Israel Tries Not to Follow Own Footsteps in Retreat
By Ken Ellingwood, LA Times Staff Writer
December 19, 2004
Recalling the chaos of a 1982 Sinai withdrawal, the nation carefully plans for dismantling of settlements in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
ELEI SINAI, Gaza Strip — Ganit Nave was 9 when Israeli troops came with bulldozers to knock down the Jewish settlement where her family lived on the Sinai Peninsula.
That was 22 years ago. But Nave said childhood memories of watching soldiers
raze the Israeli beachfront community of Yamit remained jagged.
"It was like an airplane came and dropped a bomb. [The town] was all destroyed," she said. "I'm still working very hard to forget."
But Nave faces being uprooted again, as Israel prepares to dismantle Jewish settlements for the first time since the Yamit evacuation — this time in the Gaza Strip, where she now lives, and a small slice of the West Bank.
Yamit, a rustic community of 5,000, was abandoned in 1982 when Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt under the Camp David peace agreement. Now Israeli planners, military officials and settlers are taking lessons from the mistakes of that withdrawal to get ready for the next one.
Among the 21 Gaza Strip settlements soon to be emptied is Elei Sinai, a pretty seaside community where Nave lives with her husband and two daughters, ages 7 and 2 months. The 400-member community, whose name means "toward Sinai," was settled by Nave's father, Avi Farhan, and others who had left Yamit.
The planned evacuations, pushed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as part of what he calls a "disengagement" from Gaza, are scheduled to take place next summer. Israel is offering settlers modest payments for the homes, which are to be torn down, though there has been talk of handing them over intact to an international body.
Nave, 32, said she was growing pessimistic that settlers could halt the withdrawal. But she vowed that her elder daughter wouldn't be around to watch if it occurred.
"My parents made a mistake. They left us there until the end," she said. "I don't think a child should see what we saw."
Israeli authorities agree, and are warning parents against holding out until the end.
"The most important point I heard from [Yamit] is that families remained in denial until the last day," said Yonatan Bassi, who heads the authority set up to coordinate payments and relocation services. "I'm trying to persuade the settlers not to remain there with their children."
Israeli officials also are carefully devising a more orderly system to compensate homeowners and to head off the kind of confrontations between soldiers and holdout protesters that plunged Yamit into weeks of chaos.
Sharon proposed the unilateral withdrawal months before Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat died, arguing that Israel should fall back to more easily defended boundaries as long as it had no Palestinian partner for negotiations. Palestinian leaders have said any withdrawal should be part of an overall negotiated settlement.
Sharon has said he plans to go ahead with the pullout but may coordinate it with a more moderate Palestinian leadership. The Gaza settlements are home to about 8,000 residents; the four West Bank communities slated for evacuation under Sharon's plan have a few hundred people.
In a twist of history, Sharon, then Israel's defense minister, oversaw the withdrawal from the 15 or so Israeli communities in Sinai. Sharon said he had decided to destroy Yamit, the largest settlement, out of concern that it could threaten Israeli security if it grew into a major Egyptian city near the border.
"Bad as I felt about it, in the end I removed the settlers and razed Yamit," he wrote years later in his autobiography. "The affair did not leave a pleasant taste in my mouth."
Although Israeli authorities and Yamit residents had three years to prepare for the Sinai evacuation after the 1979 signing of the peace treaty with Egypt, planning took place at the last minute. The Israeli parliament passed a bill providing compensation just days before the Yamit pullout was to start, and various government ministries had little coordination.
Moreover, the government gave scant thought to social problems that the settlers might experience. Ex-residents of Yamit say former neighbors later suffered unusually high rates of suicide and divorce. Nave said she was unable to make new friends for years after being uprooted, and eventually sought psychological counseling.
Settlers "had dozens of social, family and personal problems, but the state only dealt with the compensation," retired Col. Shmuel Albeck, who headed the unit that supervised payments, said in a recent interview with the Maariv newspaper. "It was a very big mistake not to have teams of psychologists, sociologists and educators in the settlements."
This time, officials acknowledge, the social toll could be even greater because many of the residents have deeper roots; some have lived in their homes for 30 years.
Authorities said they would offer counseling and other services to ease the settlers' transition to homes and livelihoods elsewhere.
Bassi, the planning official, said during a recent briefing that his agency was working with a variety of Israeli government ministries, including education, welfare, employment and social security, to prepare for "the day after" evacuation.
But Israeli authorities also are concerned about the days leading up to the pullout. During the Yamit withdrawal, Israeli soldiers faced off against hundreds of demonstrators, many of them pro-settler activists who flocked from the West Bank. Protesters locked themselves inside homes and clambered onto rooftops.
The noisy standoff lasted three weeks but did not turn violent. In the end, the demonstrators gave up and left Yamit.
Israeli officials hope to head off resistance this time by getting residents out early. The withdrawal is to be completed by August, giving parents time to enroll their children in new schools elsewhere. To discourage protesters from pouring in, authorities plan to close off the settlements by declaring them military zones.
It remains to be seen whether the government can persuade settlers to leave without a fight. Once the Israeli parliament passes a compensation bill, officials hope to begin writing checks representing partial payments by the end of this month.
As of last month, fewer than a third of the settlers had contacted Bassi's disengagement authority. Many people are reluctant to make it known they are preparing to leave while settler activists wage an intensive public campaign to stave off the withdrawal, Bassi said.
He recounted that a resident of the Gush Katif settlement bloc in the southern Gaza Strip recently came to his office, confessing fear that a neighbor would find out. Bassi said he did not tell the man that the neighbor had visited the previous day.
To provide discreet guidance, the government has launched a website for the settlers with a feature for calculating compensation based on a family's size, length of time in the home and other factors. Farms are eligible for additional money. Loans also are available.
The proposed compensation may not please many residents: A couple with five children, living in the same house for 10 years, would receive less than $100,000 for an 1,800-square-foot home.
Some former Yamit residents are advising settlers to move to a new community as a group to ease the pain of leaving. Israel is pushing two sparsely populated areas for resettlement: the southern Negev region and the northern Galilee.
Lawyer Sarita Maoz was 14 when her family was forced to vacate its home in Yamit. Female soldiers put her toys in boxes, Maoz recalled, and she saw her mother cry for the first time.
Maoz said she did not know where she and her family would go if they had to leave Elei Sinai. Three years ago, the family withdrew to Australia for nine months after Maoz and her husband were wounded when Palestinian gunmen opened fire inside the settlement. Maoz said they might retreat to Australia again if they have to abandon their home in Elei Sinai, with its bougainvillea accents and Mediterranean view.
The couple are making sure their three children — ages 5 through 9 — are braced for the worst but not in a panic, she said.
"We are trying to tell them that this is not the end of the world," Maoz said.
"I do not want them to remember a big tragedy that was the end of their life."
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