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City of Refuge

Twenty-eight years after he left, an evacuee from Sinai’s largest abandoned settlement looks back at his onetime neighbors’ sad history

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Israeli settlers gather by the ornamental pool in Yamit’s city center, October 10, 1977. (Moshe Milner/GPO via Getty Images)

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In 1975, just a few months after my little sister was born, I woke up and there was a new and beautiful chessboard in my room. I was told not to unwrap it. Instead, my parents sat me down and told me that I had to go to school and say goodbye to my teacher and my friends and tell them that we were leaving Kiryat Gat, a small town in southern Israel, and moving to a new place and that I wouldn’t be around anymore. Two days later, we were packed up in my father’s Opel, headed southwest. We passed Gaza, and just before El-Arish we made a right turn, climbed up a steep hill, and, at the peak, my father stopped the car and we gazed at our new place for a few long minutes. It was a small city surrounded by palm tress and golden dunes, a five-minute walk from the Mediterranean.

Its name was Yamit, and I soon learned that the sea—its Hebrew word is Yam—was at the center of life in town. At some point in every day, most of Yamit’s 2,500 residents would find themselves on the beach. I was only in the second grade when we moved there, but I quickly learned to emulate the morning routine of the town’s older kids: get up each morning at five to look at the waves and decide if the day should be spent surfing or at school. I remember shoes being worn only when absolutely necessary and evenings spent huddling together with the other families—most of them, like us, young parents and young children—in the town’s square, watching movies on an outdoor screen or just chatting. Life in Yamit was heaven.

It didn’t last long. In 1979, after Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed the Camp David peace accord with Egypt, we were told we would soon have to leave our homes and watch as Yamit, along with the rest of Sinai, was handed back to the Egyptians.

It was the second major trauma my father had to face in a decade. After Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War, my father was working in Sinai, building fortifications for the Israeli Army that were supposed to be Israel’s impenetrable line of defense against the Egyptians. Sinai was about 600 kilometers from our home, so we would see my father for only one day each week. He’d come home on Tuesday evening, each time looking more dusty and disheveled. And he always seemed eager to get back to work, back to the desert. To make up for lost time, he’d ply me with presents: a toy car, sneakers, a new bicycle.

Then came the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and the impenetrable line that took up six years of my father’s life collapsed under the invading Egyptian Army in less than 24 hours. My father came home looking defeated. He was 32 with four children and no clue. Yamit, for him—for us—was a new beginning, a rebirth.

Couple with child in Moshav Sadot, outside Yamit, in 1972

Settlers Saviona and Tsali Maneh hold their infant son, Itai, outside their bomb shelter near Yamit, March 10, 1972.
CREDIT: Moshe Milner/GPO via Getty Images

But as much as we cherished life in Yamit, we weren’t naïve. Israel had captured Sinai once before, in 1956, and was forced by international pressure to withdraw. After recapturing it in 1967, Israel never annexed the desert peninsula, making us Israeli citizens living in a state of uncertainty. Evacuation was a possibility we’d all entertained. Almost every family had relatives somewhere in Israel who said that it was only a matter of time before the government gave Sinai back, that we would end up as collateral.

But Begin himself had reassured us: He visited town often, and each time he did he promised us that when he retired, he would move to Yamit and be our neighbor. We believed him, and we loved him for it.

A short time after the Camp David peace accord was signed, Begin arrived for another visit. He landed with his helicopter near the giant eucalyptus tree in the center of town, spraying sand in the eyes of the angry and hurt people who came to meet him. Begin stepped off the helicopter, dashed through the sands, and crossed the road that encircled the city. More people gathered, but Begin kept marching, past the local police, the fire station, and the post office. Just before the synagogue, he took a sharp turn, and as he was about to climb the stairs to city hall, a young girl emerged from the building, barefoot and wearing a bikini. “You took my house!” she shouted at the prime minister. “You son of a bitch.”

Three years later, on April 23, 1982, the last family had left Yamit, and our empty homes were bulldozed or blasted by the army.

My family and neighbors had left Yamit, but Yamit had never left us. Soon after the evacuation, those of us who still kept in touch started noticing that life had gotten oddly unlucky. Family after family would report instances of death and divorce, suicides and bankruptcies. We thought it was just a miserable coincidence, that when it rained, as the saying goes, it poured. But it didn’t take long to realize our problems were never coincidental. Even the level-headed among us agreed that what we evacuees were dealing with was Yamit’s curse.

***

Women with strollers in the center of Yamit in 1981

Israeli women and their children gather in Yamit’s city center, December 10, 1981.
CREDIT: Ya’akov Sa’ar/GPO via Getty Images

By now, Israel has had ample experience forcefully resettling civilian populations, most notably when it evacuated 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip five years ago. By 2005, the soldiers and bureaucrats whose job it was to empty a stretch of land of its Jewish inhabitants had been trained, and the population had grown accustomed to seeing Israeli law-enforcement personnel drag away Israeli citizens from their soon-to-be-destroyed homes, often with both sides weeping. But, back then, when Begin landed in town and told us that Yamit would have to be evacuated, nobody could imagine what such an evacuation might look or feel like or how it might be carried out.

“There are long-term implications of such dislocation, the dissolution of people’s dreams,” says Stevan Hobfoll, chair of the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Rush University Medical Center, who researches the psychological implications of Israel’s territorial disengagements. “Ongoing disruption is related to depression in particular and anxiety disorders generally. There are reverberations to these things. Perhaps you were planning to have a certain life course, and your life course has changed, and you may not have as good opportunities, and you may experience this as a failure, and now you feel like a failure.”

With no mental-health services available to Yamit’s refugees, the government paid each family a small compensation and considered the case closed. But Yamit’s residents found it exceedingly hard to fit in anywhere else; having grown accustomed to a carefree life on the Mediterranean, living anywhere else seemed like an insufferable compromise.

This was the case with Uzi and Sima Greenberg. They had immigrated to Israel from Romania and came across Yamit by mistake, visiting Gaza and taking a wrong turn along the way. “This was our dream,” Sima said recently in Dekel, referring to the couple’s small apartment across the street from Yamit’s swimming pool, surrounded by likeminded young and idealistic families.

Since Uzi was working for the Israeli Army, they were forced to be one of the first families to leave, as their apartment belonged to the Army. One day a representative from the Army came to the Greenbergs’ apartment, inspected it, and charged them for every broken blind or scratch on the floor.

“This was the small deception: They charged me for a broken blind and then proceeded to destroy the whole place,” Uzi said. “But the big deception was a government asking common people to volunteer and inhabit Sinai and then pulling the plug on them.”

After the evacuation the Greenbergs went through a long period of depression. They refused to leave their house and meet other people. Even after they moved to Dekel, a new community in the northwestern Negev made up entirely of Yamit refugees, they were inconsolable. It took them almost a year to bring themselves to finish building their new house. In the meantime, they lived with stripped walls, bare water pipes, and exposed electrical wires.

Eventually, they opened a grocery store in their back yard. But whereas everyone in Yamit was friendly, the same people, having suffered the trauma of evacuation, were now profoundly changed. Neighbors who had once spent all day consorting amicably in Yamit were yelling at each other in Dekel. The Greenbergs were no different, and within months their fledgling business was on the verge of bankruptcy; their neighbors, it appeared, preferred the 10-kilometer drive to the nearest grocery store to giving the Greenbergs a bit of business.

The Greenbergs grew distrustful. They took all of their money out of the bank and hid it in their home. They ran up debt, lost weight, found God. Debtors began coming by the house and confiscating the Greenbergs’ possessions. Eventually, Uzi couldn’t take it anymore. He would leave the house for long stretches, and when he returned he threatened to burn the house down with his family in it. Once, falling short of his threat, he nonetheless spray-painted slogans on the walls of his own home: “Stinking House,” he wrote. Sima wasn’t doing much better: Finding the stress impossible to handle, she set the family’s dog on fire. Uzi had her committed to a psychiatric hospital. Outside, in their yard, the two palm trees they brought with them from Yamit withered.

***

Israeli soldiers evacuate a young Yamit settler, April 20, 1982.
CREDIT: Beni Tel Or/GPO/Getty Images

The Greenbergs weren’t the only ones whose lives came undone after leaving Yamit. The more stories we heard, the more deeply we believed that a curse did exist and that it plagued all of us who were forced to evacuate Yamit. In some cases—fatal car crashes, sudden cases of cancer—the curse was the only palpable explanation we could find. But for the most part, the misfortunes that befell us and our neighbors were simply the result of young people being subjected to intense psychological pressures, misunderstood and lacking support.

Much of the curse had to do with the ways Yamit’s refugees were portrayed in the media. Shortly before the evacuation, a delegation of a few dozen religious settlers from the West Bank made their way by sea into Yamit, bypassing the Army roadblock that stopped everyone but Yamit’s residents from getting into town. With their beards and yarmulkes, the West Bankers couldn’t look more different from the people of Yamit—secular, tanned, scantily dressed—if they tried. But most Israelis never met anyone from Yamit; to them, a settler was a settler, whether he lived in Samaria or in Sinai. The West Bankers locked themselves in cages, resisted with force, and acted out all kinds of theatrical scenarios that the mainstream residents of Yamit found terrifying. Still, however, when Israelis think of Yamit, it’s these images that come to mind.

While the West Bankers were doing their best to be visible and vocal, most of our neighbors were doing their best to remain calm and practical. They negotiated timelines and bottom lines with government officials, received their compensation, and moved elsewhere. But even they were not free of stigma: As they settled in towns and communities all across Israel, Yamit’s refugees were often accused of being gold-diggers—calculating opportunists who moved to Sinai knowing it would be returned to Egypt and anticipating the monetary compensation. Worst of all, for many Israelis, ecstatic about Begin’s coup of statesmanship, the people who fought to keep their homes in Yamit were enemies of peace.

Confronted with such vicious accusations, the residents of Yamit often chose to disconnect from the rest of Israel.

On the last day of the evacuation, for example, Avi Farchan, the most active organizer of protest against the decision, said his goodbyes, went home, and asked the Army officer in charge of the operation to lower the flag to half-mast. Tough officers and cynical journalists both cried uncontrollably. Then, Farchan walked in to his empty house, lay on the floor, and sobbed. When he finally got up, he felt that he needed to walk. He walked for days, until he reached Jerusalem. He had the flag from Yamit with him, and he left it with the Western Wall’s rabbi. Then, he packed his family into their car and drove south once more, as far as they could go, to a new community in the Gaza Strip called Eli-Sinai.

In 2005, the Farchans were evacuated once more. Again, there was talk of a curse. But the real curse, Avi Farchan said, wasn’t cast on the residents on Yamit; rather, he argued, the residents of Yamit had cursed the state of Israel.

“After Yamit,” he said, “Begin completely deteriorated, and Ariel Sharon, who made the unforgivable decision to blow up the houses in Yamit, invaded Lebanon two months later, and look what happened to Sharon after the evacuation from Gaza.”

***

children playing on the roof of a bomb shelter in Moshav Sadot in 1972

Israeli schoolchildren near Yamit, March 10, 1972.
CREDIT: Moshe Milner/GPO via Getty Images

A year after the evacuation, my oldest sister, Orna, died from a brain tumor. She was 19. When we went through her belongings, we found poems she’d written as we were getting ready to leave Yamit. They were typical displays of teenage angst, but instead of swooning over a lover, Orna was mad at the world for taking away her home. “I sat on the beach,” read one poem, “and pondered the pinkish dream/ that I drew/ and it was destroyed/ and so was I/ and I drowned.”

A few days before the evacuation, we sat down and had one last meal, with tears in our eyes. Someone took some spray paint and wrote: “Avrahami Family, 15.4.82, Yamit” on the external wall of our house. Ten days later this wall was taken on a truck to a nearby place together with all of our belongings, including my surfboard that I have never used since. My father made a point to return a day after we were evacuated, sit on the golden dunes, and watch how the explosives shattered his dream, like someone watching his own execution.

Orna’s death was just the beginning of our Yamit curse. After she passed away, my father escaped to New York, bought designer clothes for hundreds of dollars, and gave them away to homeless people, just because it was money from Yamit. Like many of our former neighbors, he believed that if he put the money he got from the government to good use, it would mean that he’d come to terms with losing his home, with losing Yamit. With the money soon squandered, he became homeless himself, washed dishes in return for a bed somewhere, got cancer, recovered, and died in a car accident in 1994 in one of his endless rides, aimlessly driving to nowhere in order to forget. But for him, and for the rest of Yamit’s refugees, the signs were there all along. “Caution,” they read, “the past is ahead of you.”

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Howard Arenstein says:

I was a resident of Yamit from 1975-1978. I was there at the beginning, not the bitter end, where West Bank settlers smuggled themselves in to fight the evacuation. This is a moving article about our former life in the Sinai. But I just want to make the point that not all of us who lived there were “cursed.” I always supported Begin’s agreement with Sadat. I still think it was the right thing to do, even if relations are not always the warmest with Egypt. Some of us took our “compensation” and invested it in new houses and are now living happily in places like Washington, D.C. and Zichron Ya’akov in Israel.

Shmuel says:

I think it is important to see that these “settlers” are just human beings. I don’t expect Arabs to want them to stay in their homes. But Jews? How can you want to do this to other Jews?

Especially Jews who live outside Israel….please, have a little humility. you will never be pulled out of your homes as a “sacrifice” for peace, nor will you send yourself or your kids to the army to risk it all.

So please….have some human mercy. Pretty much the same awful story has been carried out on the Gush Katif refugees. many have had their lives destroyed.

Howard Arenstein says:

The photos here are dated wrong. They could not have been taken in 1972. Yamit did not exist until 1975.

I was a junior in high school, living in Israel for a year, when the Camp David agreement was signed. I remember our classmate, Rona, sobbing. Her family had settled in Yamit after moving from the US and she was devastated at the news that they would need to relocate. I’ve always wondered what happened to her and to her family… Thank you for this portrait of life after Yamit as you knew it. I hope that her family was one of the more fortunate who were able to go on with their lives.

Liel Leibovitz says:

Thank you for your comments, Howard. As for the photos, while some were taken in Yamit, others, as the captions clearly state, were taken near Yamit, in Moshav Sadot.

Jennifer Balick says:

To answer Debbie Schwartz above, Rona is on Facebook! Her married name is Rona Pollak. I also was a member of the original group from America that moved to Yamit on its first day (together with Rona’s family and Howard Arenstein). Let me know if you need more help getting back in touch with Rona.

Alixandra Kolbe says:

B”H
Don’t have time for much of a comment right now—-but, when my children were small, one of my aunts and uncles brought them back “T” shirts from Yamit. My 3 boys outgrew them before they had a chance to wear them. I still have the shirts, in perfect condition. Will keep them forever!

The Wise Bard says:

I got to visit Yamit during my college years, and was very taken with its way of life, envying those who lived there. I can well appreciate the trauma of displacement experienced by those who lived in that magical place and time. But do I think their displacement was a necessary and justifiable price to pay for ending the state of war with Egypt? Absolutely! I wonder whether cooperative planning by the displaced settlers and the State of Israel might have yielded a better result, in terms of the Yamit population’s future lives, and what lessons might be learned from their experience (recognizing the differences from some of the former Gaza and current West Bank settlers).

All that siad, I am struck by the absence of attention to, or apparent concern for, the traumatic experiences of Palestinians displaced from their lands and homes since 1948. One can argue about the failures of Arab and Palestinian leadership over these generations, but the displaced Palestinians themselves are also human beings, created in the divine image, and their suffering too is worthy of consideration and some measure of ultimate redress.

Ehud says:

Stories like Uzi and Sima Greenberg’s and Mr. Farchan’s are dramatic, colorful and exotic, but they are also dangerous.

While there is certainly pain involved in forced relocation, I can’t help but feel that the dramatic stories told here misrepresent the more banal reality. Most Israelis have forced relocation somewhere in their family’s past, be it from Poland, Morocco, Russia, Ethiopia or anywhere else. That some people decide to immolate their dog and spray paint their home or move to the suburb of an Arab city probably has little to do with the trauma of relocation, and more to do with pre-existing conditions.

Sympathy is very important for coping with trauma, but there should be a point where responsibility kicks in and we say “get a grip” and help the victim become self-empowered again, instead of blaming everything on a “stinking house” or “evil government” or a “curse”.

Paul says:

While I echo the sentiments of those who’ve posted here saying that the evacuation was worth the price of the peace deal with Egypt, and I generally position myself against the establishment of settlements in the West Bank today, I couldn’t help but be moved of the tales retold here of different families’ experiences. I once lived in a young isolated settlement in the Arava, and although the comparison ends there – I can relate to the feeling of belonging to a truly special community of young idealistic families in a magical and beautiful place. The thought of a forced evacuation from a place such as that is a traumatic one indeed. Moving article.

Richard Gross says:

Right on, Howie.

Jeff Rabin says:

A very moving article.

What a pitiful existence – stealing, murdering and lying to cover-up their crimes; the Israelis apparently have no conscious or soul to ravage Palestine.

If moving is trauma, why stay in a land that you know will not fit you in it?
You’re all much better off in Hollywood, seriously.

Stop these ridiculous sympathy games, it’s pathetic.

Harry Green says:

The WiseBard says “All that siad, I am struck by the absence of attention to, or apparent concern for, the traumatic experiences of Palestinians displaced from their lands and homes since 1948. One can argue about the failures of Arab and Palestinian leadership over these generations, but the displaced Palestinians themselves are also human beings, created in the divine image, and their suffering too is worthy of consideration and some measure of ultimate redress.”

Are we talking about the ones who left because the Arabs attacked Israel ?
At the advice of the attacking Arabs in anticipation of the Zionist entity being wiped off the land?
Let the redress come from the Arab league by not making it against the law for those people to settle in Arab countries.

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Joseph says:

First of all, thank you for posting this vivid picture of life in Yamit. have intermittently searched for such a description, as the sterile entry in Wikipedia does not do justice to the life and feel of the place. Now, some time later, we may view the final result differently. The peace treaty with Egypt is about to unravel now that the Brotherhood controls the government. There is a straight line between this withdrawal and the withdrawal from Gaza. And in Ashdod (where I have a residence) we see the result. Rockets launched with impunity from a strengthened enemy and a weakened government unable to decisively respond.

M. Barak says:

Ze’ev writing moved me deeply but his experience of the trauma ob being expelled should help him to understand the trauma of palestinians who experienced exactly the same. Is that so dear Ze’ev? Marie Barak

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City of Refuge

Twenty-eight years after he left, an evacuee from Sinai’s largest abandoned settlement looks back at his onetime neighbors’ sad history

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