This Week in History: The first disengagement

On April 23, 1982, after achieving peace with Egypt, Israel painfully evacuated the last of its settlements in the Sinai Peninsula – Yamit.

Yamit evacuation 311 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Yamit evacuation 311
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
On April 23, 1982, just over three years after then-Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat signed a historic peace treaty between their two countries, Israel painfully evacuated the last of its settlements in the Sinai Peninsula – Yamit.
As stipulated in the 1979 peace treaty, Israel was required – within three years - to withdraw all of its 2,500 civilians and thousands of military personnel from the Sinai, which it had captured in the 1967 Six Day War. With three years notice as well as economic and relocation compensation packages provided by the government, most of the Israeli residents of Sinai had long departed before the April 1982 deadline approached. Many of the evacuees were voluntarily resettled in Gaza Strip settlements, built especially for them.
Ideologically opposed to the withdrawal, however, dozens of religious and some secular Israelis descended on the remaining settlements in the Sinai, intent on using their bodies to oppose the evacuation. Bypassing army checkpoints erected to prevent objectors from reaching the soon-to-be-demolished Sinai settlements, dozens of religious Zionist youths sailed south past the Gaza Strip and entered the coastal settlement of Yamit.
Some of the youths, followers of American firebrand Rabbi Meir Kahane, barricaded themselves in the basement of a building in Yamit with explosives, threatening to blow themselves up in an act of collective suicide rather than allow the army to forcefully evacuate them. In a vain attempt, both chief rabbis of Israel at the time, including Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, traveled to Yamit and attempted to talk down the suicidal yeshiva students through a ventilation pipe. Only when Kahane himself flew back from the United States to speak with the students, however, did they agree to disassemble their explosives, though they remained holed up in their underground bunker refusing to be evacuated.
Another smaller group of objectors who made their way down to Yamit in order to physically protest its evacuation - secular students intent on showing that the struggle was not only a religious one - was led by son of legendary Lehi fighter and MK Geula Cohen, Tzahi Hanegbi, who later became an MK himself. Revisiting those times in an interview with The Jerusalem Post over 20 years later, Hanegbi described how he and members of his group of students chained themselves to the top of a 28-meter monument but decided not to physically struggle against the soldiers sent to evacuate them. "We just stood there, sang Hatikva, chained ourselves and were taken down [via a ladder]," he recalled.
The traumatic scenes most widely remembered by the Israeli public, however, were not those described by Hanegbi. Disturbing images of club wielding holdouts on rooftops attempting keep the inevitable siege of IDF soldiers at bay were etched into the national collective memory. Similarly, pictures (such as the one seen above) of soldiers dragging children from their homes momentarily shattered the purity of the inseparable relationship between the IDF and Israel’s citizens. Twenty-three years later, nearly identical images would have a similar effect when the army was charged with evacuating Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip.
In a twist of fate, the general charged with carrying out the final evacuation of Yamit was none other the man who decades later would order the largest-ever evacuation of Jewish settlers, then-defense minister Ariel Sharon.
On the morning of the evacuation, hundreds of IDF troops were sent to the Mediterranean town south of Gaza, the last bastion of Jewish settlement in the Sinai. While groups such as those led by Hanegbi put up symbolic resistance to the evacuation orders, others put a more determined and physical fight. No serious injuries took place either among the holdouts or the soldiers sent to remove them, but the scene nonetheless turned ugly.
Just one day later, acting on orders from Sharon and Begin, the IDF blasted Yamit into a massive pile of rubble. The logic behind the dramatic demolition was to prevent a large Egyptian population center from sprouting on the newly delineated border. Although the peace treaty was expected to hold and provisions for the entire peninsula becoming a demilitarized zone bolstered by US troops to monitor the peace, there was a fear of encroachment.
The evacuation of Yamit represented two major events in the Israeli collective memory. In a historical context, it was the last action taken before Israel’s first peace treaty with an Arab state formally came into effect, one whose foundations remain strongly in place to this day. On an emotional level, especially for the settler movement, the day was remembered as the first time an Israeli government uprooted its own citizens from towns it had asked and encouraged them to populate, an experience that would be traumatically repeated 23 years later.