Menachem Begin's Choice

Danny Rubinstein
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Danny Rubinstein

Every proposed Israeli plan for the evacuation of the Gaza Strip considers the fate of the Israeli homes and facilities to be left behind. This includes the homes of residents of the various communities, public buildings, water networks and electricity grids, the Erez industrial zone, workshops and agricultural facilities and military installations. All of them sprawl across a large area (Israel today controls almost one-third of the area of the Gaza Strip) and are very valuable.

Now that a unilateral Israel plan is under consideration, with no negotiations, without an agreement and perhaps even with no coordination with the Palestinian Authority, many believe that all of these assets will be razed. Various spokesmen for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his aides recently confirmed this. The idea of Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists doing a victory dance atop the settlers' homes stir disgust - certainly among those opposed to the withdrawal.

At every discussion on the matter, mention is made of the actions of Sharon, then the defense minister, at the time of the complete bulldozing of the homes in Yamit and Rafah, when Israel withdrew from there in 1982. The withdrawal then took place when peace prevailed, on the basis of the treaty with Egyptians, who were on the verge of paying $80 million for the Israeli structures. Why then was such a barbaric act perpetrated at that time?

Last week, the book "L'lo Shulhan Agol" (Without a Round Table) by Moshe Sasson, Israel's ambassador to Egypt at the time, came out. Among its interesting chapters is one relating to why we destroyed Yamit and other nearby places. Sasson writes that contrary to the prevailing public opinion, it was not Ariel Sharon who decided to bulldoze the Yamit bloc after its evacuation. It was the personal decision of Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

Urgent matter

Sasson describes the following sequence of events: Three days before the withdrawal date, Yehiel Kadishai, the prime minister's secretary and confidant, phoned him in Cairo and informed him that Begin wanted to consult with him on something that could not wait. He immediately traveled to Jerusalem and went to the prime minister, who asked him: What would Mubarak's reaction be if we totally razed Yamit and the surrounding settlements?

Ambassador Sasson was stunned. After all, there was already an agreement with Egypt stipulating payment of $80 million for the buildings there. Why suddenly leave behind scorched earth for the country with which we signed a peace agreement?

Sasson was also surprised because during an earlier stage of withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula to the Ras Muhammad-El Arish line, the Israeli military installations there were left behind intact. The order to do so was issued by Ezer Weizman, who was the defense minister before Sharon, and Begin had approved it.

Begin explained to Sasson that when Sharon began evacuating one of the settlements, the residents returned at night and infiltrated into their homes. They were reevacuated and this occurred repeatedly. Begin was convinced that the settlers would sneak back into their homes even after the Israel Defense Forces withdrew from the area and, therefore, bloody clashes could evolve between the Egyptians and the settlers. Sasson told Begin that razing Yamit would be a serious disappointment for the Egyptian leadership, especially Mubarak, whose aides had prepared buses and a list of Egyptians who were to go to Yamit and move into the settlers' homes.

Ambassador Sasson returned to Cairo for an immediate meeting with Kamal Hassan Ali, who was the deputy prime minister and foreign minister. He made it clear to the Egyptian minister that Begin's decision was final and could not be changed. Kamal Ali told him that it would be very difficult to explain what had happened to the Egyptian public, which was prepared for the evacuation of settlements, but not for their bulldozing, but they understood the decision was final.

From the office of the Egyptian foreign minister, Ambassador Sasson phoned Prime Minister Begin and told him that he could give Sharon the go-ahead to start razing the Yamit bloc.

There were other appendices to the razing of Yamit. Several years later, there were discussions on an Israeli withdrawal from Taba, south of Eilat, where an Israeli hotel and resort had been built (the withdrawal from Taba was decided on in international arbitration, which ruled in favor of the Egyptians). Sasson recalls that in the talks on withdrawal from Taba, Benjamin Netanyahu, then the deputy foreign minister, wanted to raze the hotel and resort and leave the Egyptians only with ruins. Foreign Minister Moshe Arens rejected Netanyahu's proposal outright.

When the razing of Yamit was nearly completed, Begin again telephoned Sasson and told him there was one other little problem. There was a synagogue in Yamit, which at Begin's request, Sharon had not yet razed. "Please contact Mubarak, right away, tonight, however you see fit to do it, and tell him that my request is that they also keep this small building standing," Begin said. Sasson asked: "But we're going to take out the mezuzahs and Torahs and other sacred objects and it will be just like any other building, why do you want to preserve it?" "It's a matter of sentiment," Begin answered. The Egyptians also thought the request was strange, but they consented.

Sasson relates that he had forgotten about the whole thing. Only around a year later, during one of his many trips via Sinai, did he decide to go to Yamit and see what had become of the building that had been a synagogue. He saw the mounds of rubble from what had been Yamit and neighboring places. Among the ruins, stood the abandoned and neglected synagogue building, totally covered with anti-Jewish and anti-Israel graffiti. He told the Egyptian foreign minister about it and the latter promised to clean up the place. Sasson returned to Yamit around a month later and found nothing had changed. He again complained to the Egyptian foreign minister and yet again was promised that the matter would be taken care of. Sometime after, when he went to visit Yamit again, he found that the road leading there had simply been plowed over. Access was blocked. Begin was already ill then and Ambassador Sasson decided not to tell him about what had happened to the building he sought to preserve.

One way or another, the razing of the homes in the Yamit bloc was perceived for a long time by the Egyptians as proof of the way the State of Israel viewed the peace treaty. The Egyptian press reported on the scorched earth that Israel leaves behind. Perhaps something can be learned from this episode about the fate of the homes in Netzarim, Kfar Darom and other places and perhaps not. It is possible that Sharon was eager then to raze Yamit and the neighboring towns and it is possible that he persuaded Begin to do so. The responsibility, in any event, according to the testimony of Ambassador Sasson, lies entirely with Menachem Begin.

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