Back to the Israeli Sinai Desert Town That Vanished

They built a new town on a desert paradise, less than a decade later they were evicted with chains and cages. A new miniseries looks at the story of Yamit, 40 years after its dismantlement

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Children at Yamit before the evacuation in 1982. 'Most were secular people who identified an economic opportunity.'
Children at Yamit before the evacuation in 1982. 'Most were secular people who identified an economic opportunity.'
Itay Stern
Itay Stern

It’s been forty years since the 1982 evacuation of Yamit, and the scenes are still seared into Israel’s collective consciousness. Police using chains against those who refused to evacuate the desert city, the most adamant of them being shoved into cages: These images are among the most powerful and difficult to look at in Israel’s history. Behind them is the story of the city that was established in 1975, and dismantled less than a decade later.

When TV producer Osher Assouline couldn’t find a documentary on the period, he realized he’d have to make one himself. The result is “Sinai,” a mini-docuseries in two parts that is being aired this week on Kan 11. It includes spectacular archival footage alongside interviews with those who arrived in a desert paradise, only to be expelled a short time later.

April 1982 evacuation of Yamit, built on land of expelled Bedouin.

“The settlement of Sinai was not, in essence, ideological,” Assouline says. “It was very Zionist. The core group of founders were Russian and American Israelis. These were people who had come from the Soviet Union at the end of the 70s, along with super-Zionist AMerican Jews who came to serve the state’s agenda. When someone settles on a hill in Samaria, there is always some biblical connection. In Sinai, the vast majority were secular people who had identified an economic opportunity. They received a beachfront house for free, as well as other grants from the state.”

Like all of Zionist mythology, settling Sinai was rife with difficulties, challenges and failures – both geographic and ethical. With director Avida Livni, Assouline returns to the early days of the settlements in the Sinai and near Rafah, in the Gaza Strip. The process was accompanied by the expulsion of Bedouin tribes from the area – some of whom became laborers in the fields and greenhouses built by Israelis. Making the desert bloom, it turns out yet again, was not as romantic as the state would have us remember.

“We say so in the series: It wasn’t like the Nakba in 1948. No one was killed, but Zionism treated all the peoples that came under its jurisdiction in almost the same way,” Assouline adds. “There were some very aggressive operations against Bedouin tribes. For the sake of historical justice, however, it should be noted that Israeli sovereignty improved the Bedouins’ quality of life in many ways. Until this day, when you talk to Sinai Bedouin about Israeli rule there, they remember it fondly.”

Bedouins in Sinai. Not all of it was pastoral

'For many of them, that trauma is very real, even after 40 years, in almost every aspect of their lives. People who were evacuated from Sinai scattered all over'

On the other hand, you also focus on the lingering trauma of those who were evacuated.

“For many of them, that trauma is very real, even after 40 years, in almost every aspect of their lives. People who were evacuated from Sinai scattered all over. Some got sick, families broke up, people sank into depression. A few even died from the trauma. We also wanted to show the story of the children who grew up there and experienced the evacuation. To some extent, I wanted the series to be a bit like ‘Wild Wild Country,’ in the sense that these people created a settlement out of nothing, based on an idea, and then the whole thing implodes. When I started delving into the material, I couldn’t understand how those terrible images fit with the settlers’ beautiful lives before.”

Israeli soldiers carry an Israeli resident of Yamit, during the violent evacuation of the Sinai settlement, in 1982.

You show that extremist right-wingers arrived in the area ahead of the evacuation, including yeshiva students and Kahanists, with the intention of disrupting the evacuation and putting up an image of resistance.

The evacuation was etched into the public consciousness as an act of violence, but most of the population left quietly. There was a core group of people who were fired up by right-wing politics from Gush Emunim, the settler movement. There’s a scene where Begin confronts Geula Cohen over the despicable strategy. There’s another scene that we didn’t include, where five Kahane supporters lock themselves in a concrete room, while a tractor tries to remove them. People from Yamit were wronged twice. One one hand, they were branded as thieves and swine over the compensation they received. They compared them to characters from the TV show ‘Dallas.’ On the other hand, they were marked as people who had physically confronted soldiers, which wasn’t true.”

It’s possible that they paid a price, but even they admit that it was worth it for peace with Egypt.

'We say so in the series: It wasn’t like the Nakba in 1948. No one was killed'

Osher Assouline. 'The core group of founders were Russian and American Israelis.'

“I think that the way the government presented the evacuation to the residents was awful. As far as I know, from the investigation and interviews we conducted, politicians exploited and deceived the evacuees. The working assumption [in the government] was that evacuation was on the table from the beginning of the talks with Egypt, perhaps even as a precondition. So why didn’t they tell the settlers? In practice, as soon as the agreements were signed, Sinai started to dry up. Development was halted and investments ceased. At that point, the state was lying to its citizens by giving them a glimmer of hope, all while decision makers knew that Egypt wouldn’t accept any plan that did not include a withdrawal from Sinai. Begin met with the settlers and promised to fight for Sinai, but I believe he already knew it was a losing battle. On the other hand, looking at the bigger picture and the result, you can’t deny the diplomatic achievement that brought peace. You can’t argue with the clear result – 40 years of quiet along the bloodiest front of the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War.”

It’s interesting, because at the end of the day, Dayan – a member of Mapai – promoted settlements in the occupied territory, while Begin – the right-wing revisionist – promoted evacuation settlements in exchange for peace.

“That’s true. Later it was Ariel Sharon, another quintessential right-winger, who led the disengagement [from Gaza]. Even Netanyahu signed the Hebron agreement. These moves, save for the Oslo Accords, can apparently only be led by right-wing governments. In that context, regarding the peace agreement with Egypt, that relations began with the withdrawal from Sinai in 1982. It was a crazy and brave move, especially for Egypt.”

You mentioned the disengagement. Watching the series, it’s clear that many of the strategies in Yamit were adopted in Gush Katif as well. There were other similarities too: Right-wing actors arriving right before the evacuation to prevent it, the media branding the settlers as rioters and extortionists, and the deep psychological crises among evacuees that never heals.

“There’s a big difference between the Sinai settlements and those in Gush Katif. Katif was a national religious settlement. The large settlements there were religious with a clear ideological worldview. People forget that the Yesha Council includes the Gaza Strip. It was a settlement by definition. I did line duty in Gush Katif as a soldier and we guarded settlements, including patrolling the fence. The other difference is that these settlements were mixed with a Palestinian population. In my eyes the evacuation from Gush Katif is much more traumatic. Some people wonder whether it was necessary. We see the security reality. There is no peace with Gaza. Secondly, the trauma of the disengagement was much more intense because the resistance there was stronger. In Yamit, they told people it was over, and they left. There was a core group that fought till the last minute, but most of the people opposed it and, at a certain point, they packed up.”

Keeping the Faith

Assouline, a 42-year-old married father of two, was born in the heart of Tel Aviv. Later on, he moved with his family to Bat Yam. Growing up, his father would quiz him and his sister on Tel Aviv street names in an attempt to teach them some history. He kept that love of local history, paving the way for his documentary work. During his military service as a combat soldier with the Nahal Brigade in Lebanon, for the first time, he questioned the righteous intentions of the decision makers. “A year after I was discharged we left Lebanon, and I asked myself, ‘what was I doing there?’ I lost friends there,and suddenly it felt like my entire service was for nothing.”

After leaving the army and traveling in the far East, Assouline began his journalistic career at Maariv as a junior producer. Ram Landes recruited him after founding the Channel 10 news company, where he dealt with difficult realities. “I was in charge of reproductions. If there was a terror attack – and there were many back then, like at the Park Hotel, the Maxim Restaurant, and bus 18 in Jerusalem – I had to obtain the names and photos of the victims.”

An Israeli resident of Yamit is being carried by Israeli soldiers during the evacuation of the town in 1982.

In 2006, he was drafted as a reservist during the Second Lebanon War. He was wounded and realized that he had had enough of killing fields – both as a combatant and a journalist. He got a job at Keshet as a content developer and spent years working for the broadcaster, becoming a major player in the industry. Later on, when the public broadcasting corporation was formed, he joined the founding team and was appointed head of culture and entertainment. He held that position for two years. In recent years, he has partnered with Israeli TV super-producer Yoav Gross. Together they have delivered major productions including “Manayek,” “Carpool Karaoke,” and more.

Another of his productions is set to premiere on Kan 11 in about a month, a docu-drama about Uzi Meshulam, a rabbi in the Yemenite community who resisted Israeli law enforcement authorities in Yehud in 1994. Assouline’s series looks into those events and their effect on the investigation into the Yemenite children affair.

Is there a common thread between “Sinai” and the Meshulam series?

“These two events, the evacuation of Yamit and the events of Yehud, created a deep crisis of faith between the state and its citizens. Of course, they have very different backgrounds. But in both events the escalation created very irregular incidents in the local landscape. The events of Yehud included a scenario where the police, SWAT forces and snipers laid siege to a house with Israeli citizens inside, some of whom were armed, but with women and children inside. They sought to take control of the house. Does that sound reasonable? Is it acceptable for a state to load soldiers onto bulldozers, evacuate towns and simply tell people the party is over? It’s exceptional.”

The evacuation of Yamit in 1982.

Who do you think the main culprit was in the Uzi Meshulam story?

“Many of the people who contributed to the injustice, including the media, wring their hands over what they did in the series. It’s not just the injustice of the abducting Yemenite children, but the personal injustice inflicted on Uzi Meshulam. He was insanely demonized. Today, we know enough to say that there was some guiding hand there. There were people who had an explicit interest in depicting him as a violent lunatic. They claimed he was a cult leader. We have to remember that he did something that not many managed to do before him. He managed to stick a finger in the face of the establishment. Sadly, he didn’t live to see the fruits of his struggle. Today, hardly anyone denies the abduction of Yemenite children. At the time they talked about it as a delusion. He was sick when he left prison and died shortly afterward.”

How does delving into the rifts between the state and its citizens affect you personally?

“My viewpoint is always critical. I grew up in a very Zionist home. My father was one of those people who thought the state could do no wrong. I, on the other hand, look at everything critically. We’ve lived here long enough to know there’s an invisible hand behind everything. I look at reality and always have to ask myself if the dish I’ve been served was well cooked. By the way, I went through a complete transformation regarding my understanding of the Yehud events. I came to it with the common media narrative, that it was all a crock of craziness and they were a cult of believers. When we gave it a working title, we called it ‘50 Days of Siege.’ I realized then that my perception had flipped. While the media narrative held that Meshulam and his followers barricaded themselves, we were claiming that they were under siege. I had realized that what we had been sold wasn’t true.”

Residents leave Yamit in 1982.

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