(photo credit: )
During the Succot holiday Yaakov and Karmit Cohn took their three-year-old daughter Avital and her one-and-a-half-year-old sister Ta'ir on a tour with the KKL-JNF. While throngs of Israelis flocked to the popular KKL-JNF sites in the north and center of the country, the Cohn family decided to remain close to their home in the Negev town of Netivot.
From the variety of activities and tours available, they chose to visit Kibbutz Nir-Am overlooking the north and central Gaza Strip. A short time later Avital, bottle in hand, was strolling on Nizmit Hill, near the monument in memory of the Druse officer Nabia Mar'i, built by KKL-JNF.
Despite the fact that he lives nearby, Kobi Cohn had never been there before, and was unfamiliar with the sites or with their fascinating history. "We only pass by the kibbutz on the road on our way to Ashkelon. We never visited here before, and certainly never knew what we heard and saw today. It's really fascinating."
Itzik Ibo, head of the tourist branch of Kibbutz Nir-Am, a long-standing member of the kibbutz and former paratrooper led the fascinating tour.
The tour began at the lookout point overlooking the large Nir Am reservoir built with help of JNF Canada friends. The reservoir holds one and a half million cubes of water, part of which is purified sewage from Gush Dan that is used for agriculture. Itzik's explanations leave no room for doubt: the issue of water is the factor that will determine whether the future holds peace or conflict. The question is only how to relate to it.
Itzik tells how the need for developing agriculture in the northern Negev came about after most of the citrus groves in the center of the country were replaced by housing and business centers in an effort to cope with the urgent need for housing brought about by the massive influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s.
Itzik recounts the extensive efforts on the part of KKL-JNF to establish huge infrastructures such as the Nir-Am and Habsor reservoirs and describes the process of recycling sewage water from Gush Dan and the contribution of purified water to agriculture on both sides of the fence between the Gaza Strip and Israel. "We provide a certain amount of purified water to our neighbors as well, but only on the condition that they prove that they are limiting the pumping of fresh ground water."
The desire to live quiet and simple lives on both sides of the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip is expressed in everything Itzik relates as he recalls with nostalgia the period when the kibbutz was established in 1945. At the time, neighborly relations existed between the local Israelis and the nearby town of Beit Hanoun - the main location from which Kassam rockets are presently being launched at the nearby communities and the city of Sderot.
After Itzik's explanations, the group could distinguish between the 11 wells of ground water belonging to the kibbutz and the red pipes of purified water for agriculture, and understand the main points of the method of purifying sewage water that is sent to penetrate deep into the sandy soil of Rishon LeTzion and southward. At the foot of the lookout tower at the memorial site to Colonel Nabia Mar'i, Itzik relates to the story of the illustrious Druse officer who fell in battle on the Philadelphia Road in the southern Gaza Strip during the violent clashes in 1996. "People don't understand this", said Eti Samuel from Ramat HaSharon enthusiastically, cutting into Itzik's remarks. "We made a strategic decision to visit this area despite the fact it is within Kassam range. We put aside our fears and we have met other families with small children here who feel as we do."
An armored military vehicle moves along the electronic fence and Itzik explains the role that the army watchtowers play in preventing attempts to approach the fence or penetrate Israeli territory. In the same breath he describes the daily routine of life and commerce at the Karni border crossing not far to the south. "There is a need and a desire on both sides to continue a normal routine and to earn a living. Most of the residents of the Gaza Strip are victims of terror and violence - not those who initiate it or carry it out."
Kibbutz Nir-Am is presently embedded in a severe crisis. The kibbutz once had 250 residents, but today they number only 120. "The average age in the kibbutz is 62," says, Itzik Ibo, pointing at himself. "We've built lovely guest rooms amidst the green gardens of the kibbutz, but during the last few years we have had few guests. People are simply afraid to come here. We are presently building a housing development, but in light of the present situation we have doubts whether we will be able to fill it."
The final focal point of the tour is the "Black Arrow" memorial, commemorating the fighters of the 890th Paratroopers' Brigade and the daring actions the soldiers took in the mid 1950s in an effort to halt terrorist acts from the Gaza Strip - then under Egyptian rule - and from the West Bank that was then held by the Jordanians. The names of Ariel Sharon, Mota Gur, and Danny Matt appear in Itzik's narrative together with those of David Ben Gurion, Levi Eshkol, Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin. Itzik gives extensive details and relives the battles as a member of the paratroopers.
Yitzhak Samuel ("We come from the heart of the northern suburbs, from Ramat HaSharon") seating himself on a rock at the end of the tour, he scribbles a few lines in a note of thanks to Itzik of Nir-Am. Despite the fact that they don't express great hope, he chooses to conclude with two lines:
"What will happen after Sukkot and our visit to Nir-Am?
No one knows and no one can foretell."
These words are the essence of the feelings of uncertainty held by anyone who lives on the border with the Gaza Strip. Itzik Ibo therefore chooses to focus his narrative on national unity and expressions of support that will result in additional aid for those who live under the constant threat, 100 kilometers from Jerusalem, and 70 kilometers from Tel Aviv.
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