While areas close to the Gaza Strip may largely attract headlines for the wrong reasons, Yair Farjoun and his like-minded colleagues from the region say there are plenty of positive aspects to life in the Hof Ashkelon Regional Council area and many reasons to take a trip there.
As head of the council, Farjoun is the brains and the driving force behind the local Tourism to the Edge program, which is designed to bring in people from all over the country to get a closer look at some of the attractions on offer in the region.
One of the attractions is, quite literally, on the edge – the interface between Moshav Netiv Ha’asara and the Gaza Strip just a few meters away. The towering gray concrete security wall provides the tangible basis for the creation of The Peace Path mosaic, using colorful pieces of pottery produced on the moshav, which are glued to the wall. Farjoun got the ball rolling in the summer by applying the first mosaic components, and now anyone can come along, purchase a small bag of pottery and add to the evolving mosaic.
“We recently had some UN soldiers who came to add their pieces to the Peace Path,” says Farjoun, “and lots of people have come from all over the country to help build it.”
There is an expression bandied about in certain circles that goes by the name “security tourism.” Farjoun doesn’t buy into that. “We are the edge of the country, the southwestern edge, with Gaza right next to us. I would like people to come here and just get to know what we have here,” he says. “And there is a lot.
You can come and get involved in some hands-on agriculture by picking your own organic fruit and vegetables, putting them in a basket and buying produce you have picked with your own hands. I think that is a special experience to know where the vegetables you are eating came from, and not just from the supermarket. We till every possible bit of earth here, and I invite everyone in Israel to be a partner in our work.”
Farjoun and his cohorts are also keen to bring religious Jews to the area, so the council has lined up tours for that sector.
The circuit takes in the Gush Katif Heritage Center on Moshav Nitzan, which was established following a law passed by the Knesset four years ago calling for the commemoration and documentation of the former Jewish settlements in Gush Katif. The aim of the center, which is housed in a caravan, is to mark the role of the Jewish communities of Gush Katif and Northern Samaria, and to use the center to impart national and educational values. The center features exhibitions, films documenting the early days of Jewish settlement and stories of settlers.
The tour also takes in a visit to the synagogue at Kibbutz Nitzanim, and visitors can learn about the history of the kibbutz, as well as present-day life there.
There is a state-of-the-art cowshed to be seen, as well as water reservoirs and sprawling orchards. Visitors can also hear stories about an important battle that took place during the War of Independence, when a small number of Israeli soldiers held off a vastly superior Egyptian force that was looking to push on to Tel Aviv.
The compact kibbutz museum houses some impressive artifacts from the very beginnings of the state, such as a Rosh Hashana prayer book written from memory by two Israeli soldiers during nine months of captivity in Egypt.
All that walking and learning about the local history can be an appetite-inducing business, so the kibbutz restaurant offers excellent meals for very reasonable prices.
Over at Moshav Berechya there is the intriguing Djerba Jewry Center, which exhibits cultural items and offers information about the more than two-and-ahalf- millennia history of the Jewish community of southeastern Tunisia. The story of the Yemenite community is retold at Moshav Mashen. Part of that heritage centers on stories of Torah scrolls that were believed to be endowed with the power to perform miracles. One such scroll, the Ba’al Haness Torah scroll, is in the home of the Kindil family on the moshav.
One of the main get-out-there items on the Hof Ashkelon attractions list is the Coast to Coast Path of Light route. The trail, which is still in the works, takes a circuitous route around the regional council’s boundaries from Zikim Beach to Nitzanim Beach. The 50-km. trail is designed for all ages and all levels of fitness and comfort. Once completed, it will be possible to traverse its full length on foot, by bicycle or by car. Parts of the trail are already open to the public, and the project is due for completion next year.
Visitors can also get a close look at a local agricultural endeavor at the Yemini family hothouses to the south of Ashkelon. The family was evacuated from its home and farm in Gush Katif and set up their new home and started an agricultural enterprise here. Members of the public can enjoy guided tours of the large farm, with explanations about the various vegetables produced there. All the Yemini produce is marketed under strict kashrut supervision.
There are more tasty victuals on offer at the Kmehin restaurant at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, which is famous for the honey produced there and sold all over the country.
For more information: 052-396-2520, www.hof-ashkelon.org.il and www.goisrael.gov.il