JNF prepares for February's festivals as rockets whistle overhead

So far, the damage to nature caused by rocket barrages said to be minimal.

KKL Trees 224-88 (photo credit: )
KKL Trees 224-88
(photo credit: )
Elisha Mizrahi's cellphone never stopped ringing on Sunday. Either it was a call from a fellow JNF employee wishing him and his men well, or an update about how work was proceeding at several different projects, all at least 12 km. away from Gaza. The avuncular Mizrahi, the Jewish National Fund/Keren Kayemet's northern Negev region manager, with a staff of about 75, checked in with his men and reassured colleagues farther north with endearments and encouragement. When the war in Gaza broke out and the rockets started falling in earnest last month, Mizrahi ordered his men to pull back from their fields and hiking paths close to the border, and to work whenever possible on projects just a little farther from the Strip. Forester Gabi Benisti is itching to get back to his fields adjacent to the border. Mizrahi joked when we met Benisti on the Besor Way trail about 13 km. from Gaza on Sunday, "Do you know why they call it the Green Line? Because Gabi's trees are the border." Benisti and his crew of seven were out in the field on Sunday, as they are most days. This time, they were prepping trails for February's festivals, both Tu Bishvat and a local event for visitors. They were cutting back trees that had grown into the path and pruning a tree to create a picturesque spot next to an old Turkish well. It was quiet and beautiful, and it was easy to picture the crowds of families who come there to hike and picnic. It was very hard to picture the piercing whistle of a rocket overhead and the foresters huddled on the ground waiting for the impact. Part of what they hoped to accomplish was the triumph of routine over terror, Mizrahi said. "I think it's very important for the children that they see mom and dad go off to work as usual," he said. Benisti, a resident of Ofakim, which due to its proximity to Gaza has been hit hard over the last eight years, and especially in the past two weeks since the launch of Operation Cast Lead, agreed. "We do what we can," he said with a shrug somewhere between impatience and fatalistic acceptance. Mizrahi said he had had to order Benisti away from the border area and out of harm's way, "or he'd be there even now." The largely local staff has had its share of wounds and near misses over the last several years. This one had a scar from a terrorist attack, this one was hit by shrapnel, this one's son was shot in Gaza, Mizrahi relayed. During the first week of the war, while they were creating an off-road bike path, a Kassam hit 150 meters away. "We were building the path and I heard the whistle from the rocket," Mizrahi recalled. "I watched it fly over me and then I started counting as it passed my teams. It was only when I heard Avi from the third and last team start yelling that I knew it had missed us, and I said, 'Thank God.' We felt the explosion as if it was an earthquake." While Mizrahi was showing this reporter around the Besor Way trail, one of his foremen send him a text message saying there had been a siren near them, but everyone was okay. That foreman decided to send his crew home at 1:30 p.m. because of the rockets that hit Sderot, Ashdod and other places on Sunday afternoon. During the first days of the war, some of the office staff decided to stay home with their children, but others were adamant about coming to work, Mizrahi said with amazement. "My budget secretary refused to go home until she had finished the year-end budget and salaries. The war started at the end of the year, which is a busy time for everyone," Mizrahi said. She took two days off, but came back on the third day, he added. One of Mizrahi's teams even started work on a new reservoir on Sunday morning after waiting for years for all the permissions to come through. So far the damage to nature has been minimal, mostly for one simple reason. "Thank God, it's winter now and everything is wet, otherwise you'd have had to interview me while I was fighting fires. You have no idea how heart wrenching it is to see a 150-dunam [15-hectare] forest you planted with your own hands go up in flames in 25 minutes," he said fervently. They've lost about 1,000 dunams of forest to fires started by rockets and mortars. Tens of thousands of dunams were lost in the North in 2006 as a result of the Second Lebanon War and Hizbullah's Katyushas. During that war, Mizrahi and his men went north to battle fires under Katyusha rocket fire. "This is practically nothing compared to that. The last two days before the cease-fire [in August 2006] were really scary - fighting fires with Katyushas falling all around," he said. Make no mistake, however, he added, "Everyone here is scared. No one sleeps well." In general, Mizrahi said he thought the cooperation between the army and civilians, and the efforts of the IDF Home Front Command were far better this time around. Coordination between the Southern Command and JNF foresters is also exceptional. "About a year ago, OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant appointed an officer to liaison with the JNF to ensure the army did not harm the open areas in its exercises or operations. That shows you how much the IDF is concerned about nature," he said. The army has even contacted him about Tu Bishvat celebrations after the operation terminates. Mizrahi is waiting for the end of the war so that he can get back to planting his fields. In the meantime, he juggles his work force's tasks and worries about their safety.