As far as the eye can see, there is sand. Somewhere over the horizon to the south west, there is Egypt; Gaza is close by, too. But one can see no landmarks, no signposts.
And then you turn on your heel and you see familiar net-covered structures, signifying Israeli agri-tech. And right here, in the middle of this vast Negev nothingness, a group of people are growing food in the sand.
Halutzit — which you might translate as “Pioneerville” — is a remarkable success story and would be so even if the 160 families living there had come to these sandy wastes from anywhere in Israel. But in fact these organic farmers, who have sold their sand-grown carrots and peppers to Marks & Spencer and Tesco, are on their third upheaval.
Once they lived in the Sinai and were uprooted when Israel signed its peace treaty with Egypt. They relocated to the Gush Khatif bloc of the Gaza Strip until Ariel Sharon ordered all Israeli settlements out of the Strip in August 2005.
Many in Halutzit were among the most vociferous protestors against the evacuation of the Gaza Strip. Some who left Gush Khatif are still struggling to re-establish themselves inside Israel; but the mainly religious Gaza settlers who have made their new homes in Halutzit have taken a pragmatic decision. A chapter has ended in their lives, they say, and a new one has begun.
Rabbi Eli Adler, the rabbi of this first settlement, to which JNF UK has sent £400,000 and committed a further £600,000 over the next 18 months for land development and infrastructure, says that while leaving Gush Khatif was “very painful”, nevertheless, there is “a new, young spirit in Halutzit. We see that as our mission, to carry out the Zionist dream of Israel.”
One of the settlers — like many in this place, the parent of 10 children — decided that there would be no pictures of Gush Khatif in the family’s new home. “Yes, we miss it,” he says, “but if we had pictures of Atzmona to remind us of what we had lost, we would never be able to rebuild our lives. Besides, our dreams here are much bigger than we were able to realise in Gush Khatif.”
This is undeniably true, since Gush Khatif was restricted by boundaries and the proximity of the Palestinian refugee camps and Gaza City. In Halutzit, by contrast, there are 12,500 acres, a vast area which the JNF calculates will eventually be home to around 3,500 settlers, both religious and secular. Though the infrastructure — roads and transport — is currently poor, there are hopes that a new railway branch to the town of Ofakim, about 20 minutes’ drive away, will improve the area. Despite a difficult climate and a plague of flies, there is a waiting list of families who want to live in this apparently unpromising area.
On a JNF mission to Halutzit last month, enthusiastic British Jews harvested carrots and, in a traditional JNF action, planted trees which will help stop sand erosion.
The 44-strong JNF UK mission, led by chairman Samuel Hayek, was visiting its main projects in the Negev, spearheaded by the opening of a new park area in the centre of the southern town of Sderot. Sderot, usually preceded by the words “the beleaguered southern town”, has, for the last few years, been on the receiving end of thousands of crudely-made Kassam rockets fired by Gaza Palestinians.
Until recently, 8,000 rockets were stored at the Sderot police station; now “only” 1,000 remain on display, the most unpleasant examples of amateur technology in which, in some cases, street signposts are ripped down, their hollow insides stuffed with fertiliser and explosive, and makeshift wings welded on to the sides.
The fact that a foreign mission was in Sderot in such numbers — joined by high-profile politicians, Uzi Landau and Rafi Eitan, together with Mel McNulty from the British embassy in Tel Aviv — might suggest that the days of the rockets were over. But as Mayor David Bouskila made clear, three weeks previously two Kassams had been fired, and another had landed in the sea only the day before. “I am afraid they will start again,” he said.
The Sderot park is an illustration of the desperation of the town’s citizens to live a normal life. Until now there has been no focus in the town centre, nowhere for residents to stroll and talk and sit on the grass. About half the park area, with, sadly, full provision for adjacent bomb shelters, has now been built and a second tranche is planned. The whole project costs around £1.5 million, and British JNF has committed to raise half of this.
But amid the hoopla of the opening ceremony — in which hundreds of Sderot’s residents came to the park for an unaccustomed, relaxed afternoon — there was a stark reminder of life beyond the balloons and musical interludes. The municipality had decided to celebrate the new park with a couple of modest fireworks.
Unfortunately, the town’s children associate loud bangs with rockets. Several burst into tears.
Mayor Bouskila acknowledged that the town’s Trauma Centre, a vital support for Sderot’s adults and children alike, was under threat of closure. Why, he was asked, did he not ask the JNF for help? He was swift in his response. “I think it is the responsibility of the government to back the Trauma Centre. We will only ask the JNF to support us in the things the government does not have a duty to do.”
The one thing the projects have in common is the intense passion and commitment of their participants, and the determination of the British supporters to help where they can. “Nothing,” said one member of the mission, “beats seeing this for yourself.”