Pushed along by the hot desert winds, tumbleweeds roll lazily through the deserted streets of this forlorn Jewish settlement, giving it an atmosphere of a ghost town of the Old West.
The skeletal remains of half-razed greenhouses protrude from the gently rolling sand dunes. Shattered windows of the squat, prefabricated settlement homes give evidence of break-ins by the nomadic Bedouin who wander across northern Sinai.
But the appearance of desolation is an illusion. Even though the settlement is on land that is to become part of Egypt in seven months, Talmei Yosef is gradually becoming something of a boom town of ultranationalist Jewish squatters determined to sabotage the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty before allowing the scheduled Israeli withdrawal next April 28 from the last third of the Sinai.
Sixteen families, many of them West Bank settlers, recently have moved into abandoned homes in nearby Yamit to prepare for a stand against evacuation. Another 15 families have moved into Talmei Yosef, a dozen took over derelict houses in neighboring Atzmona and militant settlers say they plan to move 300 families into vacated buildings in northern Sinai.
The Israeli government, amid visions of Jewish soldiers battling with Jewish settlers to force evacuation, seems paralyzed with inaction as more treaty opponents dig in for what they call their "last stand."
The settlers, encouraged by the government's apparent ambivalence, say they will place militant squatters in every Sinai house that is evacuated. They say that when a showdown approaches, they will marshal 20,000 demonstrators to physically prevent a turnover of the last portion of the Sinai.
"If, God forbid, the day comes when they come to take me out, I don't know what I'll do. It's such an emotional thing. We just hope people will wake up and see what a disaster the peace treaty is heading us into," said Avia Luz, a psychologist who moved here three weeks ago with her husband and three children.
Luz said she closed up her house in Kiryat Malachi, a Negev development town in Israel, and settled in an abandoned house here because of her conviction that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat does not intend to live in peace with Israel.
"If the intentions of peace are so great in Egypt, why do they persist in demanding the evacuation of so many people from such a tiny area? They can have 99 percent of the Sinai, but let us have our small tomato patches. I don't believe tomatoes are a danger to peace," Luz said.
The area has been under Israeli occupation and control since 1967, when Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula during the Six-Day War.
While most of the approximately 4,000 settlers in northern Sinai are prepared to accept state compensation grudgingly and leave, a growing number of militants are demanding that Prime Minister Menachem Begin abrogate the treaty.
Failing that, some of the settlers say they are prepared for a violent confrontation.
"I've been in three wars and I'm not afraid of bullets. They won't take me from here alive if they don't come to terms with me," said Yosi Sela of Yamit.
So far, opposition rarely has gone beyond strong talk but last week a smoke bomb was hurled at a top Begin aide when he visited Yamit, and two other government negotiators literally have been chased out of town by angry settlers. One official's car was burned and employes of a local Housing Ministry office had to escape through a window when they were besieged by residents.
But most of the holdouts who have organized under the Stop the Sinai Withdrawal movement, which grew out of the ultranationalist Gush Emunim settlement group, say they believe they can avoid bloodshed by forcing the government to capitulate under the threat of confrontation.
"The government really has a problem. For two years they have not found anyone willing to accept the responsibility of forcing us out. They keep passing the ball from one to another, because they know it's political suicide to come down here and remove us," said Ella Weizman, who lives in nearby Sadot.
The evidence suggests that Weizman is right. No Cabinet minister, including Begin, has suggested a forcible removal of the squatters, and in a remarkable television appearance last week, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and Simcha Ehrlich, who is agriculture minister and deputy premier, angrily called upon each other to do the job if it comes to that. Finally Sharon said, "When the time comes, it will be possible to persuade them to evacuate."
The situation is so emotionally charged that some officials have said privately that it is the only issue that could undo Begin's narrow parliamentary coalition and bring down the government. The militant settlers are not unmindful of the grip they have on the government.
"Removing us is a task that will stain the career of any politician forever. That's what we're working on. When evacuation time comes, we want it to be mission impossible," Weizman said.
She added, "They will have to say to Sadat, 'Look, we have a problem here. It can't be done.' The world took it for granted that Israel would evacuate the Sinai as promised, but the world didn't understand how strongly Israelis feel about their roots in the Sinai. It would be the first time Jews evacuated Jews. Others have evacuated Jews throughout Jewish history, but Jews have never done it to themselves."
Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, who runs a religious school in Yamit and who heads a militant group called Maoz, said members of his movement are prepared to die for Yamit.
"I say we must be ready to die, not kill. We will not fight Jewish soldiers. But whoever wants to take us out of our homes will have to take us out dead," Ariel said.
Luz, and other northern Sinai residents interviewed, claimed that historically the Sinai is part of Eretz Israel (the biblical Land of Israel), but that recent history alone is enough justification for retaining the occupied land. "Jewish blood was spilled here in three wars--1948, 1956 and 1967--and that alone is enough for us to stay here. I don't want more violence, but we are determined to stay," she said.
Then, seeking to buttress her justification, she added, "All the government has to do is take the treaty back. It's like when you find something wrong with a dress that you bought. You take it back."