The residents of Kibbutz Nirim in the western Negev practically have Gaza in their back yard. Just a short distance away, Gaza's three-and four-story apartment blocks gleam in the midday sun, the coastline visible. Established in June, 1946, Kibbutz Nirim was the first Jewish settlement in Israel to be attacked by regular Egyptian forces on the day that Israel declared independence. After a bitter battle that saw Egyptian infantrymen and vehicles come within 25 meters of the kibbutz perimeter and eight of the kibbutz defenders killed, the Egyptians pulled back. Since 2000, Kassam rockets fired from Gaza have screamed over the heads of Nirim's farmers, working their land, sometimes falling short of their intended targets but often landing in the kibbutz, sometimes in its fields - sometimes elsewhere. The farmers work the land right up to the patrol road and security fence that snakes between them and Gaza, while Palestinian farmers plow and reap on their side. At the onset of Operation Cast Lead this January, most of Nirim's members were evacuated, as were residents of other Gaza periphery communities. Dozens of families from Nirim were "adopted" by the Jezreel Valley kibbutz Mishmar Ha'emek for the duration of the operation. When the members returned to Nirim a month later, they quickly settled down to their daily routine. A few months later, Nirim members invited their hosts from Mishmar Ha'emek for an open day to thank them for having made them feel so at home. For many of the visitors from the Jezreel Valley it had been a long time since they last visited that corner of the Negev - some never had. The northerners were met at the Yad Mordechai gas station by Moti Blustein, a tour guide and veteran member of Nirim. Blustein sports an impressive handlebar moustache and infectious enthusiasm. He proved to be a walking almanac on the region. Before arriving at Nirim, the visitors made a brief stop on the outskirts of Kibbutz Nir Am, wedged between Sderot and Netivot. Here, a black statue of a horse and rider on a nearby hill stands out against the cloudless blue sky. The statue was erected in memory of Roi Rutenberg of Nir Am, who was murdered by Arab attackers in 1956. After visiting the memorial, the group continued on to Nir Am's impressive reservoir, which contains one and a half million cubic meters of water, much of which is purified sewage from central Israel. The water is used not only for agriculture in Israel, but also allocated to the Palestinians. An observation platform overlooking the JNF-KKL reservoir - constructed with funds from the organization's Canadian supporters - offers a view of the reservoir, the security fence between Israel and Gaza, the Strip's crowded Palestinian areas, and the Mediterranean, just beyond. Ashkelon, only 15 kilometers away, is also visible. Blustein pointed at the white buildings on the Palestinian side of the fence, explaining that they were built to house the Fatah personnel who were later ousted by Hamas. He pointed out the hospital where Hamas leaders sat in the cellars during Operation Cast Lead, bringing to life information that had been filtered through television news clips and newspaper headlines. The proximity of the kibbutzim and other small Jewish communities to Gaza, as well as that of larger towns like Sderot and Ashkelon, was well-known to the visitors from the North. But standing on a hill, overlooking the high-rise buildings in northern Gaza neighborhoods, one could feel how close Gaza was. Mosques' calls to prayers echoed across the Israeli potato fields, punctuated by isolated blasts of car horns, bringing even closer to home the realities of life in the region. The group headed on to Nirim, established as part of the Jewish Agency's 1946 "Eleven Settlements Operation," designed to ensure that the western Negev would fall within the borders of the State of Israel. The kibbutz's fields could be seen for miles, as the land in this region is flat as a pancake. Potatoes seemed to be the order of the day - ordered from the British Isles and Germany, the main consumers of this export crop. An area for organic farming produces peanuts, sweet potatoes, turnips, carrots and a host of other vegetables - all Europe-bound. Red, green and yellow peppers were growing high and dry in greenhouses the size of football fields. Even larger greenhouses were packed with row upon row of brightly colored geraniums in full bloom. Just a small part of the geranium plant is picked and packed for export to Europe - the rest is dispensed with. The kibbutz seemed to have more than its fair share of artists, one of whom - an expert in etchings and special lithograph printing - has turned the defunct dairy farm into a workshop. The milking room has become a gallery displaying his work and that of other local artists. After a day with their counterparts on the front line, the visitors from the North were sent home with cartons of geranium plants, baskets of organic vegetables and hearts filled with admiration for the people of the Gaza periphery, who have succeeded in creating thriving communities under fire.