TEL AVIV (May. 21)
Some 2000 du### (500 acres) of cultivated vegetable fields that form a swath of green on the dune-colored landscape of northern Sinai may become an embarrassing obstacle to the smooth transfer of EI Arish to Egyptian sovereignty next weekend. The fields belong to Neot Sinai, a tiny settlement on the outskirts of EI Arish founded seven years ago by the militant Betar Zionist youth group. Under the transfer program worked out by a joint Israeli Egyptian committee, they are to be handed over to Egypt this Friday along with the town of EI Arish.
But the settlers are balking. Initially, they refused to relinquish the fields unless guaranteed compensation for them. Last night, joined by some 120 Gush Emunim die-hards and other supporters, they announced they would fight the Military Government’s orders and vowed never to hand over the cultivated patches to the Egyptians.
To back up their determination, the Neot Sinai settlers revived “Etzel,” the pre-Statehood underground fighting group that was headed by Menachem Begin. In its original guise, the name was an acronym for Irgun Zvai Leumi (national military organization). In its reincarnation it stands for “Anachnu Tzerichim Le’Hilahem” (We Have to Fight).
Itzhak Regev, of the Neot Sinai area settlers committee, said yesterday that to give up the vegetable fields would be “a death blow” to the settlement. Last night, groups of settlers and their supporters camped out in the fields although the Military Government has ordered them sealed off as of tomorrow. The settlers have initiated legal action to invalidate the Military Government’s orders.
Government circles in Jerusalem, meanwhile, take a grave view of the situation, especially as the Egyptians have focussed attention on EI Arish as a test of Israel’s compliance with the peace treaty terms. While the government hopes to avoid a confrontation with the militants, sources in Jerusalem said force may be used to evacuate them if necessary.
OTHER PROBLEMS CITED
Meanwhile, other problems have cropped up with respect to Neot Sinai which will remain on the Israeli side of the new demarcation line until the final stage of the Sinai evacuation in three years. Apart from the vegetable fields, the main source of livelihood for the settlers is a laundromat that will find itself on the Egyptian side of the line this Friday. This means that the settlers will have to cross the checkpoint twice daily, produce papers and possibly undergo searches.
The Neot Sinai settlers are used to carrying small arms for personal protection. A serious question is will the Egyptians allow them to carry arms across the line; will the Egyptians allow Israeli military vehicles to enter the laundry area? These questions have remained unsettled as the deadline for the transfer of EI Arish to Egypt approaches.
THE FUTURE OF UNEF
Still another problem with international ramifications is the future of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) which has been patroling the buffer zones between Israel and Egypt since the end of the Yom Kippur War. According to the Camp David accords and the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, UNEF will continue its tasks after the new demarcation lines are created. But there is a strong likelihood that the UN may pull out. On orders from the UN Secretariate in New York, UNEF has taken no part in the Israeli-Egyptian arrangements. If UN observers do remain, they will be far behind the Egyptian lines after next Friday.
The Israeli-Egyptian joint military committee has improvised a system to by-pass UNEF if necessary. It calls for combined Israeli-Egyptian patrols in the limited forces zone to observe compliance with peace terms with respect to the size and equipment of each country’s forces. Israel and Egypt will also patrol their respective sides of the new demarcation line.
Meanwhile, it was learned today that President Anwar Sadat will not fly to Ben Gurion Airport next Sunday to symbolize the opening of an air corridor between Israel and Egypt. According to Egyptian sources, the timetable will not permit such a flight Sadat and Begin are scheduled to meet in EI Arish and then travel by helicopter to Beersheba where both will address the student body and faculty of Ben Gurion University of the Negev. This event will follow the formal transfer of EI Arish to Egypt.
EI Arish itself was crowded with thousands of Israelis who traveled there last Saturday for a farewell visit and to pick up souvenirs. Many residents of EI Arish went to the Gaza Strip and Tel Aviv to stock up on various goods which they believe will cost more under Egyptian administration. In EI Arish itself, students at the Ulpan Akiva and local citizens planted 120 saplings in the Peace Forest. The ceremonies were attended by Israeli and Egyptian offices.
There was a sadder gathering at Neot Sinai yesterday. Many settlers from the Yamit area came there to commiserate with the local residents who were marking their seventh anniversary. There will not be many more. Neot Sinai like Yamit will have to be abandoned when the Egyptians take over all of Sinai.