Changing demographics in the Negev

Hothouses full of perfect, round cherry tomatoes and the most isolated cabins in the world.

Changing demographics in the Negev Hothouses full of perfect, round cherry tomatoes and the most isolated cabins in the world. All of these can be found in the western Negev – alongside a few (photo credit: Courtesy)
Changing demographics in the Negev Hothouses full of perfect, round cherry tomatoes and the most isolated cabins in the world. All of these can be found in the western Negev – alongside a few
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Until recently, when the migrants from Sinai reached the Israeli border, their Beduin smugglers would point toward the community of Be’er Milka and whisper to them, “Follow the light – that’s Israel.”
Some nights, more than 200 people passed under Ziv Sharon’s window.
This was before the security fence was built, when huge numbers of migrants were crossing the border.
Sharon remembers seeing frail men marching in silence. Later on, some of them returned to work in his pizzeria and his bed & breakfast, Fantasy in the Desert.
In Kmehin, which lies 3 km. from the Egyptian border, live Maayan, 32, from Rehovot, and Shaul, 33, from Kibbutz Einat. They met while serving on the Tze’elim army base, and both of them are still officers in the IDF reserves. Just as he was about to become a member of his own kibbutz, Shaul decided to fulfill his dream of establishing a new community.
“It’s a good thing I found this crazy girl who was willing to come here with me,” he says.
I sit with Shaul, who has just come from his cherry tomato hothouse.
Only Thai workers are willing to work in this heat, which can reach 60°C.
Shaul has 4.5 hectares, and each tomato he grows is like a precious pearl.
He mostly exports to Russia.
All the Negev farmers have two separate water lines: one for drinking- quality water, and one with brackish water. They use both of them alternately according to need.
Sometimes Shaul tries to trick nature by trimming the branches off of his plants, which helps them grow up to 12 meters high.
Shaul and Maayan have been living in Kmehin for five years now. They have a one-year-old daughter, and Maayan is pregnant with their second child. Maayan admits that at first she was a bit scared to live in Kmehin, but now she has truly become aware of what it means to live at the end of the world, since there are no emergency services available in the area.
The closest gas station is at the Tlalim junction, about 35 km. away. Just a few months ago, Shufersal in Beersheba began offering delivery service to the area – on Tuesdays. The elementary school is located in Mashabei Sadeh, a 30-minute drive from Kmehin.
The high school is in the Eshkol region, an hour-long drive.
“Sometimes I feel like I have to reinvent the wheel every time I want to do something,” she says.
But residents there also feel the benefits of having a paucity of services in the desert: There is plenty of room for new initiatives and creativity.
“For example,” she explains, “if you are interested in participating in a bike club, all you have to do is go to the regional council and found a bike club.”
Isn’t she worried about being so far away from the maternity ward in the hospital in Beersheba? “Two men actually delivered their own babies on the way there,” she notes.
Asked whether she thinks Shaul could handle that task, she replies, “Absolutely.”
“But,” Shaul adds, “I’ve told Maayan that I am hoping I’m not put to that test.”
He says he usually walks around with only his cellphone, but that the head of security in the area recently saw a suspicious individual around the hothouses and recommended that Shaul have his gun handy.
Is there a security risk now? “After the terrorist attack on Route 12 in 2001, in which eight Israelis were killed, we were on high alert, but now there is much better technological monitoring of the area, and there is also the new security fence on the border,” he says.
Asked who worries him more – al-Qaida or the Eritreans – he replies, “Definitely the Eritreans. Thousands of bored, unemployed Eritreans hang around here with nothing to do.”
So why doesn’t he hire them? “It’s against the law,” he explains.
“But I wouldn’t hire them even if it was legal, since it would upset the balance of the Israeli economy.”
A KILOMETER-and-a-half from Kmehin lies the Saharonim Detention Center. There I meet with Mahmad, Jaylee, Yihyeh and Amam. Their straw sandals kick up huge clouds of dust as they walk toward me. All four of them left their wives in Sudan and paid $5,000 each up front to be taken through Sinai. They complain that they do not receive enough food in the detention center, there is no doctor available, and they are not being taught Hebrew, which they say they need “in order to start our lives anew in Israel.”
Is there any chance they’ll return to Sudan? “No way – there’s a war going on there,” they say.
Jaylee asks me for my bottle of water.
I hand it to him, and he walks off into the desert and disappears. His gait is decisive. I wonder where is he hurrying off to.
Across the street, two men sit on stones, a can of olives between the two of them. Their expressions seem to ask, how long can the Israelis keep us here in the desert? Next, I move on to Be’er Milka, where from his balcony, Ziv Sharon can see the Egyptians’ watch towers.
His house is perched just above the Nitzana River, which is the path that the Sudanese used in the desert for years on their trek here from Africa.
Sharon says there isn’t a large Sudanese presence in Be’er Milka, but he has seen a few of them hanging around. A few of them have told him their stories of being smuggled into Israel. One of them hid in a truck with a fake bottom underneath a cargo full of watermelons.
“When I asked him what he did when he had to go to the bathroom,” Sharon says, “he answered me that he never had to go, since he hadn’t had anything to eat or drink.”
Another Sudanese man told Sharon how the Beduin had enslaved him for a month in Sinai until his family sent the exact amount of money they were demanding as a ransom.
WHEN I reach the moshav of Nitzanei Sinai, which used to be called Kadesh Barnea, I can hear the Egyptian soldiers shooting (probably at Sudanese who are trying to cross the border illegally).
The original Kadesh Barnea from the Bible – the site on which the moshav was originally built – is located in Sinai, 6 km. from the spring that is described in Scripture. However, Israel gave up that land following the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt.
Alon Zadock was one of the founders of the new Kadesh Barnea.
“The evacuation of our community [from Sinai following the peace treaty] was sad, but it was not painful,” he says. “We came to live in Sinai for the fun of it, not for ideological reasons, and we left willingly.”
But the residents did have one request when they were evacuated: to form a new settlement in the Negev as close as possible to the border.
One Shabbat in January 1986, Zadock and a friend of his, Yankale Moskovitz, decided to go out exploring the desert around their new community.
“Look how close we are to our old houses,” Zadock commented.
After much prodding from Moskovitz, Zadock finally agreed to steal across the border. First, they went back home and left notes for their families. Then they jumped into the communally owned Renault 4 and were on their way.
When they were halfway between the Israeli and Egyptian guard towers, they parked the car behind a hill.
Wearing sweat pants and flip-flops, they made their way to the ancient river and spring. They had to think of a way to prove to their buddies that they had actually been there, so they fished out a few crabs from the spring water, threw them into the trunk of the car and sped away – or at least, they tried to. Unfortunately they realized they had a flat tire. Luckily an IDF jeep soon passed by, and the soldiers lent them a spare tire, enabling them to make it home safely.
However, their nighttime adventure only made them long for the original Kadesh Barnea more. Their struggle to hold on to the original name began in the temporary transit area where they resided near Nitzana, when they attempted to put up at the entrance the original sign they had saved. The Department of Public Works refused allow the sign there, saying it would be confusing for people traveling past the spot on their way to Sinai.
Zadock recounts that as he was driving home from Beersheba one day, he saw his beloved sign lying in the back of a Department of Public Works pickup truck. He immediately made a U-turn, pressed hard on the gas pedal, grabbed the sign and planted it back in the dirt exactly where it had stood a few hours previously.
In order to deter another potential uprooting, he placed a sunshade next to the sign and locked a vicious-looking dog under it. But the dog apparently had other ideas and detached himself before the Public Works Department employee arrived. Once again, while driving home from Beersheba, Zadock saw his sign in a truck, and once again he made a U-turn and took it back. But this time the department workers had prepared themselves and had called the police.
Zadock had to return home empty- handed, but he did not remain idle for long: He made a new sign and stuck it back in the sand. This time, though, the Public Works Department truck came accompanied by Border Police and a court order. Zadock was forced to take his sign down, but he never went to update his identity card, so it still lists Kadesh Barnea as his place of residence. After a while, he gave up the fight.
“We got tired,” he admits.
But then he turned 40, and for his birthday, his wife signed him up for a wine course in Tel Aviv. He got excited and planted 1.1 hectares of cabernet sauvignon grapes on his land, bottled the wine and sold it in the Negev. He then sent his oldest child, Yogev, to study viniculture in Florence, Italy, and he became the kosher winery’s official vintner. Another son, Gilad, is in charge of marketing, and Zadock’s wife, Nira, takes care of the paperwork.
Their winery is, of course, called the Kadesh Barnea Winery.
In 2009, Zadock produced 30,000 bottles, and he is now producing 80,000 a year. Next year, he hopes to reach 100,000 bottles of cabernet, shiraz, merlot and petit verdot. He exports about one-quarter of his wines to the US, and the rest he sells to restaurants in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Prices range from NIS 59 to NIS 130.
“It’s important to my father not to sell at high prices like many of the other boutique wineries do,” Yogev says.
WHEN I leave the Zadock home, night has fallen. As I turn back onto Route 211, I look up at the sky and see millions of stars shining, as they can only out in the desert. As I reach Be’erotayim (named after the two wells in the nearby thicket), I find a bunch of people outside around a bonfire, celebrating the return of Rotem, the village-owner’s son, from the Far East.
“All throughout my trek, I couldn’t wait to get back so I could prepare a big bonfire again,” Rotem says.
You can feel the silence wrap its arms around you at night in Be’erotayim.
Yet despite the darkness, you feel protected. Here there are no TVs or cellphones to distract you.
At 7 a.m., rays of soft sunlight creep into my clay hut. I shower and shave with the sounds of the awakening desert in the background. I go outside to the sooty black metal coffee pot heating over a fire, the straw thatch huts, the donkeys and the camels.
The owner of the small guest village at Be’erotayim, which is near the town Ezuz, is 52-year-old Ofer Har-Tuv, who was born in Rosh Hanikra.
After serving in the IDF’s Golani Brigade, he met his soul mate – Gali Macderon – who, like him, wanted to live in the desert and raise a family there.
“Our souls were born in the desert,” she says. “So we looked for a place with a wide-open horizon and a sense of getting back to nature.”
This is how, more than 25 years ago, they came upon the lone acacia tree here and settled down. Then they decided to share their love of the desert with others and began taking people on trips on the backs of donkeys.
They soon became known as “the crazy people with the donkeys.”
Later on, they explain, they added the cabins. Har-Tuv discovered that the mud he had dug from the ground in the area was fantastic for building, in conjunction with other recycled materials. And over the years, camels took the place of the donkeys.
The guest village can host up to 130 visitors at a time in the cabins, which are spartan but meticulously clean.
The main attraction here is that there are no attractions. Just pure, unadulterated desert. There aren’t even any trees to hide behind. Har-Tuv lives for this extreme desert, for the scorching summer heat and the freezing winter cold. He’s a person who loves doing everything slowly, letting things happen naturally and gradually.
But the appearance of a group of Sudanese men one morning hit him like a sledgehammer. When he came out of his house, he saw 15 men sitting around a campfire. He figured they were probably just friends of the Beduin in the area, but soon realized they were Sudanese. So he called the IDF, which sent over a jeep. The soldiers sat with the Sudanese men as they ate their breakfast. Once every hour, the IDF officer would take out his notebook and make some notes.
But the men wouldn’t budge. So they sat some more. Finally, at 2 p.m., the men agreed to leave.
“We always knew the problem of illegal infiltration would not be contained in Tel Aviv,” Har-Tuv says.
He invited the Sudanese men to stay as guests in his village, he says, but they declined. “They said they had plenty of desert where they came from.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.