Yamit settlers frosty as spring withdrawal nears
Yamit, Israeli-occupied Sinai — Inside the barbed wire of Sadot, yards of polyethylene flap from the steel bones of hothouses.
Three miles west on the Mediterranean coast stands the seaside city of Yamit, a cluster of neat apartment cubes, green lawns squeezed out of surrounding sand dunes, and at one edge a stark, bristling concrete memorial to Israeli soldiers who died in the four wars the country has fought in the Sinai (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973).
What is important about Sadot, Yamit, and half a dozen other Israeli settlements in the northern Sinai today is that they are being abandoned. The Sadot hothouses are partially dismantled (though the Israeli government has agreed they can remain standing until after Egypt takes control April 26). Paint on the apartments of Yamit is cracked and untended, and the lawns are going to seed.
When the last settlers move out of the occupied Sinai before April 25 - and the physical structures are either abandoned or leveled (Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon favors the latter, so that few Egyptians will take up residence on Israel's southern border) - Israel will have peacefully relinquished a settlement for the first time since the state was founded in 1948 .
''The first and last time,'' asserts Hiam Fiafel, an angry store owner from Yamit who sat in his dark, cool apartment on a recent Sabbath. ''I do not think this should happen to an Israeli citizen ever again.''
''It was a horrible mistake our government made,'' says an empassioned Ella Weizmann, whose house stands near the tree nursery her family operates at Sadot. ''To have people pulled off their land is very, very wrong.''
Some opponents of the pullout argue that Egypt is not to be trusted so near Israel's population centers. But Israeli and American officials believe the provision for thinned-out Egyptian forces in the Sinai, plus the presence of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) contingent, should be a better guarantee of security for Israel than the status quo that existed before Camp David.
At a level more fundamental even than national security, however, most Israelis feel that the abandonment of Yamit runs counter to everything that ''pioneering Zionism'' has taught and practiced since the first Jewish settlers began arriving in Palestine in the late 19th century and building Israel ''goat by goat, dunam by dunam.''
''We teach our children that settlements are good, a value, that we are conquering this desert with war and with our sweat, that we make the land ours by working on it,'' says Mrs. Weizmann. ''Now what will we say? That you put your life into this work and one day it is given to the Arabs?''
Zeev Chefitz of the Information Ministry points out that labor Zionism created a ''settler mythos, claiming the land, draining the swamps'' and that, while the pullout for the sake of peace is necessary, ''to be rolling back on that mythos is what is very difficult for many Israelis. It is very sad.''
If the fierce resistance that Mrs. Weizmann, Mr. Fiafel, and hundreds of others are putting up is any indication, it augers poorly for those who contend that one day, for the sake of a lasting Arab-Israeli peace, thousands more Israelis will have to pull up stakes from settlements in the West Bank and the Golan Heights. Each step out of Yamit has been painful and bitterly contested.
If Yamit is an indication, compensation alone could bankrupt the Israeli government were it to try to do the same for settlements in other occupied territory. The government is still negotiating millions of dollars to compensate and relocate settlers in the Yamit area and in Sharm el Sheikh on the Red Sea. The government has offered $280 million, yet many residents say the government can never pay enough.
''I don't want the government to pay me for the hurt, for the damage to my name,'' says Mr. Fiafel. ''But they should pay me a price that enables me to find a house with a similar quality of life, pay for the moving, and compensate me in order to establish an economically viable store.''
Mr. Fiafel, who came to Yamit from Cincinnati ''at the request of the (Israeli) government in 1975,'' began with a small supply store in his apartment. By 1978, it had grown into a ''modern, self-service, American-style store.''
In the early 1970s, Mr. Fiafel helped organize a group of 40 American families to settle in Yamit. The Israeli government, he says actively encouraged his and other groups in order to create a city that would permanently separate the refugee camps of the Gaza from the once-Egyptian Sinai.
By 1978, 600 families had located in Yamit. Mr. Fiafel contends: ''Without Camp David there would have been 3,000 families here. With Yamit you're talking about the original place for the (yet to be built) Dead Sea Canal. You're talking about a third seaport for Israel. I tell you, this place was on the move.''
But in the end, after receiving approximately $1 million compensation, Mr. Fiafel says he will move out.
Mrs. Weizmann, however, is not interested in compensation, has signed no agreements, does not want to leave the plot she and her husband have farmed for 11 years.
Mrs. Weizmann's Stop the Withdrawal from Sinai Movement claims to have a petition of support with the signatures of 1 million Israelis on it. The movement is stockpiling electric generators, water, tents, blankets, and other equipment for use by supporters who plan to converge on the area a month before the scheduled withdrawal. Mrs. Weizmann is leading a fund-raising drive in the US beginning this week.
''I believe that the government will bow to this pressure,'' Mrs. Weizmann says. ''We know that the politicians can't just tear up Camp David, but political answers politicians can find. What we want is for the government to postpone the withdrawal from Sinai at least until we know what (Egypt's Hosni) Mubarak is going to be like. Let's wait until after he ends martial law and goes back to civilian government.''
Mrs. Weizmann is asked: Why wasn't her campaign heard from at the time of Camp David?
''Theoretically,'' she admits, ''this debate should have taken place when Camp David was being negotiated. But in reality, it couldn't be. No one could criticize peace or criticize (Anwar) Sadat. Now he is gone. The minute Egypt has all of Sinai and has forced the Jews out of their homes, where will peace be?''
It is a question many Israelis ask these days. The forlorn hothouses of Sadot and soon-to-be-vacant apartment blocks of Yamit are part of the cost of making peace with Egypt.