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Gaza evacuation recalls Sinai in 1982

As the Alamo-like scenes of final resistance in the Gaza resettlement played out live on Israeli TV last week, many Israelis felt as though they were re-living history and could not help thinking of the Yamit resettlement of 1982. NBC News Jim Maceda reports from Tel Aviv.
Israeli soldiers try to evacuate youngsters from the Israeli settlement of Yamit in the Sinai Peninsula in this 1982 file photo.
Israeli soldiers try to evacuate youngsters from the Israeli settlement of Yamit in the Sinai Peninsula in this 1982 file photo. Israeli Government Press Office / AP file
/ Source: NBC News

TEL AVIV, Israel — As the Alamo-like scenes of final resistance played out live on Israeli TV over the past week, many Israelis — as well as this reporter — felt like they were re-living history.

I saw a surreal “split-screen.” On one side, images of about 150 settlers and protestors were holding their ground on the roof of the Kfar Darom synagogue, throwing oil, sand, eggs, acetone, and paint-filled light bulbs at unarmed Israeli SWAT teams, who, in turn, struggled to climb slippery ladders or dismount metal cages in full riot gear.

On the other side of the screen: it was a flashback to April, 1982. On yet another rooftop —this one in a Sinai outpost called Yamit — hundreds of hard-core ultranationalists, again, were waving Israelis flags and throwing debris at riot police even as water cannons unleashed powerful streams of white foam on their redoubt.

Then, of course, I realized I wasn't just imagining it: one of the Israeli TV channels I was monitoring had actually split its screen to show the eerie similarities between the two traumatic events.

The settlers' "last stands" in the pullouts from the Sinai and Gaza have much in common, but my own double-take went beyond the more obvious scenes of confrontation: the same rooftop "battleground," the same palms, beaches and Mediterranean backdrop, the same home-made weapons of choice (although the Yamit holdouts threw rocks as well as vegetables at the security forces), the same wooden ladders, metal cages, and ancient songs of defiance and patriotism.

There were other uncanny parallels — like the 9,000 settlers of Gaza and the northern West Bank today — the 6,000 or so Yamit settlers of the Sinai had also felt betrayed, 23 years earlier, by a "treasonous" right-wing government that encouraged them to build houses and raise families on land conquered in the 1967 Six Day War.

But, as part of the 1979 Camp David Accords with Egypt, the same right-wing government pledged to return all of the Sinai to Egypt.

Déjà vu 1982
Three years later, the stage was set.

Then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon — in what looks today like a dress rehearsal for the current Gaza withdrawal — oversaw the forced evacuation of the Sinai settlers and the demolition of their 600 homes.

As part of an NBC News team, I lived for some four months, much of it clandestinely, inside an abandoned Yamit apartment (like the Gaza settlers, many of the real Yamit families left before the final showdown). I watched as the deadline approached and Yamit filled up with outside “infiltrators” and anti-peace-with-Egypt agitators.

On "E-day," at 2:00 p.m. on April 23rd, 1982 Sharon gave the order to his riot police to storm the several hundred “Gush Emunim” Jewish militants and hardcore settlers who had commandeered the rooftop of a three-story hotel.

It took those elite Israeli forces hours to gain control of the situation. The ensuing “battle” was pathetic, some times comedic, to watch. Amazingly, despite being beaten back by sticks and clubs and stones, the soldiers showed uncharacteristic restraint then, just as they did last Thursday at the height of "battle" in Kfar Darom.

Still, at one point, the commander of the evacuation felt the need to fire a few warning shots, which worked. The Yamit hold-outs, apparently stunned by the explosive gunfire, turned compliant, but not before at least five, including one soldier, were injured.

The Yamit ordeal, however, was not over yet. There was word that a group of Jewish ultra-nationalists, mostly Americans, had barricaded themselves inside a bomb shelter and threatened to commit mass suicide. They were eventually dissuaded by the volatile, American Jewish extremist, Meir Kahane, who, himself, was assassinated nine years later.

Kahane's argument was simple:  They would all be needed as foot soldiers in future wars against Arabs.

One generation's national ordeal
In 1982, Israeli citizens watched the Yamit evacuation, not on live TV, but mostly on the evening news, in black & white film reports filed by the government-controlled news channels.

Great efforts were made to portray the Yamit protestors as mercenary squatters and impediments to real peace.

Still, even these “official” news reports were so emotionally charged that then Prime Minister Menachem Begin's reaction (“Oh the days, Oh the nights”) became a lament for the national suffering no Israeli wanted to live through again.

After the dust settled, the uprooted Yamit-ers, with the incentive of large compensation packages, moved to new homes inside Israel, or the West Bank, and yes, even Gaza. 

Songs, screenplays, documentaries and novels dissected and reinvented the Greek Tragedy that was Yamit. Jew versus Jew. Peace versus Redemption. Yamit became one of the most popular first names for newborn girls.

Might Gaza leave deeper wounds?
But as difficult as Yamit was — morphing with brutal speed from a seaside oasis into a city of rubble — many analysts believe the Gaza, and partial West Bank withdrawal will leave even deeper scars.

First, the Yamit settlers were all relative newcomers, few had lived in the outpost for more than six years.

Many Gaza settlers, meanwhile, had raised children and grandchildren in the settlements. Many spent 30 years or more in Gaza.

Also, the majority of Yamit settlers were drawn by the economic incentives of low taxes, free housing, and minimal interest on loans as much as the dream of a Greater Israel in the Northern Sinai desert while most of the Gaza settlers believe they were truly fulfilling a religious duty to populate a God-given land.

Pulling out of Gaza, in other words, is a step away from redemption for these messianic settlers.

But, perhaps the most important difference is that the Yamit settlers, however pained, knew they were part of a larger peace process: their land for peace.

There is no such quid pro quo today. As one (American) settler from Netzer Hazzani told me, ''They want us to give up everything we know and cherish, in exchange for a fantasy, a sheer fantasy, that it might, maybe, lead some day to peace. It's crazy!''

There is also the certainty, at least in the minds of settlers, of even more terror after the Palestinians take control of Gaza, makes this withdrawal even more traumatic.

It's probably why, despite the national upheaval in April 1982, that the mood, back then, was more optimistic.

Peace with Egypt seemed to be worth the sacrifice. And the Sinai, after all, didn't evoke the same visceral connections to the Bible as, say Judea or Samaria — today's West Bank. (Though, barely two months later, that optimism was crushed in the tank tracks of Israel's foray into Lebanon.) 

What's next?
I can remember politicians, back in 1982 — including Sharon — swearing that the nation could not survive another upheaval like Yamit. But, in another bizarre repeat of history, it was the same Ariel Sharon who stated, on Sunday, that there would be no further unilateral disengagements after this pullout.

Sharon had played his hand and dealt with his extremists, he said. Now the next move was up to the Palestinians.

But one can't help wondering, now that what was unthinkable for almost four decades has come to pass, if it will take yet another generation before Israel is ready to make the next sweeping — and traumatizing sacrifice, for peace.

Yamit....Kfar Darom...Netzarim...Sanur...but when East Jerusalem? And at what cost?

For now, as has so often happened in this tiny nation's tumultuous 57 year history, Israelis —Jews and Arabs, secular and religious — will try to put one trauma behind them, even as they brace for the next.