(photo credit: )
We were standing on a hill in Netiv Ha'asarah from where we could see right into the Gaza Strip, only a few meters away. Glen Eilon, a local resident, told us the story of what happened here three years ago and described the present situation.
"Until August 2005, there were over 7,000 Jews living in the Gaza Strip. The government of Ariel Sharon had decided on a unilaterally withdrawal from Gaza and the evacuation of all the Jewish residents, most of whom refused to leave on their own. The evictions were carried out by the Israeli Army and the whole event was a totally traumatic experience for everyone involved. Those who lived here and had built and developed the area for thirty years - with the encouragement and assistance of Israeli governments - were literally dragged out of their houses. As Jews, I'm certain you can imagine how difficult it was to see Jewish soldiers evacuating other Jews from their homes. Even worse - now, three years later, the government has still not resettled the evacuees - but more about that later.
"The day after the evacuation, our village, Netiv Ha'asarah, was suddenly right on the front line. Thousands of Gaza Arabs were standing 300 meters from our houses, shouting itbach al yehud - 'Death to the Jews' at the tops of their voices from morning to evening. Needless to say, we told the army that the situation was untenable, so they built the nine-meter wall you see here. We painted it in bright colors so that it wouldn't be so horrible to look at from our windows"
One of the group asked about all the rubble and incomplete houses that we could see on the other side of the wall. Glen explained that the houses of the Jewish Gaza communities were destroyed. "The rubble is the remains of the Jewish community of Nizanit. As for the half-finished houses, we Jews innocently thought that after the withdrawal, our Arab neighbors would build homes, schools, hospitals and the like on the land we left them. We left them some unfinished buildings that we thought would be useful to them. Unfortunately, nothing has been built by the Gaza Arabs to this day and whatever structures we left them are used to train terrorists. Since the withdrawal, over 7,000 missiles have been shot at Sderot. Here at Netiv Ha'asarah, we have been lucky - only 1,000 bombs and rockets since the withdrawal."
We were with a group of Italian friends of KKL-JNF who were spending the day learning firsthand about the repercussions of the 2005 evacuations and what KKL-JNF was doing to alleviate the situation. Raffaele Sassun, President of KKL-JNF Italy, pointed to a wide road next to the wall: "The road you see here was built with the assistance of KKL-Italy, which donated over two million American dollars for this project. It is 17 kilometers long, beginning here at Netiv Ha'asarah and ending at Kibbutz Be'eri. The Israeli Army uses it around the clock for patrols and other security-related procedures. We felt we really wanted to do something to help the brave people who live here on the border, and as usual, KKL-JNF in Israel had a great idea for us."
Driving through Netiv Ha'asarah, one cannot help but be impressed by the lush green village that has been built here. Interspersed between the houses are concrete shelters for people to flee into when the local alarm system warns of an imminent bombing or shelling. Although it may be somewhat naive, we could not help but be moved by the cheerful graffiti painted by local children on the shelters, one of which proclaimed "Love will bring peace".
On our way to see how KKL-JNF was helping resettle the Gush Katif evacuees in the Negev, we stopped at the amazing Besor Reservoir. Our guide, Rafi Mandelbaum, noted that "the only way the Negev will remain an integral part of the Jewish state is if we maintain our hold on the land, either by living on it or by agriculture. Both are dependent on water, which is why projects like the Besor Reservoir are critical for Negev development."
We were provided with an opportunity to see exactly what Negev development means. Driving deep into the western Negev, we stopped at the two villages of Yated and Yevul, where over 150 families of Gaza Strip evacuees are still living in temporary housing three years after being forcibly evicted from their homes. We were joined by one of the evacuees, Elyada Prince, who directed our bus to a rather harrying road that took us to the Halutziot region, where KKL-JNF is preparing the land for four new villages that will become home for the evacuees.
When one arrives at Halutziot, the desolation and unbearable heat are quite a shock. Elyada took us to a spot from which we could see the entire region, including the future site of Naveh, a village whose land is being prepared with the support of KKL-JNF Italy, which has made this their national project. JNF America and other friends of KKL-JNF worldwide are supporting the other projects being carried out here.
Elyada, who used to live in Netzarim, described for us what was going on. "To be honest, the government has been dragging feet in dealing with us since the evacuation, and believe me, that's an understatement. KKL-JNF has been exactly the opposite:- they took upon themselves one of the hardest jobs here - the transformation of the endless hilly sand dunes of this region into flat land ready for homes, agriculture and greenhouses. KKL-JNF does what it promises and I can't tell you how much that means to us. It's not easy to start all over again from the very beginning.
"Why Halutziot? We lived in very tight communities with great social cohesion in Gaza's Gush Katif, and this is the only place the government is willing to give where we can continue to live as communities. In the meantime, we are living in Yevul and Yated. The people who work in agriculture come here everyday to work in the greenhouses, which, thanks to KKL-JNF, are already built and functioning."
Elyada took us to one such greenhouse, which, despite - or possibly owing to - the stifling heat, was full of organic pepper plants: "Gush Katif was famous for its agriculture. Although we can't grow exactly all the same crops here as there, we can still do a lot. These will be red and yellow peppers for export."
Walking out of the greenhouse, we spoke to Rafi Ovadiah, KKL-JNF shaliach to Italy. Rafi said that this is a definite case of "seeing is believing." "When I tell people about the work KKL-JNF is doing in the Negev, literally transforming hundreds of acres into land that will support life and agriculture, it is rather abstract and hazy. When they come here and see for themselves, it is invariably a powerful experience they will never forget."
On our way back to Tel Aviv, we climbed "Camel Hill" for a bird's eye view of the Western Negev and the Gaza Strip. Some of the local residents talk about the "State of the Western Negev" as if it were a separate entity - an expression of the bitterness they feel as a result of the government's seeming indifference to their own security plight. Raffaele Sassun told us that a donor's appreciation center for Italian friends of KKL-JNF would be built here in the future. We could see the security road built by KKL-JNF, Sderot and the lush green fields of the Negev. "Is it possible," someone wondered, "that some day the Halutziot villages will look like this?"
Although the scenery at Halutzit is very bleak at present, miracles have happened in the past in the Negev. Sixteen-year old Yisrael Elitzur was born in Netzarim in the Gaza Strip and was now cautiously optimistic about finally moving into a permanent home in Halutziot: "Quite honestly, I don't think it will ever be the same. But at least now we have something to look forward to."
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