A Day in the Negev Desert
"Being here makes me Proud to Support KKL-JNF"
"One of the Middle East's scarcest commodities is water which can't be manufactured artificially. What we can do is waste as little as possible, by harvesting floodwater and by recycling sewage - which is what KKL-JNF does and will continue to do over the next twenty years by building 120 reservoirs in the Negev." Harvey Bratt, director of JNF UK's Legacy Project, was speaking to a group of 39 seniors who were visiting Israel - some of them for the first time - as part of the JNF UK Senior Legacy Mission. After having toured northern Israel during the first few days of their stay, they headed south to the fields of Masu'ot Yitzhak, where KKL-JNF is renewing a reservoir seriously in need of repair. As Harvey explained to the group, the renovations were enabled through a contribution of JNF UK, who dedicated their High Holiday appeal to this vital project.
David Tzivieli, a member of nearby Kibbutz Negba, met the group and explained the importance of the reservoir for this region. "This reservoir, on which we are dependent for our crops, was first built thirty years ago. It has been losing about 50% of its water through seepage. Besides replacing the polyethylene lining that prevents the water from seeping into the ground, KKL-JNF bulldozers you see out there are enlarging the reservoir's storage capacity to 600,000 cubic meters. These waters come from the Lachish stream which otherwise would flow into the ocean but now will be shared between Masu'ot Yitzhak, a religious kibbutz and Kibbutz Negba, so this is also an example of good cooperation between secular and religious villages. The work on the reservoir should be completed by the end of the winter so we hope to be using the water for our spring and summer crops.
After a drive through Kibbutz Negba's fields, the group proceeded to the police station at Sderot in the Western Negev, where Yossi Avigdori, a volunteer police officer, greeted them at an "exhibit" of a few of the over 8,000 rockets that have been fired at Sderot over the past eight years. He described life in Sderot in fluent English. "Sderot was founded during the 1950's and has absorbed immigrants from North Africa, Russia and Ethiopia. We are less than a kilometer away from the Gaza border and when a rocket is shot, we have exactly 15 seconds to take cover. Unfortunately, there are many people who simply freeze when they hear the 'Color Red' siren go off. I don't wish it on anyone! Apart from the physical injuries and damage of living like this under attack for so long, the mental injuries are beyond description. Many of our young people stutter or wet their beds or have other symptoms. They do not know what a simple, carefree walk down the street means. Since Operation Cast Lead, it has been "relatively quiet" here but you should understand that this means that we only get five to eight missiles a week. "
One of the group asked what there is in Sderot for children. "Thank God," Officer Avigdori answered, "KKL-JNF have made a park here, so they at least have something green." In addition there are many other projects in Sderot built with the help of KKL-JNF friends worldwide.
Janet Clifford, who is from London, said that the situation in Sderot reminded her of the shelling of London during the Second World War. "What other country in the world would tolerate such a situation for eight minutes, let alone eight years?"
From Sderot, the group traveled to the Besor Research and Development Station, where they learned how agricultural research was making it possible for farming to thrive in the harsh conditions of the Western Negev. Liana, from the R&D station, led the group on a walk through a number of greenhouses, where various strains of cherry tomatoes, peppers, squash and flowers were being tested for their agricultural and economic properties. "We are a very practical R&D station - the local farmers should be able to do anything in their fields that we can do here. Here, we check out different varieties of vegetables, trees and flowers for their quantity, quality and increased shelf life. The world is growing Green, so we need to find ways of cutting down the use of pesticides to an absolute minimum. We do this by developing strains that are resistant to disease; by installing netting to keep out harmful flies and by breeding natural enemies of harmful pests - to mention just a few of our methods."
One of the group expressed amazement at seeing green tomatoes at this time of year. "The tomatoes in my garden in England are already finished!" "Exactly," Liana responded. "The Negev allows us to grow tomatoes that we can export to Europe during the winter. I would like to mention that most of our support comes from KKL-JNF. As we are close to the Gaza Strip here and as we have been shelled by missiles often, KKL-JNF has brought us old concrete water pipes that we use as shelters. If it wasn't for KKL-JNF, there would be no agriculture in the Negev today."
After lunch, the group proceeded to what seems to be one of the most desolate areas of Israel, along the western border with Egypt: sand, sand and more sand, as far as the eye could see. This is Halutza, where KKL-JNF, with the help of friends worldwide including JNF UK, KKL Italy, JNF America, and KKL-JNF Latin America, has prepared the infrastructure for hundreds of new homes in Halutziyot, a number of villages in planning stages, with infrastructure for cutting-edge desert agriculture.
Moshe Berniker, one of the people who will be moving to Halutziyot, talked about his plans for the future. "Actually, it is not quite "normal" to live in such a place, but with the help of people like you, we're doing our best to make it normal. Many of the families who will be moving here are evacuees from the Gaza Strip, who have invested in infrastructure out of their own pockets. Their personal money didn't go too far and that's when KKL-JNF stepped in. JNF UK has been supporting infrastructure for our houses and the paving of security roads and in addition, they have been supporting something not always publicly associated with KKL-JNF - education. Our friends in the UK understood that one of the things that will attract people to live here is top-level education for their children so they decided to support our educational institutions.
"Only 7% of Israel's population lives in the Negev. Our national goal is for 500,000 people to move to the Negev over the next ten years. No one has been interested in this region. In fact, when the second Camp David negotiations were taking place a few years ago, this area was offered to the Palestinians in exchange for territorial concessions in the West Bank. Then, they weren't in the least bit interested but when KKL-JNF started working here a year ago, we heard one of the Hamas leaders over the radio ordering Palestinians to aim their qassam rockets 'in the direction of the Palestinian lands in Halutza.'
Harvey responded. "When you hear Moshe talk, it's hard not to be caught up in his enthusiasm. We look forward to seeing the families move in and to seeing the school in operation. One thing is for certain - every child will have his own individual sandbox here!"
The last stop of the day was in Shomriya in the Lachish region of the Eastern Negev, where Gaza Strip evacuees are creating a thriving new village. The occasion was the dedication of the local school, which was built through a donation of Ruth and Harry Lewis of Hove, United Kingdom. David Reisch, one of the local residents, spoke about the history of Shomriya and the importance of the school. "Our group originally settled in Atzmona, in the Sinai Desert but when Sinai was given to Egypt as part of the peace accords [in 1981] we resettled in the Gaza Strip.
Four years ago, we were evicted from our homes once again when the Sharon government decided to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip, we asked to move to Shomriya which is in need of people with a pioneering spirit. Today we are a group of 110 families with over 400 children. Ruth and Harry Lewis did not have children of their own so building a school where children learn and play was a special project for them to bequeath their money. We feel that our children are thus also partly their children."
We heard some more about this mission from Harvey Bratt of JNF UK. "We have 39 senior citizens here for an eight-day visit to Israel. Many of them have been involved with KKL-JNF over the years and have already made a pledge to us but some have never been here. A trip like this provides them with an opportunity to see what their contributions have accomplished."
Arik Jakobi, who works as a probation officer in England, was a student in Israel in the 1970s. "I was already involved with JNF UK as a youngster growing up in Manchester. That was just "nice" but this group is really metzuyan - excellent! We were supposed to plant trees up north but we couldn't, owing to heavy rains - which we understand are really needed. Now I'm considering moving to Israel when I retire."
Werner Sussewein told us that the last time he was in Israel was fifty years ago. "Things have really changed here since then! KKL-JNF was simply a natural choice for my contribution as I identify with many of its goals and values."
Irene Caplan said "I knew I would have to come to Israel one day and when I heard from Harvey, I realized that the time had come. I have heard people say that after you visit Israel, you don't want to travel anywhere else in the world and even though I've only been here a few days, I feel that this is true. Being here makes me proud to be Jewish and proud to support KKL-JNF causes. I wish I had come here thirty years ago!"
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