October 15, 2009
The last time I saw Ayelet and Rachel was at Shirat Hayam in Gush Katif in January 2001. They were then 22 year-old single women who had decided to help found a new community next to the sea in the Gaza Strip in reaction to the horrific bus bomb attack in nearby Kfar Darom that claimed the lives of their friends Miriam Amitai and Gabi Biton.
Today I encountered the two women again, still committed to their Zionist ideals of settling the land of Israel, despite having been ultimately turfed out of their Gush Katif community along with 9,000 others in August 2005. Now they are both married with kids and live in adjoining temporary housing in the brand new community of Maskiot in the hills overlooking the Jordan Valley.
When I walked into the office of the new yishuv, I recognized Rachel, but couldn't quite place her. It was only after Ayelet had served us lunch and images in a slide show of the first buildings in Shirat Hayam flashed across the wall in the home she shares with her husband Yossi Chazut and their kids that it suddenly dawned on me that it was in those seaside buildings that I had met Ayelet and Rachel eight years ago.
In fact,I wrote about Ayelet and Rachel in my first book, Jerusalem Diaries: In Tense Times, and a picture of the two young women together appears there on P. 148.
Yossi and Ayelet and Rachel and her husband are part of a nucleus of nine young families who have chosen to take on the task of rebuilding in Maskiot for the families of Shirat Hayam who have been living in temporary housing for more than 4 years. Check out their website at www.maskiot.co.il to learn about the potential for this new community, which was given government approval just a few short months ago.
The passion burns in Yossi's eyes and fuels his fast-paced Hebrew explanations of how they will fulfill their desire to do something meaningful for the country after the bitter experiences of the Gaza disengagement. " This place has everything," Yossi says as he gazes over the hills that roll gracefully down to the Jordan Valley. "It's important from a security point of view--you can see Jordan from here. The area desperately needs repopulating. We're involved in agriculture already and we'll build a place that will forge good relations with the mostly secular yishuvim in the area and be an example of secular-religious cooperation," he enthuses.
As he drives his visitors around the area on an ATV that kicks up an enormous amount of dust, Yossi points out the few Bedouin encampments scattered around on state land--"90 percent of the time they keep to themselves,"--but he is most excited to take us to the olive grove that bears a sign saying it was a donation of the Christian Friends of Israeli Communities group.
In addition to the thriving olive trees, we see saplings of hundreds of Argan trees that will yield oil that sells for high prices on the European market. About 40 minutes south of Maskiot, just to the east of Niran, Yossi takes us through the security barrier that separates Israel from the Jordan river bed. This is as far east as you can go in the Jordan Valley. Apart from a large army bunker with a secure underground level, there is nothing but date palms as far as the eye can see. This is where Maskiot's main agricultural project is already underway. The succulent Medjool dates will be sent to markets all over Europe in a few years.
As we swat away the persistent flies, Yossi describes the process of planting and irrigating the massive area and relates how it all had to be cleared of minefields before their economic initiative could get underway. Now, as the palms are growing, the entire project is watched over by just two men whom we encounter as they show up for work.
Back at the construction area in Maskiot, we see the foundations being laid for some 20 buildings that should be completed within a few months. Plans call for 100 homes and all kinds of educational and business facilities.
There's no doubt that Maskiot bears absolutely no physical resemblance to Shirat Hayam where I had met Ayelet and Rachel nine years ago. No sparkling Mediterranean Sea in sight; no sand dunes and no supportive network of twenty like-minded communities nearby.
Still, the challenge of fulfilling the mitzva of settling the land speaks to the spirit of the former Gush Katif residents. It's taken a while, but the new version of the extraordinary communities of Gush Katif is beginning to take shape.