Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon helicoptered here today and ended, at least temporarily, a government confrontation with settlers who had barricaded this desert development town in a dispute over property compensation.
Two hours before Sharon arrived, 100 business owners ended their four-day self-imposed "siege," in which they had welded shut the gate to the only entrance to Yamit and barricaded the access road with barbed wire.
After meeting for 90 minutes with the Yamit Action Committee, which has rejected government offers of compensation as being too low, Sharon said efforts would be made to reach a fair settlement for property that is to be abandoned when the last third of the Sinai is returned to Egypt on April 25.
"I could not underestimate the difficulties people are facing here," he said. "Altogether, it is a tragedy that people who decided to build their lives here and were brought here by the government of Israel and motivated by the government to come and settle here and who spent some of their best years here have to move from here." His conciliatory tone contrasted sharply with hard-line statements recently made by other Cabinet ministers.
Sharon said he had discussed compensation proposals with the settlers and would present them to Deputy Prime Minister Simcha Ehrlich, who is filling in while Prime Minister Menachem Begin recuperates from a broken thigh bone. Sharon said he would personally present the government's reply to the settlers next Monday.
"The people understand that the problems, which are very complicated, might be solved if only it is quiet and everything is done according to the law," Sharon said.
Sharon's intercession appeared to signal a renewed government effort to end at least half of a growing problem that has all the signs of becoming a major crisis as the April 25 withdrawal deadline nears.
The Yamit compensation holdouts are entirely distinct from the 100 families who the past three months have moved into abandoned Sinai settlement homes as an ideological protest against the withdrawal.
Backed by the ultranationalist Gush Emunim (Bloc of Faithful) settlement movement, the stop-the-Sinai-withdrawal movement has said it plans to move 200 more families into the Sinai on the Hanukah holiday, Dec. 21.
Those settlers, many of them from the occupied West Bank, have said their purpose is to physically prevent the withdrawal from the Sinai and to scuttle the Camp David peace agreements. But Sharon and other Israeli officials have stressed that there is no need to begin an evacuation of the squatters yet.
Yamit's merchants had previously threatened to resist forcibly any attempt by the Israeli Army to break through the barricade, and said they would hold out until April 25 if their demand for an average compensation of $265,000 were not met.
Most apartment owners among Yamit's 500 remaining families have agreed to compensation of between $67,000 and $93,000, with a relocation grant of $27,000, but they are now demanding that negotiations be reopened.
Following the talks with Sharon today, Avi Yigal, chairman of the Yamit businessmen's association, said he was encouraged that a compromise could be reached, but said that the settlers had made no promises to keep the gates open indefinitely.
"It's not a matter of being satisfied," Yigal said. "We are satisfied that we opened the gates today and that Mr. Sharon came and heard us. We will see what happens."
He said there had been no discussion of damage caused when the settlers firebombed several government offices in the town center Wednesday night. Later, Israeli security forces uncovered a cache of 35 gasoline-filled molotov cocktails, but no arrests have been made.
However, government sources said later that if the settlers repair the damage themselves, they will not be prosecuted.
After Sharon's visit, two crude sandbag bunkers remained near the entrance to Yamit, but they were not manned by settlers as they had been. Many of the soldiers who had surrounded the settlement were withdrawn.