A few years ago we organized a tour focusing on life within the Israeli border communities near the Gaza strip. It was a program Travelujah developed for many incoming tour groups coming from the United States which, in the aftermath of last summer’s conflict with Hamas, are increasingly interested in learning more about the southern Israel communities that endured thousands of rockets and mortar attacks not only during the last war but on and off during the last 10 years since the Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip left Hamas in charge. What was unusual about this tour, wasn’t so much the sites but the fact that was unusual about this tour was that the tour was for locals, most of whom only traveled 60 kilometers from their homes in Raanana, Israel, a small community about 15 minutes north of Tel Aviv.
Billed as “Life on the Front Line” our tour educator, Yaakov, led the group on an in depth program focusing on the history of the southern region and its changing borders in context to the reality of life on the ground since the country’s independence in 1948. Our day was to include a personal tour of a new museum documenting Israel’s withddrawl from the Gaza strip, a look at how a unique community of families moved to Sderot in order to economically and emotionally strengthen the city, as well as a visit to Israel’s most southern agricultural community (a moshav) that sits right on Gaza’s northern border.
Our first stop of the day was at a new museum dedicated to the 8,600 residents who settled in a total of 21 different communities within the Gaza Strip in the aftermath of the 1967 war, where Israel took control of the Gaza Strip. From 1967 to 2005, the Israel Defense Forces controlled the Gaza Strip, and over time a number of Jewish settlements sprung up within the strip, and the bloc of settlements became known as Gush Katif. In the summer of 2005, Israel carried out a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip removing all the Jewish settlements in the region. Nitzan, a religiously observant community situated near Ashkelon is one of many new communities built inside of Israel to accommodate the residents who left their homes in the Gaza Strip. It is here that we met with a local guide who escorted us through the new museum which focuses on retelling the personal stories of the many families that left their homes through difficult film footage documenting how the army prepared the soldiers for the removal of these residents. There was footage of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s announcing his decision to disengage as well as the vote in the Knesset and the heartbreaking withdrawal showing young uniformed soldiers straining to peacefully remove mothers and their children from their homes . The army had handed out cardboard boxes each family to pack up their belongings and we sat on these same boxes as we watched the footage.
Gush Katif packing boxese now used as chairs in museum. Photo Travelujah
Next we drove about 15 minutes south to Sderot where we met with one of the leaders of Afikim B’Negev, the name given to a small group of families (now totalling 260 people) who settled in Sderot with the specific intent to serve and strengthen the disadvantaged populations prevalent n this border community including single families, Holocaust survivors and victims of terror. Our speaker, Odelia, was quite candid about the difficulties of living in a community so close to last summers hostilities. She told us about how her six year old son refused to go to the bathroom alone because of the constant sirens. In Sderot you have 15 seconds to find shelter. In spite of the situation, the family still decided to remain in Sderot, primarily because they knew that if they left it would dramatically impact and weaken the community that remained. And that didn’t seem right.
The city’s protected playground is located directly across the street from the youth center and features bomb concrete enforced cylindrical caterpillar-looking creatures enabling kids to play within its protected walls. We also visited the police station to see the collection of missiles and shrapnel on display as well as Iron Dome remnants, with each item dated.
The official Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty, which has been in effect since 1979, Egypt renounced all claims to the Gaza Strip. As part of the agreement all of the Israeli settlements that had been built in the Sinai were evacuated in 1982. One of these agricultural communities, Netiv Ha’asara, (named in memory of the ten soldiers who died in a helicopter crash south of Rafiah in 1971) wanted to remain together as a community after the evacuation and to do so they ask the Israeli government for land that would enable them to farm in the same arid desert environment similar to the desert climate they had become accustomed to inside the Sinai desert. , The new Netiv Ha’asara is situated in the Zikim sand dunes in southern Israel,and lies about 200 meters from the Gaza border where there is a nine-foot concrete wall separating Gaza from Israel.
Separation wall between Netiv Ha’asara and Gaza; photo courtesy Travelujah
Standing at the southern edge of the moshav, we not only saw the many greenhouses where members grow tomatoes and flowers and other fruits and vegetables, the Erez Crossing, a pedestrian/cargo terminal on the border; but also the now destroyed entrance to an uncovered tunnel that was dug 75 meters underground, wide enough for a tank, and destroyed in last summer’s war. We learned about the challenges of raising children in a community seeking to live life normally but yet one that unfortunately claims the title for more deadly mortar fire and missile activity than any other community in Israel. Each home in the community sustained some sort of damage during last summers war. Our local guide, Hila Fenlon, explains that its not really about Hamas wanting to take over Israel, but rather, “they just want to break our spirit”. She explained how a couple years ago a missile landed inside the moshav on the first day of school in September. On the missile it was written “Shalom Kita Aleph” or “welcome to first grade”.
And so the spirit remains solid. With residents hopeful there will be peace young families are joining the community and 68 new units are under construction. One local artist, Tzamaret, has created an inspirational mural along the interior separation wall that needed to be constructed in order to protect the homes on the southern side of the community from mortars and missiles fired from the Gaza Strip. Dubbed the “peace wall” the art project has not only attracted moshav members, but visitors are invited to write a message of peace on the back of colorful mosaic tile and affix it to the wall. Another area of the wall which faces Gaza will soon be adorned with another mural that says “Salaam”, which in Arabic means “peace”. Why? According to Tzamaret, “we want them to see that we want peace”.
A participant places a ceramic on the Peace wall; photo courtesy Travelujah
There were so many themes running thru this day – the praise and respect for the Israeli Defense Forces and the astonishment for the sophisticated Israeli high tech agriculture technology that has become renowned all over the world. But what really stood out the most – was the strength of the people and the importance of commitment to their community. And it is exactly this point, the strength that one derives by taking an active role in their community, was what resonated the most to these 30 people from the similarly tight knit community of Raanana, situated only one hour to the north. At the end of the day, we find our greatest strength is in our own community.
Standing in front of the Peace wall; photo courtesy Travelujah-Holy Land tours
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Elisa L. Moed is the Founder and CEO of Travelujah.com, the leading Christian travel network focused on the Holy Land tours. People can learn,plan and share their Holy Land tour and travel experiences on Travelujah.