Renewal in the South

Lizards and lilies abound in Hof Ashkelon where, up until a few weeks ago, lay the remains of rockets fired from Gaza.

Hof Ashkelon (photo credit: ARIEL BESOR)
Hof Ashkelon
(photo credit: ARIEL BESOR)
‘Peace has returned to the southern region.
The sounds of battle have been silenced.
From Holon to Hulikat, everything is calm. Only at night, as the light of the moon shines on the abandoned battlefield, can the jackals once again be heard howling, the crickets chirping and the wind whispering…. The last vestiges of war will soon disappear. The grass will grow and cover the torn barbed wire, the abandoned helmets and rusty machine- gun cartridges – all the marks that show that men fought here for their land.”
These words could easily have been written this week, but they weren’t.
Uri Avnery wrote them as an epilogue to his book immediately following the War of Independence. Nothing has changed since then. Not the machine-gun fire or the quiet that follows. It’s been less than a month since Operation Protective Edge ended, and at first glance it seems like we didn’t just go through a war. Once again the natural beauty of the South has overcome the damage it incurred during the war.
After driving just 30 minutes from Tel Aviv, we find ourselves in the dunes surrounding Kibbutz Nitzanim.
It is the largest remnant of Israel’s coastal sand dunes, covering four hectares (10 acres), most of which is included in a nature reserve. During the most recent operation, the area was hit by hundreds of missiles that had been aimed at Ashdod and metropolitan Tel Aviv. Finally the wild animals that live in the area can enjoy some peace and quiet and hear the wind blow again as they prepare their pursuit of their next prey.
It’s a hot summer morning. Avishai Shlomo, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel ecological training coordinator, gets out of the car and begins looking for footprints in the sand. He tells me there’s almost no chance we’ll catch a glimpse of gazelles, since they rest in shady places during the hot hours and, like all the other animals, wait for evening before venturing out. According to Shlomo, the slither marks on the side of the road are not from a snake as we thought but from a gerbil that dragged its belly in the sand as a way to get rid of fleas.
The vast open space, where the cult Israeli comedy Halfon Hill Doesn't Answer was filmed, is home to rich and diverse flora and fauna. A survey conducted in 1992 revealed that 788 different species of plants had been found between Ashdod and Ashkelon out of a total 2,400 that exist throughout the country.
Apparently there are hordes of wild animals living in the area. The red fox has succeeded in displacing the sand fox in southern Israel, since it is 200 grams heavier; and in battles for survival, that extra weight is significant.
You can still find wild boars, jerboas (hopping desert rodents), four-lined snakes, and even a 1.2 meter- long desert monitor lizard that resembles a dragon. Shlomo hasn’t seen the lizard in a long time, but he does see its footprints every once in a while.
“The desert monitor is not the sexiest looking animal,” Shlomo says, “but it does have the right to exist here. The male needs a minimum of 1.5 square kilometers to survive – it’s absolutely integral that he have that much space. Most people are not usually interested in these types of things, but researchers are. There’s so much about nature that we don’t know yet. We actually know so little.”
A number of researchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev have been carrying out research on the dunes in Nitzanim. One of the entomologists even discovered a new species of fly that had never been encountered before.
“We’ve had to fight to keep these hills an official nature reserve,” says Elimor Fried, the director of the SPNI Shikmim field school. “We’re surrounded by dunes here on all sides. It’s important to preserve the fauna and wildlife that live on these dunes.”
Years ago, the sand dunes stretched all the way from Gaza to Achziv. Now they’ve all but disappeared. Fried says that January and February is an ideal time to visit the dunes. The weather is perfect, and the white broom flowers are blooming at that time of year, which give the dunes a white, regal appearance. Now, in the late summer, the sand lily (the symbol of the Hof Ashkelon Regional Council) is blooming.
“This is the best time of year to come and smell the lilies at night,” says Yair Farjun, who is head of the Hof Ashkelon Regional Council and leads nocturnal nature tours free of charge.
“Israelis possess one of the most important survival skills: the ability to forget. As a result, their wounds heal quickly, and they’re able to move on to newer and better things. Think about it – just a few weeks ago, terrorists appeared on the beach at Kibbutz Zikim.”
Just south of where we are standing, we could clearly see the Gaza coastline and the elegant Rimal neighborhood. There are no signs that a war just took place here, except maybe the scarcity of bathers in the sea. Farjun says that this will change, too, and soon everything will be back to normal.
Zikim beach is less popular than Nitzanim, but it is just as beautiful.
A lagoon formed here after the storm last winter, and it is still full of water.
Shlomo calls out in excitement as he lifts up a giant blue swimmer crab from the lagoon, which had made its way from the nearby sea.
“What makes this place special?” Farjun asks and then immediately answers his own question. “When you go to the beach in Tel Aviv, there’s water and sand. Here in Zikim and Nitzanim, you realize the beach is alive, and you feel a sense of freedom. It’s like a miniature Sinai here.”
If you look around carefully, you’ll see signs that a war took place here recently.
Nearby, there are a few bushes that got burnt, probably from a rocket that fell on them. And there are a few signs that read “Closed military zone,” which were probably put up surrounding the pieces of rocket that fell on the sand.
Yifat Ben-Shushan, the tourist coordinator for Hof Ashkelon Regional Council, who lives on Moshav Netiv Ha’asara, says that residents have a great desire to kick-start new activity in southern Israel, such as opening up new cafes and B&Bs. After Operation Pillar of Defense, another Netiv Ha’asara resident, artist Tsameret Zamir, initiated a project called Netiv Leshalom (Path of Peace), in which visitors paste a piece of mosaic stone on the wall in the hope that peace will come soon.
“I am moving to the other side of the moshav this week,” Ben-Shushan says. “Something happened inside me after the ordeal with the tunnels. I can’t live near the wall anymore.”
At the lookout on top of the mountain, a memorial was built in memory of Asaf Siboni, who was killed in an IDF helicopter crash 17 years ago. The view from there is absolutely surreal.
In one direction you can see the fields belonging to the kibbutz, and in another the water reservoir. Then you turn and you see the Gaza Strip straight ahead of you – the neighborhoods of Beit Hanun, Beit Lahiya and Jabalya – names we’ve all become quite familiar with.
Siboni used to be in charge of cattle grazing. This was the view he would look out over all the time. There are now 20 wind chimes here (designed by Rachel Ben-David) to provide background music when people come to visit.
We went to the Be’eri Forest to see the water facility next to Nahal Gerar, where patriarchs Abraham and Isaac dug wells. There are still wells here.
One deep well was dug by the British during the Mandate period; another was dug by the Turks before them; and two more were dug during the Byzantine era.
In Khirbet Maon, not far from Kibbutz Nirim, where Zeev Etzion and Shachar Melamed were killed (they were the last soldiers to fall during Operation Protective Edge), a mosaic floor was uncovered when Road 50 was being paved. It was the floor of a synagogue dating back to the sixth century CE, which features peacocks, lions, palm trees, a shofar and a lulav.
Since the beautiful mosaic floor became damaged over the years, in 2006 it was taken to the laboratory at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem to be repaired. After three years, it was returned to its original location.
As I stand and look out over the silent, beautiful scenery, I can only hope that after the coming winter, when the anemones bloom once again and everything is covered with green, the citizens of Israel will come here with their children to play and celebrate on the land upon which some of our brave soldiers recently lost their lives.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.