Editor’s Notes: They should have gone to the Negev

By David Horovitz March 4, 2005

The regrets of Arye Nehemkin, the man who sent the first Jews to Gush Katif

In the mid-1970s, Arye Nehemkin was the secretary-general of the Moshav Movement, the umbrella group representing farming communities like his own Nahalal (the first of all the moshavim, in the Jezreel Valley, where he was born almost 80 years ago).

In defiance of pessimistic conventional wisdom, agriculture was thriving at the Moshav Movement’s Pit’hat Rafiah settlement in the northern Sinai, which was thriving socially too, and Yisrael Galili, the leading Labor cabinet minister who was closer than most to prime ministers Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin, argued that establishing similar agricultural settlements in Gush Katif would provide a buffer zone between Israel and Rafiah.

A genial, blue-eyed man with a farmer’s weather-beaten features and a silver mustache, Nehemkin sits down alongside me in the photo-filled living room of his modest moshav home and casts his mind back 30 years. ‘I knew the area well, of course,’ he begins. ‘I’d held that line facing Gaza as a battalion commander in the army reserves. But we went and toured again, and I told Galili that the Moshav Movement couldn’t do it.’

Nehemkin, who went on to serve as a Labor Knesset member in the 1980s, including four years as agriculture minister in the Peres-Shamir unity government of 1984-1988, wants to make clear that he was, and is, no political dove. ‘Ask Yossi Sarid,’ he offers. ‘He’ll tell you I’m an extremist.’

As Israeli jets fly over our heads on patrol over the northern border, he sets out security arguments against relinquishing the Golan Heights, says there’s ‘no question’ but that Israel must retain the Etzion Bloc of settlements south of Jerusalem, argues that Ma’aleh Adumim, similarly, is ‘almost connected to Jerusalem now anyway,’ and insists that he wouldn’t give up the Jordan Valley except in the most idyllic peaceful era, and even then only with a credible international security presence to guard against threats from the east.

But Gaza? The way he tells it, he argued then what he argues now: That Israel has nothing to gain there, no business being there. ‘I told Galili it wouldn’t be a security buffer. It would be a hell-hole – a bone in the throats of the Arabs who lived in Gaza. I said we wouldn’t be able to hold it. And I said I wouldn’t send people to live where I wouldn’t want my children to live.’

Galili was not best-pleased, and went to Rabin, who in turn summoned Nehemkin. ‘I asked the prime minister whether he’d visited there. He said that no, he hadn’t, but that he trusted Galili. ‘If Galili says do it,’ Rabin ordered, ‘do it.”

Next, Galili asked Nehemkin to raise the idea with the Moshav Movement. ‘But I didn’t want to,’ Nehemkin acknowledges. ‘It was a democracy. I feared he’d convince them. This was a pioneering era. People went where they were told to go.’

So he sought the counsel of his deputy, Nahum Gantz (the father of the current OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Benny Gantz) who passed away just a few days ago. And they came up with a compromise. The Moshav Movement had a National Religious Party component, whose leaders were always complaining that they had ‘groups of young, highly motivated people who wanted to settle the land, and that we weren’t finding places for them.’ So Nehemkin put them in contact with Galili.

The rest, of course, is the history that Ariel Sharon has set about reversing. Almost all of the Gaza Strip settlements were indeed established by what Nehemkin calls ‘men of faith.’

And as a minister, Nehemkin recalls, the colleague who most helped him do ‘everything I could’ for the Gaza settlers in the mid-’80s was none other than Sharon. At the Agriculture Ministry, he explains, ‘we had no money. Sharon, who was at Industry and Trade, had plenty and nothing to do with it. He suggested that the Gaza hothouses – the mainstay of agriculture there – might be regarded as more industry than agriculture.’ Nehemkin smiles at the semantic stretch. ‘And he gave them lots of money.’

And now they are to be removed.

NEHEMKIN IS not indifferent to the fate of Gaza’s Jews. Far from it. He says he empathizes with them, that they were dispatched ‘formally and officially’ by the governments of Israel, that they are ‘excellent’ people, ‘true Zionists.’

And that he wishes they had been sent then where he hopes they’ll reestablish their communities today: the Negev. ‘Those same settlements can flourish in the Negev,’ he asserts, ‘with the same water-intensive agriculture. It’s where they should always have been. If Jews don’t settle the Negev, others will,’ he declares, describing the mission, Ben-Gurion-style, as a national imperative and recalling the two years that he, his wife and their two young daughters spent in the 1950s living in the Negev, helping new moshavim find their feet there.

It might have been easier, he intimates, were the Gaza Jews able to stay on under Palestinian sovereignty. But he says he knows, from personal experience, that the idea is hopeless. In the very earliest stages of pre-peace accord contacts with Egypt, he says, Moshe Dayan attempted to ascertain whether some of the Sinai settlers might be allowed to remain in situ under Egyptian rule. Nehemkin helicoptered down with Moshe Dayan to speak to the Sinai settlers to discuss the possibility, but the idea foundered against a flat Egyptian refusal to so much as contemplate the notion.

Years later, in 1985, when Nehemkin became the first Israeli minister to visit Egypt after the collapse of relations during the Lebanon war, he says, President Mubarak asserted that the precedent was crucial. Egypt, the president claimed, was determined to cajole Syria into making peace with Israel, and wanted to be able to show a skeptical Damascus that a treaty really could yield a return to the status quo ante – the complete restoration of captured territory, with no Israeli presence.

NEHEMKIN ARGUES that Sharon, in championing disengagement, hasn’t changed his fundamental political view. ‘He believes that if he leaves Gaza and those few little settlements [in northern Samaria], the United States will let him keep the major West Bank settlement blocs – that he’ll save Judea and Samaria.’

But Nehemkin thinks Sharon’s wrong about that. ‘After he finishes Gaza, we’ll start the chapter of Judea and Samaria,’ he predicts.

That’s not to say Nehemkin opposes disengagement. Not a bit. He advocates settlement only for security imperatives, and doesn’t consider the Gaza communities to be fulfilling that criterion. He believes there is no possible prospect for strategically improved relations with the Palestinians unless there is a pullout. He notes that if the Arab world had offered Israel peace after the Six Day War based on the pre-war lines, ‘we would have jumped at the opportunity.’

And while he agrees that withdrawal will be presented by the terrorists as vindication, his response to that concern is not to cancel the pullout but to rue the fact that Israel – that his Moshav Movement – sent settlers to the Strip in the first place. Early in the first intifada, in 1987, he says, he went to see Rabin to urge him to evacuate at least Gaza’s most isolated settlements. ‘Rabin told me that, ‘yes, we should have pulled them out long ago. But we can’t leave now because the Palestinians will claim they forced us out. It will be a terrible precedent.’

‘Well, it’s always like this. If we leave, they’ll say they forced us out. So we shouldn’t leave? No, we have to go.’

Crucially, Nehemkin argues, Israel has demonstrated, notably through its resilience these past four-plus years, that no amount of terrorism will force its people from their sovereign territory. ‘Look how terrified America has been by terrorism,’ he says. ‘Here, the terror has been dreadful, terrible, unbearable. But we’ve coped. We’ve proven that in the areas where we don’t want to leave, no amount of terrorism will force us out. We pulled back to the border with Lebanon, but the Syrians know that there’ll be no further pullback. To the international border, and no further. If they push us, we will warn them and then we will hit them.

HOW WORRIED is Nehemkin about the way disengagement might play out on the ground? ‘I’d rather say what I hope,’ he offers after a pause. ‘And that, of course, is that there will be no extremism.

‘I was at the Altalena,’ he says – the War of Independence sinking of Menachem Begin’s Irgun Zva’i Leumi arms ship by the nascent army of the infant state. ‘Moshe Dayan was my commander [under the overall command of Rabin]. We were told to take the IZL’s weapons but we got the order from Dayan three times not to open fire. Don’t shoot people. But they shot at us. And I had three soldiers go down. So, without orders, we fired back. And things got out of control.’ Before control was restored, 14 of Begin’s men and one of Rabin’s were dead.

Now, too, Nehemkin says, ‘if the provocateurs aren’t controlled, they’ll do everything to ensure that there’s shooting.’ He stresses that by provocateurs he does not mean the Gaza settlers, but, rather, unspecified ‘extremists who will try to fan the flames.’

‘Let’s hope there’ll be common sense on both sides,’ he sighs, getting up to escort me to the front door. ‘Thousands of people need to be smart. And it only takes a couple of bullets.’

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