Growing Tomatoes in Hamas’ Crosshairs

Running a family farm within sight, and the sights, of Gaza may sound crazy. For the Shmilovich family it's an adrenaline-packed way of life.

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
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Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

Raz Shmilovich surveys rows and rows of dying cherry tomato plants with a stunned look on his face. The plant's stalks are shriveled, the leaves are pest-eaten and many of the tomatoes are lying in the dust.

"Oh man, I had no idea it was this bad," he says, standing in one of his greenhouses. "I was only gone for four days."

In Shmilovich's line of work, four days is way too long to be away. He's a farmer in Netiv Haasara, a 700-person moshav, or small cooperative farming community, famous for being (since the unilateral disengagement of 2005) the closest Israeli town to the border with Gaza. Although it is within the Green Line, and so not a settlement, on a clear day some houses have a view of Gaza, just 800 meters away. It's so close there is no time to hide if a Qassam rocket or mortar shell falls on the front porch.

Netiv Haasara is a town of action freaks – maniacs, really. People here speak fast and loud, jumping from topic to topic and from place to place. They're tough, but also slightly neurotic. Who wouldn't be, living and raising a family so close to their enemies that they can hear their cell phones ringing?

At the southern end of Netiv Haasara, an electric fence was put up to stop Palestinians from infiltrating the village, concrete walls were built to prevent Palestinian snipers from shooting at residents and the Israel Defense Forces occupied an abandoned car park and converted it into a base.

Netiv Haasara first sprang up in the Sinai Peninsula in the early 1970s. Shmilovich's parents were among the founders, and when they were evacuated in 1982, following the Camp David Accords, they moved with other families to the Negev to start over. Through incredible perseverance, the community remained intact and tight-knit. It helped that its members share a passion for action.

Take Shmilovich. He's not supposed to be here right now. His house, his greenhouses and his entire town are considered a closed military zone. Since the place is scarily exposed to various forms of attacks, the residents are not allowed to exit their reinforced security rooms or shelters. Neither they nor their employees are allowed to work. This, of course, is a serious problem for a town full of farmers.

"In the short term, operations like Amud Anan are bad for me," says Shilovich, totally unfazed by the constant booms coming from Gaza. He would know if he was in danger, he explains. Rockets fired at his house, mortars lobbed toward his greenhouses, Iron Dome intercepting rockets and IDF air strikes on Gaza all sound different to him.

"That?" he say. "Oh, that's just an Iron Dome rocket. Oh, wait, no. That's one from the bad guys."

"So where was I?" he continues. "Oh yeah, in the short term, operations like that are bad for me. I can handle a Qassam here and there in my daily life, but right now we are under military rule. There are soldiers here telling me what I can and can't do. That's a problem. I have a dozen foreign workers from Thailand, and they're not working. They want to work, even though they're afraid, but they're not allowed. We can't pick. We can't market our goods – which is a problem for you too, because tomorrow you might be at the grocery store and find out there are no tomatoes."

Shmilovich and his father own 24 dunums of greenhouses. They mainly grown cherry tomatoes, but also harvest tomato seeds and run a side-business doing experimental growing. The clash between Israel and militants in Gaza has brought their work to a standstill. And in farming, a lost day can cost a month’s salary.

"It happened this morning," says Shmilovich, pointing at the roof of one of his greenhouses full of decaying plants, the booming sounds of rockets being fired from one direction or another shaking the ground beneath his feet. "Iron Dome shrapnel tore the roof. Now, new nylon could cost NIS 500 to 600 – not much, but you have to account for the accumulated damage. Best-case scenario, pests enter and because I can't spray, they eat the plants. Worst-case scenario, if there's rain or the roof flies off because I was unable to fix it, everything you see here is gone. Plus, every incident causes my workers to either want to go back to Thailand or run away. And if they run away to work illegally somewhere else, I don’t get new ones from the state, because as far as the state is concerned, I'm still their employer. During Cast Lead in 2009, dozens of people fled Netiv Haasara."

Shmilovich's mother, Smady Shmilovich, is the manager of the family farmstead and the chief emergency director of Netiv Haasara. She is also, of course, an action fiend. During the week of fighting, despite orders to remain indoors, she joined her family in doing the picking and seeding usually reserved for employees.

"Normally we send two shipments of products a day, five days a week – ten shipments in total," she says. "This week, we only managed to gather two shipments. But now the truck driver won't come. He's not willing to enter the moshav. He insists we meet him in Netivot. So you see, now I have to drive my own truck to bring him the product to distribute."

"But that's the least of our problems," she continues, speaking so fast it's barely comprehensible to a risk-averse person who isn’t used to living making a hundred life-and-death decision at once. "The Thai workers are not working, so the day-to-day work is not being done, which means pests could enter the greenhouses and eat through the plants, the plants could get sick and die. We're looking at a lost month already."

In the morning, the Thai workers tried to do some work, but then one of the greenhouses was hit by shrapnel and they ran back inside.

"You just can't measure this kind of damage," she says. "It drives us insane".

Like many business owners and farmers in the area near the Gaza Strip, the Shmilovich family is torn between the desire to obey the army's orders and the need to keep their business from crumbling. And they know Operation Defensive Shield is just the prologue of a much bigger war: the war for reparations from the state.

"Three years ago, during Cast Lead, a Qassam rocket fell inside a greenhouse," says Raz Shmilovich. "A radiator was destroyed. A new one costs NIS 30,000. Now, a state appraiser comes and pays me NIS 1,600, saying it was an old radiator. It was working. Now it doesn’t, but if I want one I have to pay NIS 30,000 out of my own pocket. We ended up going to court. My father took it very personally. In the end, the judge ruled in our favor and reprimanded the appraiser."

"The problem is the state only takes into account the direct damage," he continues. "But if I don't work for a week because I am not allowed, I have no way of rehabilitating the plants. I just have to plant new ones. And from the moment I order a new plant, it takes a month for it to get to me. Within two months, I have the first product. So in those three months, how am I supposed to make a living?"

So why would anyone live here?

"Why live here? asks Shmilovich. "Because this is where I've lived for the past 30 years. This is where our families are. I've been here since I was 6 years old. I fathered two children during that time, two children who whenever they visit their grandparents ask first: 'Where is the shelter.' Why live here? Because I am not living in disputed territory. No one, not even the most die-hard radical leftists, will tell you I am not within the territory of Israel. I am not over the Green Line; I am not over any line. If we leave here, we might as well go back to Poland or Morocco and break up the country for good."

At the same time, he acknowledges life here is not much fun. "That's too red," he says angrily, looking at a ripe cherry tomato in his hand. "My buyer won't want his. He wants it orange. This whole plant is already gone. And if I don't go to work full-time today or tomorrow, it will be a jungle in here. The weather is very humid and humidity brings sickness. It's one thing after the other in this business. At this stage, it's best not to look. Really, it's better to just not be here. The only thing you can do about it is cry."

Raz Shmilovich works behind concrete walls built to protect his town from Gazan sniper fire. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

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