In 1982, a few weeks before the final evacuation from Sinai, Michael Feige, currently a doctor of sociology and anthropology at Ben-Gurion University in Be'er Sheva, traveled to Yamit and spent the last few weeks there before the final evacuation of the city. Unlike most of the new residents of the city during those days, Feige did not come to demonstrate against the evacuation, but to observe it as a researcher.
"My strongest memory of Yamit was the sand that started to cover the city from the moment the city council ceased operating. The sand crept over the roads and there was a feeling that the city had started to disappear under the desert."
Yamit similarly faded and disappeared from Israeli consciousness, maintains Feige. Unlike what many think and contrary to the claims of the settlers, the evacuation of Yamit was not seared into Israeli consciousness as a trauma, and that is one of the things that is making it possible for the prime minister to launch yet another evacuation process. Feige will participate today in a conference at the Sapir Academic College in Sderot, named "Israel between Yamit and Gush Katif."
The lectures, to be given by Vice Premier Shimon Peres, MK Zvi Hendel, former MK Hanan Porat, historians, social scientists and others, will try to compare the two single attempts in Israel's history to evacuate a settled area of the state.
"In both cases, in Yamit and Gush Katif, each side has an interest that the struggle over the evacuation be difficult and traumatic," Feige will claim today in his lecture, titled "The trauma that wasn't - The evacuation of Yamit in the collective Israeli memory."
"The settlers want the evacuation to be engraved into public memory as a great and impossible struggle, to prevent any further attempts to withdraw. The government outwardly wants to present a picture of a difficult and violent struggle in order to be able to exact a high diplomatic price for the withdrawal. And the media is serving both sides, because the fiercer the struggle, the better the story. But despite this, there is no doubt that the evacuation of Yamit was a personal but not a national trauma. All attempts to include the general public in the trauma failed."
`The back of beyond'
According to Feige, the disengagement itself is the best proof of this argument: "Two months after the Yamit evacuation, the Lebanon War broke out. Try to imagine what would happen in Israel if Sharon tried to invade Lebanon again - it would be a much greater challenge than evacuating Gush Katif. The war in Lebanon was a trauma; the same goes for the Yom Kippur War and the Rabin assassination, but that definition does not apply to Yamit. I am willing to argue with anyone who compares Yamit to those other events. Further proof is that one of the main opponents who fought against the evacuation, Tzachi Hanegbi, is today a minister in the government that plans to evacuate Gush Katif. Yet further proof of the fact that Yamit cannot be described as a national trauma is the fact that it is hardly discussed. Very few books and no plays or poetry have been written about Yamit.
The settlers' failure to create empathy with their situation is in Feige's opinion also related to the general lack of solidarity in all areas that has characterized Israeli society in recent years. "People are thrown out of their homes every day because of mortgage debts, they plunge from middle to lower class, and there is nary a drop of solidarity towards the poor and the periphery. So why should there be any solidarity with the settlements? For most of the public, it is no big deal if 7,000 people receive compensation and move from one house to another."
In his view, both Yamit and Gush Katif are perceived in the Israeli consciousness as being on the periphery, located "in the back of the beyond."
"In the public awareness, Sinai is Egypt, Sinai is a desert where you walk until you get to Israel; it is not Israel itself. The Gaza Strip is also perceived as being located outside the state's borders - Gaza is an overcrowded Arab area, the land of the Philistines and a refugee camp. It is a place that we did not hand over to Egypt when we had the chance. Gaza is out of sight and out of mind for most Israelis."
Feige himself feels no empathy for the predicament of the settlers who are facing evacuation. "One of the moments in which they lost my sympathy was when, during one of their meetings with the commander of the Southern Command, the officer asked them rhetorically, `What do you want? Do you want me to bomb Gaza into the Stone Age?' And then they all, unanimously, answered with a thunderous `Yes!' In addition, I never saw any sympathy on their part when the homes of Arabs were bombed or when the peace camp felt terrible distress during the war in Lebanon."
Another similarity between Yamit and Gush Katif, as Feige sees it, is the twofold nature of the struggle, which is intended, on the one hand, to save the piece of land they are fighting for - Sinai or Gaza - but also to create a traumatic memory to prevent further withdrawals from other places.
"The strongest expression of that is the name they chose for their protest movement - `The Movement to Stop the Withdrawal in Sinai' - not `from' Sinai. In other words, it was clear to them that this was merely the first step in the withdrawal. In that sense, they failed; the withdrawal did not stop in Sinai," says Feige.
But, says Feige, there is a fundamental difference between the two cases: "In Yamit, there was a huge gap between those who did the actual resisting - the members of Gush Emunim - and those they were fighting for, the people who actually lived in Yamit. The actual residents fought mainly to increase their compensation payments. The Gush Emunim activists went down to Yamit and fought against the withdrawal itself. From the moment an arrangement over the compensation payments was reached, most of the residents left the rest of the struggle to Gush Emunim."
A stronger rival
From interviews Feige conducted with the evacuated residents, he learned that some felt very angry at the settlements from Judea and Samaria that came before the evacuation. "Yamit was a secular vacation town and towards the end it became a religious city; people had very strong memories of the transformation in the character of the city and expressed a great deal of frustration at the fact that their last month there was ruined because of that." In the case of Gush Katif, there is complete identification between those running the struggle and the residents, and consequently, in Feige's view, the struggle against the evacuation will be much more intense.
In Feige's view, the army acted properly during the evacuation from Yamit.
"The army was exceptionally efficient and well organized. The soldiers were very well disciplined and tough, but they also demonstrated sensitivity, and in this way were able to bypass or defuse many of the obstacles. In Gush Katif, the settlers are a stronger and more determined rival, but on the other hand, it is a location that will be much easier to close off to demonstrators from the outside. If the government is determined and the army effective, the evacuation will be possible.
"The settlements are in a bind: On the one hand, they have an interest in the evacuation being as difficult and traumatic as possible, but on the other, the moment they do that, they will not be able to live with themselves and will become more hated, ironically making their own evacuation easier."
If there are no surprises, predicts Feige, the evacuation from Gush Katif will not be engraved in public memory as a trauma either. He does not rule out the possibility that it will be a personal trauma for the evacuees, but he is not even completely convinced of that.
"A year from now, a settler from Netzarim may wake up in her Rishon Letzion apartment and look at her children and be happy that they all came out safely and they are no longer wetting their bed out of fear of the mortar shells."