When Israeli citizen Yael Noyman settled in the Gush Katif settlement of Neve Dekalim 21 years ago, the Israeli government told her it was the most important place to live.
She had just been evacuated from the Sinai settlement of Atzmona as a result of the Israeli-Egyptian peace accords mediated by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter at Camp David.
Now Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is pledging to move Noyman for a second time, along with her husband, children and some 7,800 other people living in 22 Israeli communities in the Gaza Strip. The evacuation is part of Sharon’s U.S.-backed unilateral “disengagement plan.”
More than 1.2 million Palestinians live in crowded conditions in the Gaza Strip, but the Israelis there are quick to point out that the Israeli communities were built on uninhabited sand dunes — and the businesses and agriculture they have developed now provide employment for the local Arab population.
In a speech in Jerusalem on Wednesday, Sharon said that his disengagement plan follows in the footsteps of the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who signed the first-ever peace agreement with an Arab nation, Egypt, in 1979. That agreement led to the removal of some 5,000 residents of Israeli communities built in the Sinai Desert.
Several years before that, Israel built more than 20 settlements and two major towns – Ophira and Yamit – in a 30-mile stretch in the Sinai desert along the Israeli-Sinai border as a security buffer zone.
Sharon said that Begin had been willing to pay the “painful price” of evacuating the settlements in order to make peace with Egypt. He quoted Begin as saying he would “carry this pain” in his heart until the day he died but that it had been his “duty” as prime minister to carry it out.
“As prime minister, I have acted in this spirit, to this day, and I intend to continue,” said Sharon, who was Begin’s defense minister at the time.
But Israelis removed from those Sinai settlements 20 years ago — who now live in Gush Katif at the southern end of the Gaza Strip — say there is no comparison between the Sinai evacuation back then and Sharon’s disengagement plan now.
“It is impossible to compare the evacuation of Yamit and the evacuation of Gush Katif,” said Noyman, 42, a mother of six.
“All the area of the strip of Yamit [in the Sinai] was comparatively young – seven or eight years – before the agreement was signed,” she said. Some residents of Gush Katif have been living there for more than 30 years, she added.
“First of all we are still hoping that it won’t happen,” Noyman said. “Then [in the early 80s] they told us, ‘It’s the biggest Arab state, it’s worth it to make peace with them’ – not that we agreed – but I was young.
“Today we know that we are giving up a big factory of life [vibrant community] really for nothing. [The Palestinians] are not promising us anything. It’s not that they’re promising us anything and they’re not honest; they’re not promising us anything in exchange!” she said.
But what really bothers Noyman, she said, is the non-democratic way that the process is taking place. Prior to the Sharon’s Likud party referendum, in which a majority of Likud members voted against the disengagement plan, members of Gush Katif worked day and night to mobilize opposition to the plan, she said.
“Today we see that it’s not really a democratic process. The ministers whose opinions were unfavorable in Sharon’s eyes were fired. Sharon ignored the results of the vote and actually he’s doing what he wants to do,” Noyman said.
(Sharon skirted the results of the referendum and brought the plan to a cabinet vote, firing two cabinet ministers before the government vote on the plan in order to make sure it would pass.)
If, on the other hand, there was an orderly process and real possibility for peace, “I don’t think anyone would prevent the peace,” she said. “It’s hard to think about this process, about evacuation. I can’t think about it.”
Noyman was 20 years old when she was moved from the Sinai settlement of Atzmona, where she had lived for two years as part of her national service, in lieu of serving in the army.
“Atzmona was founded on the day they signed Camp David. It was a settlement founded as a protest against Camp David,” she said.
When it came time for evacuation, the residents of Atzmona made a deal with the army that they wouldn’t resist and in exchange the media wouldn’t be allowed to cover the evacuation. The army brought in buses and moved them out quietly.
Because they were in the middle of the harvest season, the army brought them back every day for a week to pick melons and peppers, returning them to the settlement of Morag in the afternoon.
In a scrapbook, Noyman had pictures and clippings of her days there, boarding the bus to leave, rubble of a destroyed building, and the empty plot where her living quarters had been.
“It was very hard. When they returned us to the settlement [Atzmona], what we saw was very terrible and sad… They had taken the trailers [where we lived]. There was a big dining room that they had built there, and [the army] had destroyed it… The settlement was empty,” she said.
“[After the evacuation] the government told us that the most important place to live now is Gush Katif. ‘Live in Gush Katif,'” she said.
Noyman, who works for the Education Ministry, and her husband Yossi, who is a building project manager, then moved to Neve Dekalim where there was no water or electricity. They have lived there now for 21 years.
Neve Dekalim, with some 2,600 residents, is the largest of the Jewish communities thriving in the Gaza Strip. Neat red-tile roof homes with beautiful landscaping line the streets; and in many places, homes have a view across the sand dunes to the Mediterranean Sea.
“I think that the government that brought us to live here is really responsible,” she said. “The second time to evacuate us, where will we go from here? This is only the beginning, its clear that the evacuation from Gush Katif is only the beginning.”
Although Atzmona was evacuated quietly, the city of Yamit was not. Television images of Israeli soldiers fighting with other Jews to get them to leave pierced the nation.
Yigal Kirshenzaft, 45, had lived in Yamit for five years before he was evacuated. He and his wife Zippora were the first family in Neve Dekalim. They have 12 children now and have lived there for 22 years.
“I thought to do everything I could not to leave [Yamit] but then [the situation] was not what we have today,” said Kirshenzaft, who manages a girls’ school in Gush Katif.
“Then there was a treaty [in 1979], an agreement between states… today, there is nothing. There is only a vague folly of Sharon’s… without a goal, without an agreement. Even if there was an agreement I would oppose it but at least there would be something to think [about],” he said.
Kirshenzaft said although there had been many peace plans throughout the years, he was nevertheless, surprised by Sharon’s commitment to give up the settlements.
“I was surprised because I voted for him in elections because he said he wouldn’t evacuate settlements. [Contender Labor Party leader Amram] Mitzna said he would evacuate settlements and Sharon said he wouldn’t evacuate… for that I voted for him,” he said.
Nevertheless, Kirshenzaft said he does not believe that the withdrawal from Gaza will actually take place.
“There are many reasons,” he said. “I think the [Israeli] people are… not stupid. There is no agreement. There is no profit from this, no promises that there won’t be terror… It’s a pressure cooker that will explode.”
People ask how they can live in the Gush Katif surrounded by so many Arabs, but if one looks at a map of Middle East, Israel is hardly visible, Kirshenzaft said. “All our existence is one big miracle.”
“We can’t cave in here. If we fold here it will reach Jerusalem… It’s important that Americans know what we are doing here, will help them regarding terrorism. Terror is the same terror. Islam is the same Islam. All the Islam in the world will take strength from what happens here in Gaza… If they succeed here, it will give power to all the Islamists in the world,” he said.
This ran on the CNSNews Wire on June 17, 2004