History foreshadows Gaza pullout

Some resisted the Sinai pullout in 1982; this week's protests suggest leaving Gaza may be more difficult.

Stuffed with brittle yellowed papers, Nahum Yosefi's frayed leather briefcase is a time capsule from a chapter in Israeli history about to repeat itself.

Sifting through his relics - speeches and compensation agreement drafts from the return of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in 1982 - Mr. Yosefi's chuckles are laced with nostalgia for the life he left behind in Israel's Yamit settlement block more than two decades ago. "That was the house," he says, pulling out a blueprint for his two-floor, seven-room home. "And they destroyed it completely."

Some 6,000 Yamit settlers like Yosefi watched their homes bulldozed in the name of peace with Egypt. The landmark evacuation - ordered by then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and carried out by his defense minister, Ariel Sharon - was the first time Israel destroyed settlements it established in territories seized during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Yamit survives as the sole precedent for the evacuation of about 9,000 settlers from the Gaza and the West Bank, scheduled for mid-August. Scenes of Israeli soldiers dragging holdouts off a hotel rooftop endure as the seminal image from the Yamit evacuation - a reminder of the settler's dogged determination to resist being uprooted.

To some extent, the turmoil from 23 years ago is fueling expectations that the Gaza withdrawal will be even more unruly. Wednesday, tension between Israeli police and pullout opponents remained high. Thousands of protesters in a farming village in southern Israel said they planned to march toward Gaza, now a closed military zone, and into the Gush Katif settlement as some 20,000 police and soldiers encircled them for a second day.

Indeed, the Gaza pullback - a unilateral exit without any Palestinian concession in return - has stirred considerably more controversy than the withdrawal from Yamit, the price of the 1979 Peace treaty with Egypt.

Public support for the Gaza pullout has fallen from nearly two-thirds just one year ago to about 50 percent as recently as last month, according to recent surveys. The sacrifice of Yamit, by contrast, was considered a fair tradeoff by Israelis, says Akiva Eldar, a journalist at Haaretz newspaper who recently coauthored a history of the settler movement.

"They say, 'Hey we got peace and it was worth it,' " says Mr. Eldar. "In the collective memory of Israelis, the trauma of Yamit victims was a justified trauma."

The Yamit settlers dispersed throughout the country. Some, like Yosefi, moved together in a group to establish new communities inside Israel. Others moved to the Gaza Strip to become part of the expanding settler community there.

As the country girds itself for the August evacuation in Gaza, the crisis of crushed idealism and eviction has been reawakened among the veterans of 1982.

"My heart is with them. It'll be worse for them because they've been there for 30 years, but I still think the disengagement is dictated by reality," says Yosefi, who lives on a "moshav" agricultural cooperative, Netiv Haasarah, named after the cooperative he founded in Yamit. It's so close to Israel's border with Gaza that Palestinians laid claim to its land this week.

"The evacuation was so difficult that it stays with us until today. There's an anger at the government that for years they misled us with ideals that couldn't be implemented," he says.

In building homes and greenhouses in the remote sands of northern Sinai during the 1970s, Yosefi and his Yamit neighbors fancied themselves as new Israeli pioneers who were securing the country's borders. Like the Gaza settlers, they believed Israel's prime minister opposed uprooting settlements. But after Mr. Begin sealed their fate at the Camp David peace summit, the settlers say they were demonized as enemies of peace.

"We told Begin, whoever concedes Yamit will concede Jerusalem," says Aliza Wiessman, a Yamit veteran and a resident of Netiv Haasarah. "He was very upset with us."

The move was humiliating for the evacuees. Some lived for months in military dormitories. Others were derided as motivated by monetary compensation. Marriages collapsed and, although settlers received financial aid, the government ignored any psychological counseling, Eldar says.

Sarita Maoz remembers when the government cut electricity and water to her home in Yamit. A teenage girl whose father insisted on remaining behind after most of the residents had given up, she spent her last day playing amid the rubble of destroyed buildings.

Ms. Maoz is waiting for the soldiers again. A 12-year resident of the northern Gaza settlement of Elei Sinai, the lawyer says she will remain in her house until the final moment. A banner hangs outside her home, "this house is not for sale." But her children will be with their grandparents.

"I won't leave my kids here. I won't let them see the sights that I saw or experience a soldier's coming to move them," she says, her voice trembling at times. "I never would have come here if I thought it would be evacuated."

Back at Netiv Haasarah - just inside Israel's border and three miles from Elei Sinai - Yaacov Ben Yaacov watches a home movie of the Yamit evacuation while debating the Gaza withdrawal. Israel eventually should leave Gaza, he says, but only as part of a negotiated accord.

"It might be in another 50 years, they'll say that this was the chapter that returned the region to normalcy," he says. "But we don't have that vision."

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