Israel's final frontier
Is it possible that there are no isolated places left in this country? Is there a single peak from which one can look north, south, east, and west without seeing a community, highway, electricity pole, antenna or army base?
Daniel, the hero of a short story in Etgar Keret’s “Pipelines” collection, is in despair. In this story, “Journey,” he is trying, in vain, to get lost − to find a place where nobody has been before him. Especially Israelis. In a jungle in South America, after deciding to proceed “with no compass, no map, no guide,” Daniel thinks he has found the place: “I didn’t care about food, insects, snakes, anything. I was alone. And then I arrived at a clearing in the forest with just a huge tree. I decided that the clearing would be my home, that I would live there, only me and the tree ... I walked around it a few times, touching its trunk, its branches. Near the base of the trunk I discovered a hidden scar. I bent over in order to examine it and was astonished. Someone had engraved something there with a pocket knife. The bark that had begun to grow again tried to conceal it, but I was able to read every word: ‘Nir Dekel, August 5, Golani commando unit.’”
Like Daniel, we wondered whether there was a single mountain in Israel from whose summit one can look north, south, east and west without seeing a single populated community, highway, electricity pole, antenna or army base. Is there a peak from which it’s impossible to see a border fence, jeep trails, a quarry or plastic bags flying in the wind? Is there a summit from which nothing but birdsong can be heard? Is there any mountain remaining in this country that is located in the heart of an entirely natural area, an area that has yet to be disturbed by humans? Does any wilderness remain in Israel 2012? Is there any place where you can escape to? On the intermediate days of Passover, we set out to find the answer.
Anyone who has traveled on this country’s highways in recent years can’t help but feel slightly claustrophobic in the face of the quickly-changing local landscape. In the not-so-distant past, you could leave the city for the country on long stretches of highway bordered by open, natural or agricultural spaces on both sides. In effect, the open spaces were the country itself, and the cities and rural communities merely islands floating in it.
The picture seems to have been reversed since then. The so-called wilderness today includes islands of nature separated from one another by broad highways, gas stations, populated locales ... and signs, lots of signs – for restaurants, a new community expansion scheme or an exciting tourist attraction.
Traveling in this new country can cause a sense of suffocation. Both in the Galilee and the Negev, which are ostensibly sparsely populated, almost every moshav or kibbutz has given rise to some form of “community expansion.” The open spaces are filled with new gas stations, alongside huge commercial centers surrounded by tremendous parking lots, roadside restaurants, legal and illegal construction by Arabs and Jews, isolated farms and desert villages, security fences and ordinary fences, military training areas, secret installations and jeep trails.
The rules of the game for our quest are simple: Each time we will climb up a summit that offers a good view of its surroundings − not a hill nestled inside a valley, and not a mountain from which the landscape is hidden by another, higher peak − and when we look from it in all four directions, our goal will be to see an entirely natural area, with no signs of civilization. A virgin and undisturbed landscape.
We’re aware of the fact that this mission will inevitably fail. And it’s quite obvious where not to look for the hoped-for, lofty site: Between Hadera and Gedera, and even between Be’er Sheva and Haifa, no such place can exist. The population density in such regions would not allow the natural surroundings to survive. There is no hill from which one cannot see a highway or populated area – usually both. Or, if you’re lucky, just electricity poles, antennas and farmland.
A few years ago, the Deshe Open Landscape Institute – founded by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel to study how to maintain open spaces – developed a model that examines the interruptions in the contiguity of open terrain. The map prepared by the institute, based on the model, demonstrates that even the Galilee is already a lost cause. From Be’er Sheva going straight north, there is not a single location in the country that is over five kilometers from a “disturbed area.” The last surviving locations in the center and north of the country were apparently in the vicinity of Ramot Menashe, but the northern section of Route 6 (the Trans-Israel Highway) bisected the region and erased any possibility of empty space.
Despite these statistics, on the institute’s map one can see two areas between Haifa and Be’er Sheva that are relatively far from populated areas or highways: the Lachish region and Gilboa.
First attempt: the Lachish region
The first summit we climbed was Tel Guvrin (299 meters). The historic tel (meaning a mound created by the accumulated archaeological remains of successive civilizations) lies in the heart of the Lachish region – one of the last large areas in the center of the country almost untouched by human hands. Failure seems to be a forgone conclusion, but in any event we climb up on a leveled path that begins at a paved road − but not before paying an entry fee to the Beit Guvrin National Park, surrounded by hundreds of hikers. Still, the results are surprisingly good. To the south: green hills. Maybe it’s the poor visibility, and maybe it’s because we want to believe that our mission will succeed, but up to the horizon there is no sign of human interference in the landscape.
A look to the east changes the picture, however: The hills are still green, but four large red-and-white cellular antennae rise from them − as well as several buildings belonging to a nearby army base. To the north there is a dirt track, a dust cloud from a jeep, vestiges of an ancient church; further on there is some village on the hill. To the west, Kibbutz Beit Guvrin, additional populated locales in the distance, paths, hikers. What do we hear? A passing car, a number of birds, a fly, the creaking of stones beneath the hikers’ feet.
If we return to this observation point a few years from now, there is no question that the region will look different. Lachish is undergoing massive development. A project designed to produce oil from shale by heating the ground will add a refinery and other infrastructure to the landscape, and five new towns are slated to be built here, most of them designated for Gush Katif evacuees.
Second attempt: the Gilboa
The second attempt was on Mount Barkan in the Gilboa region, still within the Be’er Sheva-Haifa expanse. However, the Gilboa is one of the last regions that has relatively extensive, untouched natural areas. The winter’s rains have been good for this region; the abundant greenery and the flowers, mainly the Gilboa iris, color the landscape and lift the soul.
We arrived early, when the morning fog still blocked the view, but still it was hard to miss the fields of the Beit She’an Valley, the fish ponds, the highway that crosses the Gilboa Mountains in the north, the Palestinian villages in the south. And in the east: ropes that mark the paths on which walking is permitted, in order not to harm the irises.
To the west, a man-made pine forest, a picnic table around which a family is getting organized for breakfast. A downward glance reveals a lookout post made of stone and concrete, with a high observation tower next to it, which it’s forbidden to climb. What do we hear? The chirping of birds, rock doves and jays, and in the distance the sound of a truck. On the way down, the eucalyptus and cypress trees assume a gray tinge, as though they have aged, due to the nearby Beit Alfa quarry, which coats them with a thin layer of dust.
Third attempt: the Golan
We continued northward, in the hope of finding more remote areas. The Golan has in recent years attained the status of a genuine wilderness, thanks to the TV series “Pillars of Smoke,” which portrayed the place as a combination of “Twin Peaks” and the Wild West. Although the Golan Heights are sparsely populated, they suffer badly from the fact that, for the past 45 years, they have been a military frontier separating Israel and Syria.
“Everything here is directed at the Syrians,” explains a hiker. Indeed, tank treads have threshed the landscape; barbed wire and yellow signs warning about minefields have permeated every corner; and bunkers, antiaircraft trenches, watchtowers and antennae crisscross the Golan from north to south.
Our first stop, a lost cause, was on Mount Namron (359 meters) in the southern Golan Heights, near Mevo Hama. This site is very familiar to paragliders, who take advantage of the cliff there that descends to the bank of Lake Kinneret. It takes me quite a while to recall that I also know the place well: from a pre-army paragliding course. From here I jumped with the strings of the parachute lifting me up and then lowering me, to crash spread-eagle on barbed wire in the fields below − resulting in tears in the parachute, my arm and neck. But you don’t have to parachute to notice that this is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful panoramas in Israel.
But we’re not looking for beauty. We’re trying to get away from it all. To the north: a large cellular antenna, a large structure used for agricultural purposes, a forest of small plastic pipes, in which the Jewish National Fund has planted oak saplings, a dirt path and electricity poles. To the west: Lake Kinneret dominates the horizon, and because of the poor visibility, only the outlines of Tiberias can be seen on the other side of the lake. The communities on the banks of the Kinneret include Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael, Kibbutz Ha’on, Tzemah, Kibbutz Degania, plus highways and innumerable paths. To the south there is a pine forest, a truckload of JNF workers and fields. To the east is the highway that traverses the Golan Heights; there’s a cyclist and an old concrete structure. A downward glance reveals sunflower seed shells, an overflowing garbage can. Apparently someone has prepared the ground so it will be more convenient for the accelerating run of the gliders. There’s also a monument of basalt stones, bearing the following message: “You are always there; whatever you want, only choose, king of the world,” − in memory of Yossi Tzarfati, “who was taken from us in a paragliding accident in a spot with the land flowing with milk and honey spread out before him.” What do we hear? The noise of passing trucks and vehicles.
We figure that to succeed in our quest, it will be better to go further east in the Golan, in the hope of distancing ourselves from a view of the valleys below it, which are full of villages and farmland. We ascend Mount Shifon in the northern part of the Heights. The mountain is a metonymy of the entire Golan: At the top is an army fortress, well reinforced with concrete, and yet the view from the roof of the bunkers for the first time raises the possibility that our journey will end well. In two of the four directions it is quite difficult to see any human intervention; in one of the remaining two, that intervention is minimal.
To the north, Mount Hermon can be seen, still snow-covered, with broad white stripes beginning at the summit. The kibbutzim Ein Zivan and Ortal are easily visible. In the northeast, there are 10 huge wind turbines, two of them revolving, mocking our experiment. To the west − several distant hothouses, dirt tracks and signs of a highway near the horizon. To the south − the first view on the journey with almost no sign of human activity − is a distant antenna on the horizon and a swath of tended fields. Other than these things, there are only bright green expanses and big puddles. The view to the east is also encouraging: in the center a large puddle, a winter leftover; other than that, only green hills and only one dirt track. Only at home, upon reexamination, do we discover that the puddle is actually a man-made reservoir.
A downward glance: We are standing, as mentioned, on a bunker made of concrete, iron and sandbags. Also visible are trenches for communications equipment, air vents, netting for providing shade, pegs and barbed wire; around us are scattered pierced bullet casings from light weapons, mortar containers, a can of tuna and a crushed Syrian tank that serves as a target for training. But there’s also a molehill, lizards fleeing among the rocks, a chirping lark. A look at the sky: a vulture. What do we hear? Birds, a frog croaking from one of the puddles.
The wind occasionally carries the muted sound of a passing truck. While we are checking the view, a jeep with two passengers ascends the hill: Hezi Zayit and Eran Gluska, both from Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan. They have come to plan a route for mountain bikes and hiking families (“It’s still not clear how that goes together, we’re working on it,” says Gluska, explaining the built-in contradiction. He, incidentally, is one of the leading motorcyclists in Israel and has participated in the international Rally of the Pharoahs in Egypt). On the slope they met a family of wild boars which makes its home on the mountain.
“No. You won’t find that kind of hill on the Golan Heights,” says Zayit firmly, when we explain the objective of our journey. He points to the turbines that dominate the landscape, and asks: “But why do you mind seeing rotor blades?”
Good question. The truth is I don’t mind, I only want to get rid of the sense of suffocation. To escape from the sensation of antennae closing in on me. There is nothing more irrevocable than human intervention in the landscape: A paved highway never goes away, an electricity pole planted in place won’t disappear.
Recalling the rare instances when a reverse process takes place surprises us anew each time. For one, I remember the last days of the Gush Katif settlements in Gaza, when some of the communities there had already been emptied of their residents, and the Palestinians were still behind the fences. In the interim, the sand returned and assumed its place. The grains slowly crept up as though they still weren’t sure whether they were allowed to cover the asphalt once again. Here and there entire sections of highway disappeared beneath. Maybe everything is reversible and reparable?
I also remember Route 90 in the Dead Sea area after major floods: Large sections of the highway were swept into the sea and disappeared, to be replaced by mounds of sediment and sand, with a small river flowing between them. As though there had never been a highway − at least until the National Roads Company (Maatz) bulldozer arrived and restored history to its proper order: Man builds and nature retreats before him.
It’s true that not all human intervention is a crime against nature, however. “There are also nice parts to this puzzle,” says Nir Papay, vice president of SPNI. “The agricultural areas, for example.”
But our view is that the open spaces are a resource that is quickly being used up, and our objective is to examine whether we have already arrived at the point when the hill we’re looking for no longer exists. We are told that in the past two years, Papay conducted a campaign to ascend 13 “summits” all over the country with his two children, including Mount Hermon, Masada, Mount Tabor − and even the roof of the round Azrieli tower in the heart of Tel Aviv.
Papay: “We have a unique and amazing country with a tremendous variety, but we have little experience with an entire area in which you see nothing, a kind of Sinai, where you feel that there’s no human intervention. No. We haven’t arrived there. Sometimes you feel that you’re in a natural area − for example, when climbing Mount Meron − where you feel that you’re in a nature reserve. The forest at Montfort is also very natural and thick, but when you look at open spaces, it’s impossible to avoid seeing other things.”
Fourth attempt: Upper Galilee
Without much hope we continued to the eastern Galilee. The Galilee has become quite a crowded area in recent years − lookouts, community expansion programs, army bases and many highways have reduced its undeveloped areas. During the trip on the highways there, you sense a blurring of the boundary between urban and rural areas. As in the major cities in the center of the country, in Rosh Pina, Kiryat Shmona, Carmiel and Ma’alot you can find commercial centers dominated by the same brand names and the same fast-food chains. The only difference is in the parking lots; the cost of land in the city demands construction of multilevel underground lots. In the Galilee, the parking area stretches out around the stores. These malls symbolize one of the problems with dealing with open spaces in the country: The method of administration (mainly by the local councils) of such areas and the tax system encourage the development of industrial and commercial zones at the expense of agriculture and nature.
Photographer Yaron Kaminsky leads us to Mount Dalton (874 meters). On the summit lies the tomb of Rabbi Yossi Haglili, a 2nd-century tanna (scholar of the Mishna), remembered mainly thanks to the passage in the Haggadah attributed to him: “How do you know that the Egyptians were struck by 10 plagues in Egypt and 50 plagues at the sea?”
We stand on the roof of the small blue-domed tomb. To the north − the snow-covered summit of the Hermon is alternately revealed and concealed among the clouds; there’s an olive orchard and a lake remaining from the winter rains. To the west − another lake, the Meron mountain chain sporting the famous antennae, Moshav Dalton and water towers. To the south − a white-and-orange cellular antenna and farming land. The east seems to be the most untamed direction here, maybe because of the fog that blocks the view: grazing cows and crops. The hill opposite is covered with the lovely blossoms of the thorny bloom plant.
What do we hear? During the few minutes we were there a large family ascended the hill, so we heard four vehicles, about 15 people and a radio at high volume: “It’s hard to find love these days ... I searched day and night and I’m going crazy already,” sings Regev Hod.
A downward glance at the tomb reveals a square made of basalt stones bearing a sign: “Built and renovated by the committee to rescue ancient tombs in the Land of Israel.” Inside, a curtain covers the tomb; there are benches and sacred texts. One of the windows, with a view to the north, is covered with a large poster bearing the words “The Bratslav Calender” − a mixture of advertisements and religious laws. One of the latter calls on people “To search for the Messiah”:
“People in the know claim that he is wearing a simple cap, with a tattered suit, and is busy reciting the holy Zohar in one of the caves in the Galilee forests. If he is not there, then he should be sought among the beggars in Meron or at the other holy sites, and perhaps he is even disguised as an admor (Hasidic spiritual leader) or a baba (venerated leader of a Moroccan Jewish community) ...”
After a long explanation about the Messiah, the text concludes: “What is left to us is only to seek and ask, to study the books and to observe the things, to study the philosophies and to got out to the forests.”
So we did. When we began our journey it was clear that we should look for a spot on the Meron ridge. We thought this huge mountainous bloc in the heart of the Upper Galilee might meet our challenge. We looked for Mount Zeved (1,006 meters), but made a navigational error and found ourselves on Mount Hillel (1,071 meters). The area really is natural and wild for the most part, but in every direction there are signs of human intervention. To the north − once again, the foot of the Meron summit; to the south − the village of Marar; to the west, olive orchards and terraces. The view to the east is blocked by another mountain. It might have been possible to see in that direction, but our access was restricted by the army base on the summit, boasting several antennae, a guard post, fences and a sign: “Soldier/Commander, disarm.” Meanwhile we could see signs directing Passover hikers to the carpets of peonies, black trail markings and a fruit orchard. A passing turtle too.
It was a shame to waste all this effort, but we realized our salvation wouldn’t come from the north. The Galilee, despite its beauty, has failed the mission. We headed southward.
By the way, the ecologically-charged term “open spaces” is a relatively new one. The “father” of the concept was apparently Yoav Sagi, one of the heads of the SPNI and founder of the Deshe Institute.
Sagi often recalls that, up until a few years ago, when he googled “open spaces” in Hebrew, all the results dealt with “a mortar landing in open spaces.” Today the same quest will produce a large number of websites and information about the problem of the disappearance of available land in Israel. Until the 1990s, local green activists needed a convincing argument in order to protect an area from development; then, discovery of a rare animal or a unique flower could help. But since the concept has infiltrated public discourse and the Planning and Construction Law – especially in the past decade – there has been a recognition of the importance of preserving natural open spaces just because they are open, with no need for further justification.
This victory has been accompanied by several victories by the greens: the shelving of the so-called Safdie project in the Jerusalem hills; the cancellation of the community of Michal on the Gilboa; and, recently, forceful opposition that blocked construction plans on the beaches of Palmahim and Betzet. But along with the victories there have been innumerable failures, which have reshaped the landscape: Route 6 (the Trans-Israel Highway); many new towns and villages; new, isolated farms in the Negev; quarries; hundreds of cellular antennae; and zoning allowing farmland to be used for commercial purposes, and more.
Among the negative changes in the landscape caused by man, we can also include the penetration of invasive flora. For example, for generations the Australian tree acacia saligna (blue-leafed wattle) has changed the landscape of the coastal plain, the Jerusalem hills and many other places.
Last year’s annual SPNI report, a very depressing document, sums up the future threats to every region in the country. These include construction of new towns near Arad and in the Nitzana salient (Israel holds the world record for building new communities relative to its population size); new quarries in the Sands of Samar and near Shoham; the separation fence south of Jerusalem; another evaporation pool in the southern Dead Sea; and an airport in Megiddo.
The reform in the Planning and Construction Law, dubbed the “porch law,” is also causing sleepless nights among those who favor open natural areas, and feel that years of effort expended to teach the need to protect such spaces are going down the drain.
“All over the world, the subject of biological diversity and open spaces is attaining momentum, and here it’s in retreat,” notes Sagi. “Precisely during a period of development momentum, we have to be stricter about the rules and what’s happening is exactly the opposite.”
Sagi does not believe it’s possible to find the summit we are looking for, and that we are 20 years too late. “Had you done it before 1981, before the Israel Defense Forces left Sinai, you would have succeeded,” he says. “Then it was possible to find such places, in the Negev.”
Final attempt: the Negev
The first stop is what could be considered the most remote point of settlement in the country: the Be’erotayim khan (inn). The khan is located in a river bed not far from the community of Azuz, south of Nitzana. A poorly-maintained highway and a dirt track lead to it. The buildings are made of wood and mud, and are furnished with only a wood-burning stove and mattresses. Guests are asked to be sparing with lighting, since a small solar energy system provides the electricity. Up until a few years ago, this area was truly isolated − severed from Israel both geographically and psychologically. The removal of the Sinai Peninsula from the country’s tourism map enhanced the reputation of the place for Israelis seeking a wilderness experience. But the same forces that placed Sinai out of bounds are also changing the khan area.
As the border with Egypt turned into an axis of terror and smuggling, the State of Israel arrived here − both spiritually and physically. Dull explosions that were heard even during the intermediate days of Passover are evidence of a project that is changing the face of the region: the construction of the border fence between Israel and Egypt.
“The change is only in people’s minds,” insists Ofer Hartov, founder and director of the khan and a resident of Azuz. “People come here in order to get away. There’s no cell-phone reception, no television. Suddenly parents coming here discover that their children don’t need a plasma TV and a computer to enjoy themselves.”
Hartov believes that our journey has a purpose and that it will be possible to find the sought-after summit. That if we only go deep inside the Negev with a jeep, a camel or on foot, we will succeed.
We began the attempt to ascend Givat Heret (450 meters), on the patrol road near the Egyptian border. According to the Deshe Institute map, we are standing in the heart of one of the least disturbed areas in the country. In fact, to the north, open and empty expanses stretch to the horizon. But when you divert your glance northwest, you see Nitzana and Azuz, surrounding by yellow desert. To the west we see the huge border-fence project. Anyone familiar with the area who has not visited it in the past year will stand paralyzed in the face of this undertaking: Dozens of kilometers of steel and bulldozers are shaping the entire landscape. One of the contractors told us with a smile that, in his opinion, this work is useless − that Bedouin smugglers have already obtained hydraulic iron scissors that can cut the fence.
But the struggle over this border are felt not only at the fence line. Large rocks and dirt ramparts have been created to block the dirt tracks that were used by the smugglers. On the highway there are improvised IDF ambush outposts and roadblocks. Across the border, one can also see an Egyptian outpost with the empty expanses of Sinai behind it.
To the south, once again are empty mountains and a military antenna, seemingly aiming to be a deliberate annoyance. Like Mount Yosifon, several hundred kilometers to the north, Givat Heret has a clearly military character − and at the top, overlooking the border, an IDF observation post. All around is barbed wire, cigarette butts − and graffiti, which reads: “7 prostitutes.” In the sky: a pair of storks. What do we hear? Quiet and more quiet, until one of the bulldozers working on the fence begins driving in reverse. Beep. Beep. Beep. As we said, it seems to be annoying us on purpose.
The next promising area is east Ramon − from the Ramon Crater to the Arava − a large area without any populated areas or an army base. Route 40 traverses it from east to west; on both sides there is no evidence of human beings. If you want to get lost, this is the place. We left Route 40 for a dirt track, went a few kilometers and ascended the final peak in our journey: Mount Kippa.
After a 30-minute drive from Mitzpeh Ramon on the highway and another 15 minutes on a bumpy and nerve-racking dirt track in the jeep of photographer Eliyahu Hershkowitz, we ascended it. Some people-in-the-know recommended this summit and promised that this time we would succeed in our mission. So they promised.
To the north − a security installation and a jeep road; to the east − a similar installation and the marks of jeep treads that strayed from the path; to the south − a wide dirt track and four hikers with backpacks; to the west − a green sign of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, Jordanian mountains and another dirt track. A downward glance shows that the mountain used to be an army training area; on its peak there are several deep dugouts that have become overnight refuges for hikers, and in the middle of each dugout, signs of a bonfire. Garbage is scattered over the hill: a plastic bottle, cigarette butts and a rusty tin can.
We are overcome by despair, not to say humiliation. We return home with failure in our backpacks.
Oh, the suffocation
The unavoidable conclusion from our journey is that Israel’s security situation has another, lesser known cost − in addition to the human, social and economic ones: irreversible damage to the landscape and to nature, including along the border areas. On all the summits we visited, we either stood on a security installation or saw one, usually more than one.
Here is the place to admit that there are other locales we could have tried: Several people mentioned Mount Namer in the Judean Desert, others spoke of the Agur Sands area, north of Nitzana. The southern Arava is very flat and there’s a good chance that the Arava highway, the Israeli or Jordanian one, could be seen from everywhere. And then there are the Eilat mountains. But maybe it’s a good thing we didn’t find that summit, because success – to use quantum physics’ logic – would only make the experiment fail.
Back home I open a computer file that I wrote four years ago, when I first thought about the idea for this article. At the time, my wife and I went to look for an unspoiled site, not far from Mount Kippa. We marched from the hikers’ center in Be’erot and climbed up the mountain ridge that answers to the name Karbolet Haririm.
“The path, a hiking trail, is very narrow and winding,” I wrote at the time. “In the river beds it disappears entirely. Even if we ignore the path itself (which is of course man-made, although there are also paths of ibexes and other animals) and the occasional colored trail markers on the rocks, we will still find it difficult to ignore several other signs left behind by hikers: lollipop sticks, a bottle cap, a plastic bag and a piece of toilet paper. Further up the path we will also find vestiges of a bonfire and a dud from an army weapon. A few more hours of walking and climbing on a 560-meter point. The summit overlooks the entire area. The mission seems to have been accomplished successfully, brown mountains to the horizon in all directions. North, south, east and west. But what’s that in the distance? An antenna? And here, is that a peg stuck in the ground?”
Oh, what suffocation.