Solidarity in Sderot

For over a decade, tens of thousands of visitors to the Western Wall Tunnels have exited the site by way of the Muslim Quarter in the Old City. When the exit was first opened, however, on September 24, 1996, bloody riots erupted in east Jerusalem, Gaza, Judea and Samaria. Among the 17 Israeli soldiers killed in the violence was 42-year-old Col. Nebiya Mari.

Commander of our forces in Gaza, he was killed in a clash with Palestinians near Rafiah.

A memorial site to Col. Mari stands on a hill overlooking Gaza City, near Kibbutz Nir Am. We paid a visit there last week, while participating in an unusual trip to the Negev. The outing took place within the framework of Eretz Nehederet (Wonderful Land), a non-profit organization dedicated to ’reawakening the Zionist dream’ while strengthening people’s connection with the heritage of their founding fathers. These trips take place every Friday morning, leaving from Tel Aviv and, occasionally, from Jerusalem as well. Each stops at different Negev sites — and ends in Sderot.

Because the guide on our trip was to speak in English, everyone on my bus was an English-speaker. An elderly couple on the bus, from Toronto, had just finished two weeks volunteering at an army base and were thrilled with the experience. But they felt they couldn’t go home without visiting Sderot. Indeed, everyone I spoke to had one thing in common. They were on this trip, like Baltimore-born Israeli Ann Mirsky, because ’we couldn’t not come anymore!’ Others expressed the same sentiment in different words: ’We didn’t know what else to do — and this was an excellent way to show people in Sderot that we cared.’

Our first stop was the Black Arrow, an amazing heritage site located off Road No. 232 and next to the entrance to Kibbutz Mefalsim (west of Sderot). It was named for an action in Gaza carried out in 1955, after an Israeli in Rehovot was murdered by infiltrating Arabs called ’fedayeen.’ From the site we could easily see Gaza, and the border between us, about a kilometer away and surrounded by a sophisticated electronic fence.

The Black Arrow sheds light on an exciting early era in IDF history: the years between 1953 and 1956, when paratroopers carried out 70 operations against terrorists. At the time, the army did not yet have firm military traditions; new and innovative methods of fighting that the paratroopers initiated during that period later became standard IDF practice. Each rock tells its own story of a daring operation, mainly in Hebrew, but an audio guide offers information in English.

On our way out of the site we saw the small restored building known as Truce House. It was here that, until 1967, Egypt, the UN and Israel arranged for the exchange of prisoners.

Now we headed for Nebiya Mari, named for Col. Mari. Born in the small Druse village of Hurfeish, Mari was indisputably one of the finest officers in the IDF. After his death, the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council, made up of area kibbutzim and moshavim, decided to forge a connection with the Druse in Galilee where Hurfeish is located. The result was this unusual memorial site, whose lookout offers a stunning view of Gaza City. Nearby stands the olive tree that Nebiya’s parents planted in their garden when their son was born.

According to our guide, Shaul Gefen from Kibbutz Dorot, every year Druse from Galilee meet here with Negev settlers at a moving ceremony in memory of Col. Mari. Despite its location near Gaza, no ceremony has ever been canceled.

Our last point of interest before the visit to Sderot was a large reservoir at Kibbutz Nir Am developed by the Jewish National Fund, filled with purified sewage and used for irrigation. Water from the Nir Am area played a crucial role in Negev settlement, which grew in relative leaps and bounds from 1939 to 1946. The two Negev water carriers established in early 1947 both led out of Nir Am; the settlements were supplied by hundreds of kilometers of 15-cm. pipes which had put fires out in the London blitz during World War II.

So miraculous was the blooming desert created by Negev settlements that members of a United Nations Commission visiting Nir Am in the summer of 1947 couldn’t believe their eyes. Commission chairman Justice  E. Sandstrom, certain the flowers he saw couldn’t possibly be rooted in the soil, decided to find out for himself whether he and his committee were being duped and plucked a gladiolus (sword-lily) right out of the ground!

And then, finally, we were on our way to Sderot.

Established in the 1950s for new immigrants from Morocco and Romania, the little town grew so slowly that it didn’t reach the status of a city. Then Russians began moving to Israel en masse and the mayor encouraged them to come to Sderot. Unfortunately, the Russian immigrants who made it to Sderot weren’t a strong enough group to make a significant contribution to the town’s development. As a result, although Sderot is now officially big enough to be considered a city, we saw nothing on our visit that was reminiscent of big city life.

What we did find were little parks, a few lovely homes, some landscaped ’squares’ and long drab apartment houses called shikunim. We also saw dozens of ugly concrete structures meant to shelter residents from rocket attacks.

We had missed a Kassam rocket by 10 minutes, and by the time we arrived all was quiet. However, there was far less action in the streets than you would expect on a Friday morning.

Before we were let loose in the market place and shopping malls, we stopped at a new, enormous, construction site that will soon become a hesder yeshiva (where religious Zionist students also serve in the army). Then off to the shops, where we were encouraged to make our Shabbat purchases. Most of them were open: the exception, a row of stores that had been hit by a rocket two days earlier. The windows were boarded up, there was glass on the street, but one establishment was still in business. When I walked through what I assumed was the door, the shopkeeper chided me gently. ’That’s not the door, that’s the window — or at least it was!’ I was told.

Walking from one little store to the other, I asked merchants if they dashed over to the shelters when they heard the infamous Tzeva Adom alarm. Some said yes, but one woman was convinced that running would be useless: it was likely she would be hit by a rocket while crossing the street to the shelter, she said.

Everyone we met was warm, super friendly, and thanked us profusely for coming. And then we were back on the bus with our purchases. People seemed to be feeling pretty pleased with themselves, myself included. Most of us put our heads back, closed our eyes and dozed. And the people of Sderot remained within rocket range in the Negev.

Eretz Nehederet offers regular Friday morning trips to the Negev, stopping at a variety of southern heritage and historic sites and ending at Sderot before returning to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The tours, in English and/or Hebrew, leave Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and are organized by the Kfar Etzion Field School. For details, call 077-9110440. The subsidized fee for the tours is NIS 30.