Lilia Harel was very emotional as she walked around the Knesset building amid the many photographs she took more than 30 years ago in Yamit, just before the inhabitants of that well-nurtured strip of land in the Rafiah Salient were forced to leave.
The exhibition of Harel’s photographs, which were hidden away for 30 years, shows what life was like in a region that has been almost completely forgotten. In these black-and-white photographs, we can see the red flowers growing in the hothouses, the local dance troupe performing and the crop of choice cucumbers. But we can also see the angry residents burning tires and demonstrating against the withdrawal, the demolition of the houses and the female soldiers removing women residents from their homes.
Lilia’s photographs were exhibited this week at a ceremony in the Knesset auditorium marking the 30th anniversary of the evacuation of Yamit. Dozens of residents who had been forced to leave their homes in Sadot, Netiv Ha'asarah, Diklah and Holit attended the event, which was the first meeting that any government agency had organized since the evacuation. They embraced and shook hands, recalling the years from 1971 to 1982 during which several thousand Israelis, most of them non-religious, answered the government’s call to settle in the arid areas of the Rafiah Salient.
During the ceremony, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin praised the pioneers who had gone to settle in the Rafiah Salient. “Today too, 30 years after the evacuation of the Sinai region, the memories and sights make our hearts tremble,” he said, recalling how Foreign Ministry officials had pressured him not to hold the ceremony so as not to upset the Egyptian authorities during such a sensitive time, heaven forbid. But Rivlin was determined to hold the ceremony just the same.
Lilia, who lives in Jerusalem today, recalls, “It was very difficult for me to look at the pictures even after I decided to sort through them together with my daughter, Anat Oren, who produced the exhibition and the book that I published, and with my son Alon, who prepared a slide show about Yamit. Every time I looked at the photographs, I started to cry because it still hurts to much to see all the beautiful things that we created in Yamit and that they destroyed in the evacuation. It’s like an open wound that never healed.”
Lilia says that mounting the exhibition was very important to her. She wanted the young people to know that the people in Yamit lived ordinary, normal lives, just like in any other city. When people mention Yamit, they show only the evacuation and the demonstrations. Life was wonderful there, Lilia says.
“We didn’t leave willingly”
This week, Aliza Weisman also went back in time 30 years, to the days when she built her home on Moshav Netiv Ha'asarah. A native of France, even today her French accent betrays her origins. She grew up in the Hashomer Hatza'ir movement and was one of the first people to move to the Yamit region.
“I can never forget that wonderful time. Even when I try to repress it, the memories are still very strong. The destruction of the settlement hurt the most. If the negotiations had been serious, maybe the destruction of the settlements could have been prevented,” she says.
Weisman, who documented the evacuation of Yamit in her book "Pinui" ("Evacuation"), wrote: “I write these words with a strong sense of mission. I am the emissary of my fellow community members, an emissary for everyone who lived in the Rafiah Salient, who were victims of a powerful smear campaign. I am the emissary for the children who grew up and were educated in Yamit, so that they will know what their parents did, and know that their parents did not leave their homes willingly.”
Weisman, who was active in the movement to stop the withdrawal, moved from Yamit to Netiv Ha'asarah 2, which was established in the Zikim region. “As the crow flies, today we live only 25 kilometers away from our home that was destroyed in Yamit,” she says with pain. But she emphasizes that she has rebuilt her life.
The current community, which houses approximately 200 families, thrives just as the moshav in Yamit did, perhaps even more. “We engaged in farming then, but after Yamit was destroyed I didn’t want to do that anymore, so today I’m a physical education teacher, concentrating mainly on Pilates.”
Weisman is currently completing her book, "The Uprooted of Yamit and Katif," which compares the destruction of Yamit and the Gush Katif communities by the government. She says, “I feel that a settlement must never be destroyed, nor should homes that were built at the government’s initiative and with its permission. Whatever the government approved is legal. That’s how they should act in Judea and Samaria, too.”
Zohar Sadeh, one of the founders of Sadot, which was established in Yamit in 1971, recalls that when she arrived in the Rafiah Salient, the whole area was covered in sand, but the young people who came to settle the area had a lot of enthusiasm. “After 11 years of building an exemplary community, we had to leave. We realized that peace had a price and that we were the ones who were about to pay that price. It was very hard to accept. But I didn’t join the movement to stop the withdrawal because I realized that the moment the government and the Knesset approved the peace treaty with Egypt, it was over. The evacuation broke up families. Some people committed suicide and the terrible trauma was also responsible for traffic accidents.”
Sadeh and her husband left Sadot for Ein Habesor, which was established in the Eshkol region for the evacuees from Yamit. “We’re very proud of the community we built,” says Sadeh, who works as the community secretary. “About a thousand people live here. We continue to engage in farming and we’ve also developed bed-and-breakfasts in the western Negev.”
The last of the evacuees
Unlike Lilia Harel, Aliza Weisman and Zohar Sadeh, Avi Farhan still feels like a refugee in his own country. Farhan, who was one of the leaders of the movement to stop the withdrawal from Yamit, was also uprooted from his home in Elei Sinai. Today he and about 48 other families are establishing a new community called El Hayam near Atlit.
Farhan still speaks with pain about the destruction of the city and the nearby moshavim. “I was one of the first people to move to Yamit. We built a wonderful city whose plans were fit for the year 2000. When we were forced to leave our homes, we were the last family to refuse to leave. Hundreds of IDF troops came to take us away -- me, my wife and my daughter,” Farhan says.
“Even then, I asked why they were destroying the houses, the groves and the orchards if there was supposed to be a peace treaty with Egypt. Even then, our leaders knew that the Egyptians did not want real peace. That is why, in the 30 years since the evacuation, they have not developed tourism or trade with Israel. No Egyptian leader has visited Israel. There is no real peace between us. We go to them on our hands and knees. In hindsight, I am certain that evacuating the communities was a terrible mistake.” Farhan’s anger is palpable.
After being forced to leave his home in Yamit, Farhan moved to Elei Sinai in Gush Katif. “In October 1982, we laid the cornerstone for Elei Sinai, but in 2005, as part of the disengagement, we had to leave our home in Elei Sinai, a community that had about 90 families. Since then, I lived in Sderot and all sorts of other places until we bought buildings from Kibbutz Neve Yam near Atlit, and we’re establishing a new community,” Farhan says.
When asked how he felt about the possibility that settlers from Judea and Samaria might be forced to leave their homes as part of an agreement with the Palestinians, Farhan answers, “I suggest that my friends in Judea and Samaria declare that they wish to remain in their homes even if the territories are evacuated and handed over to the Palestinians, even if this means changing their citizenship. It is inconceivable that Arabs live in Israel as citizens with equal rights while Jews couldn’t live in Judea and Samaria under Palestinian rule.”
Teaching in schools
All the former inhabitants of Yamit share their pain about how no government agency documented the settlements in the Yamit region and how an attempt is being made to wipe out any record of its existence. “We won’t let them toss us into the dustbin of history,” Aliza Weisman says.
Knesset Speaker Rivlin, who organized this event together with MK Uri Ariel (National Union), said this week, “The State of Israel needs to rectify the injustice of having forgotten you. It needs to remember you as the ones who paid the price of peace and Israel’s commitment to democracy. It is still not too late to rectify it, and I hope that this event will be a harbinger of change.”
“We feel a profound connection to Yamit and the moshavim of the Sinai district, because about 30 families who used to live in Yamit lived in the Katif region until the evacuations in 2005," says Mochi Better, director of the Katif Center, which is dedicated to the former inhabitants of Gush Katif who were forced to leave their homes in 2005 due to the disengagement from Gaza.
Better adds, “Because nothing was ever done to commemorate the settlement in the Yamit district, we always made sure to hold a Yamit Day in the hesder yeshiva in Neve Dekalim every year, where we talked about the settlement enterprise that had once existed there. At the Katif Center, we also plan to include the Jewish settlements that existed in the Rafiah Salient, Sinai and Sharm el-Sheikh.”
Better ends with a suggestion. “In my opinion, the history of these communities should be taught in high schools,” he says. “There should be a unit on the evacuees of Gush Katif, Yamit and the agricultural moshavim that existed in Sinai so that the young people will know about the pioneering settlement enterprise that was destroyed.”