Yamit - The Aftermath
The founding, short life and destruction of the city of dreams.
This article is a sequel to my previous article - Yamit - A blast from the past.
Several readers requested information about the town such as its origins, the people who decided to establish homes in the town, the events leading up to its destruction, the fate of the evicted residents and the effects on their lives. The Yamit saga made me very aware of two human elements involved in the establishment of settlements, euphoria following the political decision followed by the trauma experienced when events don't go according to plan, as happened with Yamit.
While the Yamit saga is very much in the past, a similar sequence of events took place when Israel unilaterally disengaged from the Gaza Strip in 2005, resulting in the evacuation of the residents and the destruction of 21 villages. The proliferation of settlements in Judea and Samaria, many of which have grown into large cities, makes one aware of the slight possibility of similar events repeating themselves, if and when an answer is found to Israel’s territorial conundrum.
The creation of a security buffer between the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza was the rationale behind the establishment of the Yamit Region, which comprised the town of Yamit as the hub of 16 surrounding agricultural settlements. Israel was very much aware of the reality that at some stage ownership of the Sinai might have to revert to Egypt. While the reality remained, Yamit residents lived their daily lives harbouring a forlorn hope that the Yamit Region could eventually be used as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Egypt. The Israel Egypt equation underwent a dramatic change on 9 November 1977 when Egyptian President Sadat startled Israel and the world by announcing his intention to visit Jerusalem and address the Knesset. This was the beginning of a series of negotiations that ended with a peace agreement known as the Camp David Accords. The eventual agreement was preceded by a series of meetings between then prime minister Begin and Sadat, chaired by U.S. President Jimmy Carter. The agreement was followed by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat.
During the negotiations Carter attempted to link Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) to the Sinai withdrawal, which Begin refused to countenance. Sadat then suggested that the West Bank be excluded from the talks conditional on the Yamit Region being returned to Egypt, along with the rest of the Sinai. Begin accepted Sadat’s proposal, rather than getting stuck in the quagmire of a far more controversial debate on the West Bank. The fate of Yamit was sealed. One of the strange Egyptian conditions was that all Israeli settlements had to be broken down and destroyed.
Many of the former Yamit residents acknowledge that they were aware from the very beginning that they might one day have to face leaving their homes in the event of an agreement with Egypt. That realisation might account for the fact that despite grandiose plans for a big city of 40 to 50,000 residents, the population never exceeded 2,500 people. While most of the residents accepted their evacuation from the town, a few hardliners decided to resist. The situation became really messy with the intervention of extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane, who sent a group of his followers to occupy buildings in the town during the evacuation and demolition. The evacuations were violently resisted by a small group, most of them Kahane’s followers, who threatened retaliation against the IDF. The rhetoric from the protestors included the extreme threat of blowing themselves up if soldiers entered the bunkers they had established in abandoned buildings. The lasting memories of the evacuation are images of screaming and kicking protestors being forcibly removed by soldiers. However, many of the former Yamit residents say it is not a true reflection of events, with their evacuation carried out in a peaceful and orderly fashion.
What about the effects on the lives of the Yamit residents who were evacuated and resettled? Speaking at a 30th anniversary commemoration of the evacuation in April 2012, former resident Isaac Shachar said that he had lost his love of life since leaving Yamit, and since then has suffered from periodic depression . On the other hand, Shachar recounts that he took a small date tree that had grown on the sand dunes of the town with him when he left. He planted the sapling at his new home in Arad and when the wind blows through the palm fronds, he says he closes his eyes and is able to hear the sounds of Yamit.
Also present at the anniversary, another former resident Hanan Ami-Bar, 69, said that he felt Yamit was unique not only because of its natural beauty and cool climate, but also because it had an almost euphoric absence of slums and the associated social ills. Ami-Bar continued saying “I personally didn’t suffer from the trauma. Yamit was a beautiful dream, okay, but now the time came to move on to other things.” He added that there were cases of people who had got divorced because of the trauma of relocation, and even some cases of people who developed serious illnesses as a result. Ami-Bar voiced the opinion that since the evacuation there had been no war, but rather peace with Egypt, which made the evacuation and loss of their homes all worthwhile. Ami-Bar concluded, saying “Israelis have many fantasies, we didn’t need to settle in Sinai.” Many of the former Yamit residents settled on moshav Dekel where Hanan Bar-Ami was moshav secretary at the time of the 30th anniversary. Moshav Dekel is situated a few kilometers south east of the Kerem Shalom border crossing into Gaza, directly inland from where Yamit was situated on the Mediterranean coast.
Shlomo Cohen and his wife Phoebe hosted family from across the country at their large home on the moshav at the time of the anniversary, although they didn't find the event of great significance. The couple said that while the sadness of leaving Yamit never went away, they were able to move on with their lives. In Shlomo’s words “We were young and in love [in Yamit], completely detached from the rest of Israel,” Cohen said that although he had grown up in the city of Rehovot, he could never return to city life. He continued saying that when it was time to move on, he did so willingly in the knowledge it was for the cause of peace with Egypt, the Arab world’s largest and most powerful country. Shlomo Cohen made it clear that the agitators who occupied buildings and fought the soldiers were external agitators who had been shipped into Yamit to make trouble. Cohen ended by saying that each of the former Yamit residents had dealt with the evacuation in their own way, but that the return of the Sinai had proven to be correct. Israel now enjoyed peace with Egypt.
Following the evacuation of the Yamit residents, army engineers demolished all the buildings as well as those in all the other settlements in the Yamit Region. Most of the houses had been erected with prefabricated wall sections which were salvaged, many of which were used to build new homes on moshav Dekel. Other sections found their way to an area known as the “Cemetery of the Walls”. (see my previous article on Yamit) Many of the fruit and other trees were also transplanted, so they were able to take a little bit of Yamit with them when they left.
Let me end by quoting the words of Ariel Sharon, Defence Minister at the time, who spoke about the sacrifice that Israel had made, saying ''We are not retreating from Sinai, we are demonstrating our desire to move forward towards peace. We have done the unimaginable'’. Addressing the troops who had carried out the unenviable and distasteful task of evacuating the Yamit residents and then destroying the town, he said “In Sinai, in Yamit, we have reached the limits of our concessions. We shall turn to strengthening our security, to our development in every sphere. We shall turn to increasing and consolidating our settlements on the Golan Heights, in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza district - settlements that are an integral part of our security, settlements that are a true basis for political plans - all in the framework of the Government's avowed policy.''
Useful links to find out more about Yamit and its residents.