Somewhere in the Western Negev, a short drive from the Rafah border crossing, residents of the former Gaza Strip settlement of Netzarim recently planted etrog seeds.
I know the soon-to-be citrons are out there, but I didn't find them this week. I did find, however, that it is not an especially good idea, when driving an ordinary family saloon car, to depart from the flattened sandy track that a series of tractors and heavy rollers have carved through the desert in search of them. In retrospect this is obvious, but as I can now personally testify, your car will in all likelihood rapidly become beleaguered on a sand drift.
If two immensely good-natured Beduin had not materialized magically out of the desert haze as I was attempting futilely to extricate my vehicle - on my knees in the blazing sun, dripping sweat with a piece of cardboard for a shovel - it might still be there now, since I rather doubt that the Shagrir recovery service extends this far beyond the country's recognized road network. So polite as to barely display what must have been huge amusement at my ridiculous plight, the desert duo pushed me out of the mini-dune and back on track - and I was sufficiently relieved and chastened as to give up the etrog quest.
Ten minutes further on, however, past a KKL-Jewish Agency sign hailing imminent new agricultural development and, improbably, past a single ripe red tomato sitting perkily in the middle of the flattened route, I did find the main object of my search: The soon-to-be Netzarim 2. Or 3 or 4, depending on how you want to count it.
I last saw Netzarim - the most isolated of the Gaza settlements, two miles from Gaza City about a third of the way into the Strip from the north - shortly before it was evacuated and crushed along with the rest of Israeli-residential Gaza last summer. One of the first settlements to have been established there, its fate once memorably branded by Ariel Sharon as being as important as that of Tel Aviv, it was the last to be emptied.
Unlike some other Gush Katif communities, however, the residents of Netzarim insistently moved as one unit - initially to Ariel in the West Bank, where they spent the rest of the summer in the dorms of an academic college that they then had to leave when the students returned after vacation.
About 20 of the former Netzarim families have opted to stay on at Ariel. But the majority - about 55 families in all - have relocated here, in the shadow of the white observation blimp that sways gently in the breeze above the Egyptian border, to start over.
The (presumed) etrogim are a symbolic statement of intent and commitment: Netzarim is back in business. Further on down the sand-road is the very beginning of the real evidence: Five yellow tractors and other big-wheeled vehicles whose particular expertise is hard to discern are circling, and thus flattening, a football stadium-sized bowl in the sand - the building site for a settlement determinedly rising from the rubble it left behind a few kilometers away in Gaza.
IRONIC MIGHT not be the first adjective the Netzarim families would use, but there is plenty of irony in the sequence of events that now sees them prepare to rebuild their lives in the sands of Halutza.
The same Ariel Sharon who brought them to Gaza, and then removed them, also long harbored the dream of bringing Jews to populate a string of settlements here, along a borderline with Egypt that runs southeast from southern Gaza to Eilat, where those treacherous shifting sands swallow up the fencing.
His determination to do so was only heightened by the talk, which reached a crescendo in the Barak government years, of a possible peace arrangement in which Israel might allow the Palestinians to annex this part of the Negev to Gaza in exchange for Israeli annexation of heavily settled territory in the West Bank.
Five years ago, newly installed as prime minister, Sharon had his cabinet approve a grand plan for settling Halutza. Yet neither Arik the bulldozer, nor any other Israeli leaders purporting a commitment to the Negev, could ever draw significant numbers to this area. The Eshkol Regional Council, with its 760,000 dunams of land, represents only 11,000 people in its 29 population centers.
As he oversaw preparations for the Gaza pullout, however, Sharon came to Halutza and demanded that the evacuees be given the possibility to relocate here. "If it's built, they will come," was his message on a visit in June 2005. "So start building, immediately."
And thus it has fallen to the former Jews of Gaza to constitute the first Western Negev settlement pioneers in more years than anyone cares to remember.
For now, "Netzarim" is actually located a few kilometers from the nascent building site, at Moshav Yevul, an agricultural community founded, ironically again, by secular settler evacuees of a generation ago. Yevul veterans like Eyal Tal, once the deputy head of the Eshkol council and today the point-man for the newly arrived Gaza Jews, had themselves originally congregated at Morag, in the Gaza Strip, with a view to settling in Sinai. But the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty saw them relocated here - an area at once perceived as remote, barely habitable border territory, yet only a 75-minutes drive from Tel Aviv, 90 from Jerusalem.
Arrayed in yellow-painted prefabricated homes in a variety of shapes and sizes in a compact new neighborhood, the 55 Netzarim families have replicated parts of their former lives - including, vitally, school and synagogue. They are now trying to recruit additional families to join them in their ambitious new venture. "People come all the time," Tal reports. "Other Gaza evacuees, but not only them. People are coming from Jerusalem, from Mitzpe Ramon, to see if they want to move out here."
Yevul had been alerted, shortly before the pullout, to the possibility that residents of one or more Gaza settlements might choose to make their new homes in the area. "We were told to gear up, to be ready to provide temporary accommodation," says the tall, businesslike Tal "And I think it has worked out extraordinarily well. Everything was done to welcome them here. The building work went on literally day and night. We set up an air-conditioned tent that served as dining hall, synagogue, meeting hall."
He stresses that "we're very different. Everyone here is secular, very secular, and they are all Orthodox." But there has clearly been a meeting of kindred pioneering spirits.
At the neighboring Moshav Yated, another of the Gaza settlements that largely chose to move as one, Atzmona, along with its robust pre-army yeshiva-academy, is attempting the same feat - two years in temporary "caravillas" at the edge of Israeli civilization, while the tractors, and the contractors, build their permanent homes still deeper in the desert.
IF UZI KEREN had had his way, all 8,000 or so Gaza Jews would have been encouraged to move here en masse, where the agriculture is subsidized, there's space in abundance, and much consensual pioneering to be done. "I wanted to use this opportunity [of the Gaza pullout] to develop the Negev," Keren, who was Sharon's (and is now Olmert's) adviser on settlement affairs either side of the Green Line, told my colleague Tovah Lazaroff and me in an interview last week.
But Keren, a mild and conscientious man who works out of a tiny room in the Prime Minister's Office with a budget that he says barely extends to pens and pencils, was overruled. "Our objective is not the Negev or the Galilee," he recalls being told by other, evidently more influential, officials. "Our objective is that there won't be a civil war. And if giving them [the Gaza evacuees] the option to go live in, say, Herzliya [or anywhere else they choose] is the way to prevent civil war, then that's worth everything."
In retrospect, Keren feels, he was right. The settlers, on the whole, did not want the apparently easy alternative of ready-made housing in central Israel. Crucially, they wanted to stay in their communities. Better planning and dialogue might have enabled more of them to do so, and moreover to do so in the Negev, he believes.
But although the former residents of Kfar Darom, many of whom are living literally on top of each other in a multi-story apartment bloc in Ashkelon, might yet join them, for now it's only Netzarim and Atzmona - 850 people in all -- that are preparing to rebuild in what Shira Miller cheerfully describes as "the middle of nowhere."
Miller, 23, has a room-warming smile, a shy husband named Moshe and a three-month-old baby girl named Halleluyah. ("Promise me you won't laugh," she implored me before telling.) She was born in Baltimore but was moved to Israel by her parents when still a baby, did her Orthodox girl's national service at Netzarim, and stayed there when she married Moshe. Like most everyone around her, she wanted to believe that disengagement wouldn't happen, but is now determinedly "putting the past behind me."
"Gush Katif doesn't exist anymore, but we have to look ahead," she says with an infectious enthusiasm that belies last summer's trauma. "We have to fulfill the next mission." Then she adds, considerately, "Of course it's much easier for us to say that, in our early 20s. It's a lot harder for people in their 30s and 40s and 50s to start over."
Miller was an English teacher in Gaza's Netzarim and is doing the same in Yevul's Netzarim. Moshe is a full-time yeshiva student, who is slowly realizing that, with a family to support, he might have to get his hands sandy and dirty out with etrogim and the rest of the new desert agriculture. The new Netzarim's first tomatoes and peppers are scheduled for hothouse planting in September.
The government has allocated NIS 150 million for the infrastructure of the new settlements - roads and water and schools - and hence the tractors. And the Millers have looked at blueprints of their planned new community. But they have no idea yet what kind of home they might be building. Till now, says Shira, seated at the table in her 60-meter caravilla, with a cooing Halleluyah on a play-mat below her, the focus has been on trying to semi-normalize life here at Yevul.
Miller expresses no concern about the possibility, however remote, that this new incarnation may go the same way as Gaza's Netzarim - bulldozed or relinquished in some version of land-swap accommodation. "You just can't go through life worrying about that kind of thing,' she says. "If I have to deal with it, I will, although I do hope the country has learned the lesson of the mistake it made [last summer].
By which she means what, specifically? "The country was ready to throw us out, but not to put us up somewhere else."
That's a very practical lesson. Doesn't she assert a broader one? She pauses. "Well, also that people had built a whole life. They believed in it. So you have to deal with people's feelings. You can't keep moving people aboutâ€¦ And of course that the whole pullout was a mistake - but that's a lesson they can't acknowledge because they want to do it again in Judea and Samaria."
At least here, though, I suggest, she's back in the heart of the Israeli consensus, a pioneer with the whole country behind her.
She laughs merrily at the absurdity of the notion. "People think we're crazy," she says with that infectious smile. "They ask why on earth we would move out here, to the middle of nowhere. Gaza, they understood: the beach, the sea. Here, there's nothing but sand.
"But we believe in settling the country," she goes on, serious now. "And we hope we can make it attractive enough for other people to join us. Life stopped last summer. But life has to continue."
Miller's life is set to continue at "Halutzit 1," the designated name for the new location of Netzarim. Atzmona is to become "Halutzit 4." Halutziot 2 and 3, further south, are still on a drawing board somewhere.
But Uzi Keren is probably not the only one thinking of building them, and others like them in a chain from Rafah to Eilat, with the pioneering human resources that might become available from Judea and Samaria.