullets. They won't take me from here alive if they don't come to terms. They're not going to make a joke of me. The nationalists say they won't use weapons, but if it comes to it, I think our people will."

A moderate businessman slept outside his general store in the town's shopping center several months ago with a gun to prevent vandalism by extremist elements after he had refused to sign one of their petitions.

Most of the residents are today between 35 and 55 years old, and for them settlement in Yamit presented a new and final beginning in their lives. Their sudden uprooting now, spinning them off in midlife into an uncertainty they had thought was behind them for good, is a shock that will be a long time passing.

The uncertainty about where they will move to and what they will do, the anger at the trick fate has played upon them, explains much of the inner turmoil that has emerged as a mixture of anguish and greed.

"When we came there was no grass and no birds," says Sarah Feifel, formerly of Boston. "We never thought of money. We thought of building a beautiful place to live. After Camp David, I walked down to the beach and wept; I went through all the stages of mourning. The government didn't prepare us for this.

"Yes there is greed but I think it's mostly frustration at not being able to bring out what's hurting you. One day you have everything and then suddenly you have nothing. It's your life and you have no say in what's happening to it."

Yamit was conceived in the 1970s by Moshe Dayan, who was then defense minister, as a port city with an eventual population of 250,000 serving as a buffer between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. The strategic purpose of the town and surrounding agricultural settlements was to prevent Egypt from ever again being able to link up the Palestinian-inhabited Gaza Strip and using it as a springboard for attack upon Israel's adjacent heartland. Carved out of the sand dunes, the handsome town is perhaps the best planned in Israel -- probably one of the best planned along the entire Mediterranean rim -- with strict separation of pedestrian and vehicular movement and ample communal facilities. The town, including 300 never-occupied apartments, is to be handed over intact to Egypt under the peace agreement.

The community spirit of the early years -- "this was the beautiful Israel I remember from my youth," recalled one resident this week -- has disintegrated since Camp David. "People only talk now about the place they're moving to, not the place we built," says one woman.

Twice in recent weeks, government negotiators have been run out of town by angry residents demanding more compensation. The car of one government official was burned. When Mattityahu Shmuelevitz, director-general of Prime Minister Menachem Begin's office, came to Yamit Sept. 13 to talk with community leaders, militants threw a smoke bomb into the room and broke up the meeting. Mr. Shmuelevitz, an old underground colleague of Begin's, maintained his poise.

"We're dealing with people who are paying the price of peace more than any other," he told the residents. "We're dealing with people with have been deeply hurt."

In at atmosphere prevailing in Yamit there is a chance of an irrational explosion in which militants will attempt to bring the house down upon them as Samson did just up the coast in Gaza.

A peaceful resolution still seems more likely -- either by the government granting more money or indicating more sensitivity to the settlers' pain, or by the militants sensing as zero hour approaches that they can build a new life elsewhere.

In the nationalist camp, however, there is a calm sense of purpose that seems unlikely to be overcome by anything short of forceful employment of troops.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.