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Uprooted Jewish settlers offered hope Imminent pullout from Gaza and West Bank stirs painful memories

Imminent pullout from Gaza and West Bank stirs painful memories

EIN HABESOR, ISRAEL

aerial photo of a small, thriving community on Mayor Chava Mille's wall belies its dry, barren origins.

Today, this little moshav, or privatized farming settlement, a few kilometres east of the border with Gaza consists of ranch-style houses, carefully groomed yards and flower gardens. But 23 years ago, when 75 families were sent here from the nearby Sinai Peninsula, it was a barren patch in the middle of the Negev Desert.

"It was so difficult, but going together as a community, there was moral support and understanding in each other," recalled Ms. Mille, a diminutive woman in her early 60s.

Now, with protests regularly shutting down major highways and Israeli soldiers fresh from their first faceoff with militant settlers in Gaza, the inhabitants of Ein Habesor are watching uneasily as their government prepares to remove more than 9,000 soldiers and settlers from 21 settlements in Gaza and four in the northern West Bank.

They have been down this road before: In April of 1982, security forces bulldozed dozens of homes in the Sinai Desert as Israel gave the land back to Egypt under the terms of their 1979 peace treaty.

Almost 400 of those Sinai settlers and their descendents are now living comfortably in Ein Habesor, but they say it was a long, hard struggle, leaving them with mixed feelings about this summer's disengagement.

"Today I can say if they had told me [I would have to leave], if they had given me the option, I wouldn't have gone to that place. . . . This is the reason I am so angry, because I can't forget: I have the feeling we were misled," said Nechum Sheffer, 63, one of the first Sinai settlers who moved to Ein Habesor near the end of Israel's withdrawal. "I know from my story what they are going to experience."

The original Sinai settlers landed with anticipation in 1971, after the Six-Day War. Israel wanted to reinforce its captured territory, and the border with Egypt, using Israeli settlements. Hardy farmers with young families were encouraged to join.

"Sand, fences, guard towers. It was like something on the moon," Mr. Sheffer remembered. There was no running water in their temporary shacks and electricity was supplied by generators.

For eight years, the settlers worked on turning sand dunes into productive farmland and their bare-bones dwellings into family homes. But then the peace talks with Egypt began, and in March of 1979, Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat signed a treaty brokered by then-U.S. president Jimmy Carter in which it was agreed that the Sinai would be returned to Egypt. The settlers would have to go.

"We had a very difficult three years," Ms. Mille recalled of the following months, when the settlers lobbied to find ways to stay. But eventually, she said, most accepted the inevitable. "As people that lived there, we knew we had to do something to contribute to peace, because if we didn't do it, we would be blamed for ruining it."

The evacuation of Sinai was completed in April of 1982. As is planned for the evacuation of Gaza, the area was declared a closed military zone, and the last holdouts were removed by force.

Ms. Mille said that on her last day in Yamit, she plucked a few leaves from a tree in her yard before watching bulldozers flatten her home. Then, she stood by as they moved on to her school. "I took pictures, but I haven't looked at them since then, because it's too painful."

Mr. Sheffer's last memories are even more painful: In the weeks leading up to the final evacuation, his wife suffered a mental breakdown from which she has not recovered.

"We had tragic cases where people were killed in car accidents because they weren't concentrating, even suicides," the burly farmer said, his eyes suddenly wet. "We had no vision of the future."

Those memories have fed their intense worry over this summer's disengagement. Leaders from Ein Habesor have met with government representatives to provide advice, and Mr. Sheffer has attended several training sessions for soldiers.

"It was extremely painful, to leave everything -- home, work, the community. We were torn up. But we didn't lose our optimism. And this is our message to those people, that there is life afterwards," Ms. Mille said.

Ein Habesor is not far from four mobile home parks now under construction in the Negev to house settlers temporarily for up to two years, with the option to stay in the region permanently. Israeli officials say they are doing all they can to smooth the transition, though critics maintain they cannot do in three weeks what took three years in Sinai.

"It is very hard for people who have to leave their houses against their will. It is very painful; we understand it," said Brigadier-General Eyval Giladi, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in a briefing for journalists this week. "Those people went there when they had to fulfill a very important mission and they did it successfully. Now the mission is complete."

The problem is, the former settlers say, not everyone imagined their mission had a finite timeline.

"They were there 30 years, even longer," Ms. Mille said. "The grownups are our age. To start all over again in agriculture? It's an age where you want to start planning retirement, to enjoy the fruits of your efforts, and suddenly you don't know where to go."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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