Yamit - A blast from the past
Yamit was a Mediterranean seaside town established in the Rafah Plain of the Northern Sinai, following the capture of the Peninsula by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War. The establishment of the town was advanced by then Defence Minister Moshe Dayan and the head of Southern Command General Ariel Sharon to create a security buffer between the Gaza Strip and the Sinai. Building work in the town began with the arrival of the first 50 Yamit residents in January 1975. Although there were ambitious plans to develop a port and hotels as well the building of a canal to channel water from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea, none of these came to fruition.
Following the Peace Treaty signed on 26 March 1979 between Egypt and Israel, the writing was on the wall for the end of Yamit as a Jewish town. Most of the residents elected to move back to Israel proper, once the evacuation date was set – 1982. A few hardliners chose to remain and fight the evacuation and destruction of the town carried out by the Israel Defence Forces.
Les Balkind, a one-time resident of Moshav Sde Nitzan in the Northern Negev, became inadvertently involved in the dismantling of Amit and has been kind enough to allow me to publish his memories of those momentous events.
The good citizens of Sde Nitzan were completing another season of growing tomatoes and flowers, and winding down from our usual cares and concerns about finances, crop yields, and which tomatoes should be packed in which packing shed and heaven forbid we should mix quality and quantity tomatoes. Our minds were slowly turning towards another summer with nowhere to cool off on those long hot afternoons. We did have a shell of a swimming pool, but not enough budget to complete the pool and build the tennis courts we so longed for Mr. Bernard Blumfield, our Canadian benefactor, had donated seed money for both these projects, and we were due to be allocated budgets from various ministries and the Moatza Ezorit, but these were very slow in coming.
Meanwhile, across the border just a few miles from our moshav, dramatic scenes on an international scale were being played out. In 1979, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat surprised the whole world with a dramatic gesture – he visited Israel, the first (official) visit by an Arab head of state, spoke in the Knesset and recognised Israel. All this led to a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, one of the conditions of which was that Israel would return every inch of Egyptian territory captured in the Six-Day War, including the lovely little seaside town of Yamit, which Israel had established on the sand dunes of the Northern Sinai. The final withdrawal from Sinai was due to take place in April 1982, and the Israeli government had decided that the entire town of Yamit should be razed to the ground and not handed over to the Egyptians.
Earlier all the Northern Sinai agricultural settlements such as Sadot, Netiv Ha’asara, and Talmei Yosef had already been evacuated and bulldozed so that no trace of them remained. At that time I was Gizbar (Treasurer) of the moshav and was sitting working in the office one afternoon when the phone rang at around 4 pm. Eliezer, the Rosh Moatza (regional mayor) was calling. He knew that we were trying to complete the swimming pool and tennis court, and called to say that he had received permission from the army for us to go into Yamit and take any parts of the village pool and courts that we wanted and were able to carry away. The whole area, which was to be returned to Egypt in the next few days was already a closed military zone, and he had obtained permission from the military for us to enter the area for three days to remove what we could.
I immediately made a few phone calls and organised a meeting with various moshav members who I thought had the technical skills needed to pull off an operation of this nature in a very short time. We managed to organise a truck and early the following morning, armed with our military pass to enter the area, as well as equipment such as spanners, cutters, ladders, angle grinders and generators, we set off for Yamit.
The sight that greeted us upon entering Yamit could not have been more surreal if it was from a movie directed by Francis Ford Coppola. A number of the Yamit residents, joined by supporters, mostly religious people who had somehow managed to slip through the military cordon into the town, refused to leave and occupied the rooftops of the buildings. The army had a number of cages raised and lowered by cranes, and soldiers would run around on top of the buildings, catch and overpower one demonstrator at a time, lock them in the cage, lower them to the ground where they were removed from the cage and then locked in a temporary cell or police van for later removal. The whole process was repeated over and over until a building was completely evacuated and sealed off. Bulldozers would then move in and slowly but surely reduce the building to rubble. Buildings that were not occupied were being destroyed much quicker.
While all this was going on around us, we were working hard trying to remove and load as much as was practical. We couldn’t loosen the bolts of the tennis court’s light poles, so they were cut at the base with angle grinders. We removed the tennis court fence and some parts of the filtration system of the swimming pool. We took it all back to Sde Nitzan, offloaded the truck and returned the next day to finish off what we didn’t achieve on the previous day. A few of the guys who were part of our team were very upset, maybe even traumatised by what we saw, and who wouldn’t be? To watch a town being destroyed is not something that anyone wants to see, let alone experience.
I still had army permission to enter the area for a third day, even though we had completed our task. I asked Irene (my wife) if she would like to go in for the last time to a town we had regularly visited, often for a sunset picnic on the beach with our small children. Although I had seen enough of the disturbing sights during the previous two days, we were watching history being made, so I couldn’t refuse when she indicated that she wanted to go and see for herself. When we arrived at the town, the destruction was almost complete. We weren’t allowed into the town, so we climbed a sand dune near the fence and watched as the last of the houses were flattened into the desert sand.
A few months later we managed to obtain the funds to complete our pool and courts. I don’t remember how much of the equipment that we salvaged was actually used in the end, but whenever I enter Sde Nitzan and drive past the beautiful blue sparkling pool, I can’t help being reminded of those events that took place thirty five years ago this month.
Originally Authored by Les Balkind
The links below allow a short digital visit to Yamit