A Peaceful Hike in a Region of Conflict

A visit to the Shikma River in the western Negev offers views of rising waters, flowering fields, billowing sand dunes – and the scars of a history of war.

A flood of brown water, full of debris and soil, rushes through the Shikma River channel. The short distance between the raging river and the bridge above it is startling. Most of the year, the riverbed is completely dry, but on this Saturday, it is coursing with filthy, invigorating power, sweeping away everything it its path.

It's only the start of February, and the winter of 2013 is already shaping up to be a refreshing one for the Land of Israel and its people. The western Negev Desert is in bloom, bursting with vivid colors. From now until mid-April, we will likely be enjoying days of grace.

The Shikma River flows into the Mediterranean Sea just about a mile from the border of the Gaza Strip. Its final leg, the approximately four miles between Kibbutz Yad Mordechai and the coast, makes for a wonderful hike. The dirt path along its banks bristle with red anemones, blossoming almond trees, green sabra cacti with red fruit, verdant broom bushes dotted with white flowers and Israel's largest water reservoir.

Amid all this natural beauty, it's easy to forget the long history of bloody wars that has played out here. The most recent battle, Operation Pillar of Defense, ended just weeks ago, yet the only hints are a handful of burnt trees scattered across the sandy landscape. Despite the pleasant sound of moving water and the fragrance of broom bushes, the members of my hiking party are sobered by the knowledge that these trees were destroyed by human brutality, not, say, a stray bolt of lightning.   

When the dust subsides somewhat, we can see the tall buildings of Gaza on the horizon. In December, 1,506 rockets were fired from the territory and the Israeli army attacked 1,500 targets there. The Shikma River divides the reported death toll neatly: 150 people to its south and six people to its north.

And still, the tourist season began last Saturday, as it does every year. For the sake of the events that are held in the Negev this time of year, the area has been branded "The Red South" – which rhymes in Hebrew. It is named, of course, for the anemones, but the connection to the Red Alerts that warn of impending rocket strikes probably isn't coincidental. Perhaps it's a slightly twisted joke dreamt up by a clever publicist long ago.

The seasonal cycle of flowers and rockets that has been going on here for decades is captured well by a visit to the photographic exhibit at Kibbut Yad Mordechai. In a courtyard of the kibbutz, we peruse pictures of the May 1948 battle to defend the area, with the natural landscape as a backdrop. At this spot, 150 kibbutz members managed to stall the progress of a much larger Egyptian army force for six days. After suffering heavy losses – 26 of the men were killed – the group withdrew toward Ashdod. They returned in November to reclaim their kibbutz as part of Operation Yoav, which opened a corridor to the Negev and ultimately drove the Egyptian army out of the country.

Anemones in the Carmia Nature Reserve

We begin our hike a mile south of Yad Mordechai at the point where Highway 4 narrows suddenly into a hiking trail, marked by a brown sign, reading, “Carmia Nature Reserve.” This is a good place to ditch the car and start westward on foot, but you can drive most of the road if you want.

The Shikma View trail is a big, important and still-unfinished project that began a few years ago. Last year, I was promised that signage for the trail was on its way, but 400 days later, much of it is still missing. When I asked about it again this year, a Jewish National Fund spokesperson gave me this convoluted answer: “The sign models and texts have been approved, and the obstructions to the completion of the rest of the trail have been removed.”

You heard it here first: The obstructions have been removed. What a relief!

Fortunately, signs aren't really necessary on the western end of the trail. Just look out for the blue markings on rocks beside the trail as you go.

The surrounding landscape is sandy, round and soft. There are palm trees and dunes, as well as some cultivated fields along the banks of the stream, where thousands of anemones are now in bloom. These aren't like the massive stretches of red farther north, near Kibbutz Sa’ad and Moshav Shokda, where the carpets of flowers are so thick that you can't walk for fear of trampling them. But they are still a beautiful sight that gladdens the heart.

We cross the bridge over the river and walk northwest for about a mile before reaching the Carmia Nature Reserve, marked by another sign. From the watery stretch where we are hiking, we look southward across the reserve to Kibbutz Carmia and then turn northward to gaze at the shifting sands and heavy clay soil of the Negev.  

Among the trees and bushes here, some of which I can identify – unlike the flowers, most of which I can’t – I recognize the ana tree (Faidherbia albida), which isn’t found north of Israel, and the desert broom. Common reeds, Ravenna grass and cockleburs grow near the streambed. In the past, I’ve spotted a few skittish gazelles and nimble rabbits, but at noon on Saturday, with ATVs racing through the nearby desert, it's only us and the plants.

Among the most prominent features of the area are remnants of abandoned orchards, evidence of the Arab farmers who lived here before 1948 – the Jews established Yad Mordechai in 1943, Zikim in 1949 and Carmia in 1950. The famers who tended the orchards made use of the high groundwater, cultivating trees between rows of sabra cacti in a technique known as mawasi farming. There is a wide variety of trees, including acacia, almond, palm, mulberry, sweet lemon, guava, carob, figs and olives, as well as grapevines. Water wells, storage ponds, irrigation canals and a few homes are still visible in places.

Israel’s largest reservoir

We continue following the blue markings to the edge of the Shikma Reservoir. Here, half a mile from where the Shikma River hits the sea, the local kibbutzim constructed a dam in the 1950s to pool floodwater. At first, the reservoir was used for irrigating the fields. But after a decade, it was transferred to Mekorot, Israel’s national water company, which pumped the water northward to enrich the coastal aquifer. The reservoir was enlarged in recent years, and now fills up only occasionally. Even with this winter's abundant rainfall, the water still doesn't reach the foot of the dam.

This is one of the most beautiful parts of the hike. It is especially pleasant to walk along the edge of the water to the embankment overlooking the reservoir and the dam. From here, the world looks like a pretty decent place, full of waters and trees. It's almost possible to disbelieve in war or conflict.

But the illusion didn’t last long for us. When we sat down to rest in a blooming, green meadow, one of the members of our group took two books out of his backpack. First, he read a few paragraphs from In the Fields of Philistia 1948 by Uri Avnery, a combat soldier in the Samson's Foxes commando unit that fought in the western Negev. The account of his experiences immediately became a bestseller. About a year later, he published a second book about the same war in the same area, which he described as “the other side of the coin.” The descriptions of killing and rape are shocking even when read aloud in a green meadow on a lovely Saturday morning.

A red flag in Zikim

Until 1948, the Arab village of Khirmia – apparently the namesake of Kibbutz Carmia – stood on this site. Most of the Arab homes are gone, but two large and beautiful estates still sit high on the hills at the entrance of Kibbutz Zikim. The more striking of the two is that of the Alamis, a wealthy family that lived here at the beginning of the 1940s. Although the house, which overlooks the sea, was declared a historical site that must be preserved, it is neglected and falling apart.

When the first settlers came to the area, the house served as the kibbutz center. On its eastern side is a lovely photography exhibit of the kibbutz’s early days. One photograph depicts the front of the Alami home adorned with a banner that reads: “Kibbutz Zikim – one more home for the people, one more guard post for the border, one more red flag on the way.” Avraham Atzili, the veteran member of the kibbutz who put together the photography exhibit, says that at first the banner concluded: “another red flag on the way to Suez.” But after a long debate, the members decided there was no need to state such a distant goal.

My wife and I once lived on Kibbutz Zikim. It was long ago, but we have wonderful memories of that time. A few of our good friends still live there. One of them, Rony Gilat, tells us at the end of the hike of his idea to renovate Alami House and turn it into a center for meetings, conventions and dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. “It would be so convenient. After all, it’s just a few minutes away from Gaza by car if the road is open.” The other members of our group enthusiastically support this simple and lovely idea, and one of them remarks that yes, the drive is possible as long as The Shikma River, which is rising, doesn't flood the highway.

Moshe Gilad