TEL AVIV (May. 24)
Militant settlers from Neot Sinai agreed reluctantly today to evacuate their vegetable fields near EI Arish but only after driving off unarmed Israeli soldiers with flaming torches, chemical insecticides and a barrage of stones, fruits and vegetables. A number of soldiers and settlers were slightly injured in the melee early this morning. The fields, along with the town of EI Arish, will be handed over to the Egyptians tomorrow.
The settlers balked and occupied the fields Tuesday in defiance of Military Government orders. They promised to leave voluntarily after Deputy Premier Yigale Yadin, who flew to the scene from Jerusalem, relayed a promise from Premier Menachem Begin in London that he would try to persuade President Anwar Sadat to allow them access to the fields Begin and Sadat are due to meet in EI Arish on Sunday.
Yadin made it clear that Begin could only raise the matter with Sadat and could guarantee nothing. The vegetable fields are in the area to be returned to Egypt under the arrangements made by the Israeli-Egyptian joint military committee and approved by the Knesset under the terms of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. Yesterday, the settlers reinforced by sympathizers from the Gush Emunim and other die hard groups opposed to the peace treaty, fortified themselves in the fields with tractors barbed wire and steel pipes. They angrily rejected appeals to leave peacefully from Justice Minister Shmuel Tamir and Defense Minister Ezer Weizman. They pelted Weizman with vegetables and denounced him as a “traitor” and an “agent of Egypt.” They rejected similar urgings early today from the local army commander Brig. Moshe Dahan and the commanding officer of the southern region, Gen. Dan Shomron.
Israeli army units had been deployed around the fields since Tuesday but took no action to remove the settlers. Before dawn today, however, unarmed soldiers, only a few of them equipped with helmets, moved into the fields behind a bulldozer used to uproot the barbed wire. Although Gen. Shomron in formed the militants that the troops were weaponless and begged them not to resort to violence, the approaching soldiers were attacked with flames, missiles and, most dangerous, chemical sprays that could cause blindness. They were exhorted by the settlers to disobey their orders. The soldiers withdrew and no further attempts were mode to use farce.
Yadin was summoned from Jerusalem at that point, having earlier reported to Begin in London by telephone. He said the Premier was pained by the events of this morning and would try to make Sadat understand the settlers’ motivations and attachment to the land. Yadin said that since Sadat himself was once a farmer, he might understand. But if not, there is no other way but to return the land to the Egyptians, Yadin said.
This evening, the settlers began to leave Neot Sinai just hours before the Egyptians were to come in. Tempers were cooled and in an effort at reconciliation, the settlers and soldiers shook hands and saluted each other.