When Isaac Shachar left the north Sinai settlement of Yamit as a 36-year-old firefighter and father of two, he took with him a small date tree that had sprouted on the white dunes of the town. Shachar planted the tree at his new home in Arad and to this day, when the wind blows through the palm fronds across his backyard, he says he can close his eyes and hear Yamit again.
Shachar said that he could never regain his love of life after leaving Yamit, and for years suffered from depression that still rears its head.
Shachar was one of around 100 people who came to Moshav Dekel near the Kerem Shalom Crossing on Tuesday for a ceremony held to mark the 30th anniversary of the evacuation of Yamit, which Israel left in 1982 along with 15 other settlements in the peninsula as a result of the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt. The Yamit bloc of settlements was set up in 1975 to serve as a buffer zone between the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula, and Israel had dreams of turning Yamit into a major city with a deep water seaport, but it never attracted more than around 2,500 residents.
Nonetheless, Yamit became a storied locale in Israeli lore, largely due to the iconic images of right-wing activists holed up on rooftops clashing with soldiers moving in to evict them.
Those present at Tuesday’s ceremony described Yamit as an idyllic dreamland of turquoise waters and white dunes cut off entirely from the hustle and bustle of the rest of Israel, marching to its own tranquil rhythm.
Today Dekel houses about 90 families, 48 of whom were relocated from Yamit, according to the moshav’s secretary Hanan Ami-Bar.
Ami-Bar, 69, said Yamit was unique not only because of its natural beauty and cool climate, but also because in his words, it had a sort of euphoric lack of slums and social ills.
“I personally didn’t suffer from the trauma. Yamit was a beautiful dream, okay, but now it’s time to move on to other things,” Bar-Ami said, but added that there were cases of people who got divorced because of the trauma of relocation, and even some cases of people who developed serious illnesses as a result.
Still, he and the rest of those who spoke to The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday said that peace with Egypt was worth the pain of relocation.
“Since the evacuation there hasn’t been a war with Egypt, so in that regard it has been worth it. Israelis have many fantasies, we didn’t need to settle in Sinai,” Bar-Ami said.
Tuesday’s events started with a short meeting of former residents of the Yamit bloc at a spot next to the Kerem Shalom border crossing with Gaza, where ruins of many of the former houses of Yamit lie stacked in the desert.
Throughout the rest of the day, people filed in and out of the moshav’s Yamit Bloc museum, before heading to the nearby Avshalom pool for an official ceremony.
The moshav museum commemorates the settlements of Sinai and particularly the founding of Yamit, its glory days and finally its evacuation in 1982. The pictures across the oneroom museum depict a halcyon Israel dripping with nostalgia; the girls are knockouts and the men are tanned and shirtless pioneers, all of them living on and developing a tiny corner of the Garden of Eden without a smart phone or a skyscraper in sight.
Sporting a cowboy hat and a Santa Claus beard, Eshel Margalit caught up with old friends touring the museum on Tuesday. One of the heads of security for the Yamit Bloc, Margalit said he was one of the last residents to leave, and to the very last moment he didn’t actually believe the evacuation would go through.
Margalit and his wife, Shula, a former preschool teacher at Yamit, spoke of their warm friendships with their Beduin neighbors and eating jachnun on the sand dunes while their children flocked around barefoot, the rest of Israel a distant rumor.
Margalit admitted that readjusting to life after Yamit was hard, and that for about five years “I didn’t function at all.” Still, he said that those who were relocated found success in farming on the moshavim in the Hevel Shalom council.
While it may be a bit farther from the hand of God than Yamit reportedly was, Moshav Dekel is a serene, relaxing community in a corner of the state tucked far away from even Ashkelon, much less the center of Israel.
Shlomo Cohen and his wife, Phoebe, hosted family from across the country at their large home on the moshav on Tuesday, though neither seemed to see all that much significance in the date.
Shlomo, who was evacuated from Yamit along with his wife, said that while the sadness of leaving never went away, he was able to move on with his life.
“We were young and in love [in Yamit], completely detached from the rest of Israel,” Cohen said, adding that while he grew up in Rehovot, after leaving Yamit he could never return to city life.
Cohen said that when the time came to evacuate he did so with a full heart, knowing it was for the cause of peace with the Arab world’s largest country, and added that those who stood on the rooftops and clashed with security personnel were outside right-wing agitators, a statement echoed by others at the ceremony on Tuesday.
“Each person has dealt with it in their own way, but [the evacuation has] proven itself; we have peace with Egypt,” he said, before returning to his family barbecue.