How Israel’s Remotest Communities Are Staying Coronavirus-free

From the southern Arava desert to the northern Golan Heights, isolated communities are virtually putting ‘Not Welcome’ signs on their main gates

Ein Yahav in the southern Arava desert, August 2019.
Alex Levac

The residents of Ein Yahav, an agricultural community in the southern Arava desert, consider it a badge of honor: No place in Israel is as removed from urban civilization as theirs. The nearest city to their north is Be’er Sheva, a 90-minute drive away, while the nearest to their south is Eilat, also 90 minutes away.

Being this remote has definite advantages at times like these. To date, over 2,600 Israelis have tested positive for the coronavirus. Not a single one of them is from Ein Yahav or, for that matter, any of the other half dozen or so moshavim (collective agricultural settlements) in the central Arava region.

And the residents want to make sure it stays that way. In the age of COVID-19, that means the equivalent of putting a “Not Welcome” sign up on their main gates.

“Right now, the only outsiders we’re letting in are residents of the area who need to shop, because the only supermarket around here is located on our premises, and truckdrivers dropping off supplies or picking up agricultural produce to take to the markets,” says Raviv Assa, a local farmer and member of the management board of Ein Yahav.

But even the lucky few allowed through the gates of the moshav are required to abide by new rules. “Usually, when the trucks come in, the drivers get out and sit have coffee with us,” says Assa, 55. “Not these days. Under the new rules, they have to remain in their trucks while we load and unload them ourselves.” Like everyone else interviewed for this story, Assa spoke to Haaretz by telephone.

Founded in 1962, with 150 families Ein Yahav is the largest agricultural community in the central Arava region – situated along the road that leads from the Dead Sea to Eilat. It is also one of Israel’s largest suppliers of peppers and melons. Many of the families on the moshav also own and run bed-and-breakfasts on the side. Their guests tend to be Israelis from the big cities yearning for the tranquility of the desert. But even before such restrictions were mandated by government decree, the residents of Ein Yahav decided to temporarily pull out from the hospitality business.

Ein Yahav

“We took this decision after we started getting inquiries from people who had been ordered into quarantine and thought this would be a good place to pass the time,” says Chen Klein, a 41-year-old exercise instructor and trainer who lives with her husband and four children on the moshav and used to rent out cabins. “We have quite a large elderly population at Ein Yahav, and there was no way we were going to risk them.”

‘Just impossible’

Klein has two brothers who live in the center of the country – one in Tel Aviv, the other slightly further north in Ramat Hasharon. She hasn’t seen either in recent weeks.

“I know of other people on the moshav whose siblings had asked if they could come and wait out the crisis here. And as hard as it was for these neighbors of ours, they had to say no,” she says.

The official policy of the moshav, Assa says, is to keep nonresidents out. But there are some circumstances where that’s “just impossible,” he concedes. “I mean, can you really tell someone who’s standing at the gate that he can’t go visit his parents?”

Like all the other agricultural communities in the area, Ein Yahav relies heavily on foreign laborers, mainly from Thailand. As a precautionary measure, Assa says, all the farmhands have been instructed to stay confined in their own communities and not move around from place to place, lest they be carriers spreading the virus.

Moshav Idan, also in the central Arava region, is about a 20-minute drive to the north of Ein Yahav. To make sure this tiny agricultural community continues to stay coronavirus-free, Chani Arnon – a woman who loves nothing more than hosting family and friends at her homestead – was forced to make a tough decision this week.

“My son’s girlfriend works at the airport, and he wanted to bring her here for the weekend,” relays Arnon, who runs an agricultural school in the Arava that draws students from around the world. “I had to tell her that unless she was willing to first quarantine herself for 14 days, I couldn’t have her here. I feel that I have a responsibility to all the other families here, and we can’t take that risk.”

But living in such a desolate part of the country also has its perks these days, she says. “I’m sitting here right now in my garden watching the chickens lay their eggs, so there’s still some normal routine and that makes me feel calmer.”

Two’s a crowd

The Golan Heights is as far as it gets from the Arava and has also had the good fortune of being spared from the coronavirus – at least for the time being. What it shares with the Arava, in addition to great distances from Israel’s main population centers, is a combination of lots of space and relatively few people.

Idit Vaaknin, 55, lives with her family in Bnei Yehuda, one of the larger communities in this northeasternmost stretch of the land, captured by Israel from Syria in 1967. She is unaware of any cases in the 1,300-square-kilometer (500-square-mile) highlands and believes it is more than a matter of luck.

“This is just not the sort of place that is conducive to crowds,” says Vaaknin, who runs a local day care center. “We have no malls up here and no big indoor centers. Most of us live in private homes and have gardens, and therefore don’t feel the need to go out to public parks, where there are lots of people, if we want fresh air. Even if I go to the local supermarket, at most there’ll be another two people there.”

The isolation being forced on Israelis who live in much busier parts of the country, she notes, is simply par for the course in these remote areas.

It’s also the reason why, aside from a few isolated cases, Israel’s roughly 260 kibbutzim – for the most part, self-contained communities – have also been spared. On most kibbutzim these days, the main gates are locked and few outsiders are allowed entry. Although the communal kitchens continue to operate, members no longer gather in the big mess halls; rather, they file into the kitchen one by one and pick up their food, which they are instructed to eat at home.

The gates opening at Kibbutz Nirim, near the Gaza Strip, southern Israel, November 2019.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

At Nirim, a kibbutz on the Gaza border, one of the few places where members run into each other these days is at the small general store on the premises. To prevent the spread of the coronavirus, new rules have been issued for making purchases there.

“First of all, we have hand sanitizer and gloves outside, and nobody is allowed in without making use of them,” says Arnon Avni, 67, who serves as the kibbutz spokesman. “Once inside, you pick up what you need, put it on the floor a bit away from the main counter, and then you go outside. There’s someone there whose job it is to pick up your stuff, put it on the counter, ring up the bill and then bring it out to you. The old people get their goods delivered.”

Avni, who is recently retired, has seven grandchildren living on the kibbutz. “I don’t let them step foot into my place,” he says.

Because agriculture is considered an “essential enterprise,” kibbutz and moshav members who work in farming – and many still do – have permission to go about their daily business as they normally would, despite the strict coronavirus restrictions.

That includes Assa from Ein Yahav, who says that having the ability to stick to his daily routine has been a blessing. “I do what I always do, and that really helps at times like these,” he says. “The only really striking change in my life is when I get home from the fields, all three of my daughters are there. That never used to happen.”