The community of Halutziyot, wedged into a corner of the Negev desert just below the Gaza Strip and alongside the border with Egypt, is truly representative of what 21st century Zionism and pioneering look like.
"Two years ago, this area was completely empty - there was nothing but sand. Since the creation of the world, not a single person has lived on this land because it was impossible to do anything here," said Avraham Duvdevani, KKL-JNF World Co-Chairman during a visit to the area.
But today, there are fields where organic carrots and potatoes are grown, and inside a single row of hothouses bell peppers of every color are being produced for export.
"One of the reasons we decided to come to this area of Halutziyot is because we knew this was one of the places where agriculture could be successful," said Eli Adler, who plans to build his new home in this community.
For the past several years, since being evacuated from Gush Katif, his family of ten has lived in a small caravan in Yated, a neighbouring Moshav.
"Two weeks after we came out of Gush Katif, we told the government that we wanted to go as fast as possible to the area of Halutzyiot. We had a dream to build an even bigger area than what we had before. And the people were happy because they saw their future here," said Adler.
At that time, there was no electricity and no water, so people could not yet build their homes on the land. Instead, the development of the community began with the development of their agricultural business.
What were originally 20 families from the Gush Katif community of Atzmona quickly multiplied into 80 families, including members of other Gush Katif communities, determined to make the desert bloom.
"What is happening in this area is like a miracle," said Adler.
"The future of the Negev," said Duvdevani, "depends on the Halutsim - these pioneers - and on the people from KKL-JNF around the world. Without the donations that KKL-JNF brought in from the UK, USA, Italy and South America, this project would have been impossible."
During a day trip to the area, as part of the KKL-JNF World Marketing Conference, delegates from around the globe had a chance to see first-hand the infrastructural and agricultural achievements that have been made in such a short period of time. They also had a chance to go into the fields and pick their own carrots from the ground.
Throughout the remainder of the day, the group visited several other sites in Ashkelon and the Western Negev being developed by KKL-JNF.
Despite the relentless winds and blowing sands, delegates boarded safari-style jeeps to take a tour of the Ambassador's Forest, a place where trees are grown without any irrigation.
Itzik Moshe, KKL-JNF's deputy director of the southern region, explained that by creating natural sand terraces, enough run-off water is captured around the newly planted trees to ensure their survival and growth. And, these terraces play an additional role in helping to prevent soil erosion.
Though difficult to picture at the moment, the greenery that is being planted today will serve as the future green belt of Be'er Sheva, and what currently looks like sparsely placed bushes will in 30-years time be a dense, fully-grown forest.
"This can be a source of solution for other countries as well, when it comes to global warming," said Moshe, as many other countries will experience desertification in the coming years. It is a way in which Israel can export its scientific expertise to the rest of the world.
Aside from visiting sites of agriculture and afforestation, the group also drove through Moshav Netiv Ha'asara, along the Gaza border, in order to learn more about the security needs of the populations in southern Israel.
Ronit, a 27-year resident of the Moshav said: "Life on the Moshav is very stressful because of the constant threat of missiles launched from Gaza. Yet, there is not a single house to rent here because no one wants to leave."
To help communities like this one who just a few months ago were in the heart of a warzone, KKL-JNF with help of JNF America and KKL-JNF Uruguay, built the Netiv HaAsara-Yad Mordekhy Security Road, a five kilometre road through Netiv Ha'asara and neighbouring Kibbutz Yad Mordechai to address the needs of the people living in the Gaza periphery.
At Nir-Am Reservoir the group was amazed at one of the largest reservoir in the area with a capacity of 1.5 million cubic meters of water. The reservoir, Built with help of JNF Canada Friends, is used for storing local winter floodwaters and recycled wastewater from central Israel, which is used for agriculture, saving precious drinking water.
Another infrastructural project that KKL-JNF has launched for the betterment of a particular subpopulation in Israel is at the Akim hostel for mentally handicapped elderly people in Ashkelon.
Here, KKL-JNF will be building a therapeutic garden behind the hostel to both beautify the hostel and assist the residents in their rehabilitation. The first stage of the project is financed by KKL-JNF Mexican Friends and the project is still available for more donations.
"This is a beautiful project for KKL-JNF," said Danny Bar Am, director of Akim Israel. "It shows that KKL-JNF is not only about trees, and not only doing something good for the land, but also helping people."
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