Gaza - Yamit: Been There, Done That
"Since we cannot defeat Israel in war; we do this in stages. We take any and every territory that we can of Palestine, and establish sovereignty there, and we use it as a springboard to take more. When the time comes, we can get the Arab nations to join us for the final blow against Israel." Yasser Arafat
"I can certainly put myself in Israel's shoes. They are humans just like we are. They want peace and security inside their borders." Mahmoud Abbas
Jewish settlements in Gaza are being evacuated, bringing back memories for many--including me--of another evacuation in another time: Yamit, in 1982.
In theory, there's a big difference between the two.
The Yamit withdrawal was part of the Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt -- an agreement for Israel to withdraw entirely from the Sinai. There was protest, but there was also hope for peace. There was solid compensation. And many were offered resettlement as a community -- ironically, in Gaza.
Now, 23 years later, the withdrawal from Gaza arises out of Israel's current effort to broker peace in the region. The settlers, many there for more than 25 years, don't want to go. And the Palestinian militant group Hamas claims they will continue their terrorist attacks even after Gaza's 8,500 settlers leave.
No matter the reason or the reality, being forced out of your home is a terrible blow. I can't speak for those leaving Gaza, but I can sympathize. And wonder what good it will do in the end.
The town of Yamit was a thriving, beautiful oasis in the Sinai Peninsula, which had become south central Israel after the Six Day War. To the East was Jordan, to the West Egypt.
At the time, Israel encouraged and supported Sinai settlements, in part to bring substantial agrarian culture to the region.
Yamit is a ghost town now, razed by Israel as a political ploy and a clear bit of nose-thumbing. Chaim Erez, an Israeli commander in charge of the Yamit evacuation, explains, "The Egyptians wanted to get the area back the same way it was before the Israelis took it over."
Israel will do the same to the Gaza settlements, at the request of the Palestinian Authority. Frankly, if Israel didn't destroy those towns, Hamas would do it anyway. What a waste.
Yamit settlers were primarily Americans and Israelis, many of them young and idealistic. Their objective was to create a livable, suburban garden out of the desert in which to make their homes and raise their children. They succeeded.
There were over 600 houses and apartments in Yamit, and a synagogue, a community center, two schools, playgrounds, markets, restaurants, utility, power and water plants, a huge community vegetable garden and even a town swimming pool, because Yamit was situated at the tip of the Dead Sea, which offered a great beach but not such pleasant swimming.
My childhood friend Jennifer was fluent in Hebrew and taught English to Israeli children in the high school. Her husband Zvi was a reporter for the Jerusalem Post. There was Avi (I've forgotten his American name), an avid bicyclist and farmer with a degree in Philosophy from Penn. And grouchy old Zev, a plumber who liked to quote Shakespeare. So many more, men, women and children, welcomed me each time I visited Yamit from my home base in Tel Aviv.
The settlers of Yamit, many special to me, were a group of ordinary, everyday people with hopes, dreams, aspirations and ideals. Had they left their homes in America or the larger cities of Israel to make a new life in the middle of the Sinai desert? Yes. Did they do so to make a radical political statement? Not really.
They were, as all settlers are, pioneers looking for a new, better life for themselves and their families. The same as most who come to Israel from around the world.
Sadly, many will never realize those dreams. Because their tiny little piece of the Promised Land is surrounded, hounded and pounded by those who harbor only hate ... not hope, not peace.