A rusting car frame in Israel's south as seen from Highway 40 Alex Levac
Gideon Levy

Highway 40 Revisited: Tall Tales and Desert Mirages in Southern Israel

Traveling south from the next big residential thing, on the road to tomorrow, to the Bedouin city of Rahat with its surreal piles of rusting cars. Part two in a series

Here’s the next big thing: “A once-in-a-generation window of opportunity.” “Tomorrow is already here.” With a cluster of purple grapes in the background, all you have to do is set up a meeting so you can see for yourself today, because the road to tomorrow is open. “On the banks of Lakhish Stream, five minutes from Route 6 [the Trans-Israel Highway], the largest residential area since the establishment of Modi’in is under construction.”

Well, if the role model is Modi’in, this is definitely something not to be missed. Just 35 minutes from Tel Aviv by the fast train – the internet site continues to dispense promises – this locale is connected by Highway 40 to Gedera, Ben-Gurion airport and Be’er Sheva. The very heart of the center of the country. Pinhas Sapir himself once said that this is the center of the country. The trade and industry minister of the 1950s tried to persuade the industrial entrepreneur Israel Polack to establish a factory here, in remote Kiryat Gat. Legend has it that Sapir picked up Polack in the dead of night and instructed his chauffeur to speed south. Half an hour, by the clock. The result was the creation of the Polgat textile company; it too is no longer with us.

>> Part 1: The Israeli dream – or nightmare – is found on both sides of Highway 40 <<

Now the next big thing is Karmei Gat: a huge suburb, a premium neighborhood, of course, that’s going up just north of Kiryat Gat in the northern Negev. No fewer than 7,500 housing units, in high-rises and two-story homes, the usual blueprint of the suburban dream, including green construction, smart-city technology and education for excellence. The promises abound; the words sparkle. Merlot on the Park, Gindi Village. The head spins. “Dense construction, adjacent to open green areas, urban fabric abutting rural space” Enough.

Last week, on Rosh Hashanah, two Chinese workers were standing on the scaffolding of a high-rise in Kiryat Gat, drilling into a wall. They’re building a new city in the Israeli lowlands. It will be smart and green and standardized.

The streets of the mother city, Kiryat Gat, were almost empty on the holiday morning. Quiet prevailed in its relatively well-tended residential areas and highly developed industrial zone, which is home to Intel. All of this brought home the unbelievable disparity between Kiryat Gat and its neglected neighbor to the north, Kiryat Malakhi. Only a few dozen Ethiopians in their traditional white attire were in the streets, walking in groups, men and women separately, on the way back from synagogue.

A few kilometers to the north, in Moshav Noam, the residents also wore white as they clustered in the square next to the synagogue. The neighboring moshav is called Shalva: Noam and Shalva (“pleasantness” and “tranquility”) are religiously observant, cooperative farming communities, as is Eitan on the other side of the road. The Shafir Regional Council consists of 14 such observant communities, almost all of them moshavim.

The bougainvillea was in blossom in a riot of bold colors, and there was a holiday atmosphere in the air. As almost everywhere in this country, but more intensely here, prickly pear cactuses – sabras ־ grow next to the bougainvillea and the squills. Protruding from them are the ruins whose memory Israel has tried by every means possible to wipe off the face of the earth. But they’re still here. Stubbornly protruding, not giving up, even if only the sharp-eyed will spot them. A wall here, a beam there, a staircase or a shattered arch.

Wherever there are sabras, a different life existed before 1948 – and there are plenty of them here. There’s nothing like the coastal plain when it comes to the scale of the ethnic cleansing that was fomented: From Jaffa south to Gaza, not one Palestinian community remains intact. Dozens of villages and towns were demolished and their memory erased. Iraq al-Manshiyya next to Kiryat Gat, Qastina next to Kiryat Malakhi, Suqrir next to Noam and Shalva, Hatta next to Zavdiel and Komemiyut, Aqir next to Ekron and Bilu Junction. The sabras are orphaned. The villages have been de-memorialized, as though they never existed, apart from the ruins and the refugees’ descendants, who are elsewhere.

But certainly no one gives that a thought in the city of malls at Bilu. On a Shabbat, this intersection is the major leisure-time destination around here, although on Rosh Hashanah its stores, too, were closed. Quite a few disappointed families turned around in their cars at the locked parking lot.

As children we chanted, “All the Bulgarians get boggled at Bilu Junction,” in a Bulgarian accent, in honor of a friend whose parents had immigrated from Sofia. These days there is one enormous compound here: 74,000 square meters of shops and 1,400 parking places. When we were children, there wasn’t a single store there, and it was a huge distance from Tel Aviv, almost like Be’er Sheva.

Stopping the Bedouin

Zvi Nadolni was having a hard time working the cash register. The machine kept printing receipts with off-the-wall numbers. The place: Philip Farm, a roadside inn between Kiryat Gat and Beit Kama. Druze-style pita prepared by Sabha, a Bedouin woman from the Al-Azazme tribe that lives nearby; you can order it plain, or with avocado spread or Nutella. And you can try the other attractions that excite Israeli children – and their fathers even more: donkey and jeep rides, electric all-terrain vehicles, archery, paintball fights.

Yochai Hershberg, son of the legendary Philip who founded this place in the 1950s – after a career as a Polish cavalry officer, a spy in the service of the British army, a double agent in the SS on behalf of Israel’s pre-state Palmach commando unit, commander of the first mule corps in the Israel Defense Forces, among other heroic exploits – saves the day at the cash register.

Having despaired of his talents as a cashier, Nadolni presents himself as an expert on the psychology of canines, predators and marine mammals. His business card says he’s a consultant to the security department of IMI Services (formerly Israel Military Industries). Another two or three bites of pita with labaneh and za’atar (hyssop), and one’s jaw will drop from his stories. Wherever you stop in this country, you happen upon life stories that could fill books.

Alex Levac

Philip Hershberg and Yehuda Nadolni, Zvi’s father, received the farm of 5,600 dunams (1,400 acres) from Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in 1950, in an attempt to put a stop to Bedouin settlement in the area. That’s how things were done in those days: a farm to Meir Har-Zion, a farm to “Kaha” (aka Col. Shimon Kahaner), a farm to Ariel Sharon, too, and one to Hershberg and Nadolni – on condition they halt the spread of the Bedouin who were born here, before they could foment a national catastrophe. The guys from the iconic Israel Defense Forces Unit 101, under the command of Ariel Sharon, helped out in the first years, in an effort to stop the encroachers.

Yochai’s father was an expert on mules, Zvi’s father was an expert on dogs, and that was the source of their friendship. Philip infiltrated the SS; Zvi sent the German armored divisions in the Urals dogs with explosives tied to them, so they would blow up on the German tanks. “It wouldn’t work today,” his son says about the kamikaze dogs organized by his father – who was the first head of the animals division in the Israel Police. Rudolph and Rudolphina Menzel, a couple who immigrated from Austria, were the first dog handlers of the defense establishment, and Nadolni was their star pupil.

Tall tales: Nadolni, Sr. brought the first bloodhounds to Israel from the United States. His son was the first “target” in their training. He would hide the 5-year-old boy in the woods, and the dogs’ mission was to find him by following his footprints. One night, during the sixth training session, neither the dogs nor Zvi’s father found the boy. He spent the night alone, hiding inside a hollow tree trunk, emerging only at dawn. Believe it or not.

“I grew up with that,” the former toddler (now 65) says. “My father told me: ‘You’ll never be an engineer, but you’re good with dogs.’” Zvi left basic training at Rafah after two weeks. His father told his friend and fellow dog lover, then-Chief of Staff Haim Bar-Lev, about Zvi’s skills with canines. The result was the establishment of the IDF’s secret canine unit, with American funding.

“It was super-classified,” Zvi recalls. “It was known as the canine unit for uncovering land mines, in order to conceal its true activity.” Even now he won’t say what its actual objective was, and maybe it’s best we don’t know. The secret unit, headquartered at Training Camp 17, at the Syrkin Base, next to the facility of the ultra-elite Sayeret Matkal commandos, was seconded to the Paratroops and became the progenitor of the Oketz (“sting”) Unit, now deployed in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. As Zvi remembers it, they were initially 22 soldiers under the command of Maj. Yehuda Hanuka. All this is related over pita in labaneh.

On one occasion he was injured. A particularly wild dog arrived and only Zvi could handle it. He asked a soldier for a cigarette, the soldier tossed it to him, and the commando dog, trained to respond aggressively to anything it perceived as a threat, started to bite Nadolni, who protected his body with his hands. When the other soldier hit the dog with a broomstick, the animal became even more fierce, whereupon the soldier shot him with his Uzi. Result: Zvi Nadolni was hit by five bullets. A few years later, the father took his dog-whisperer son and got him a job in the military industries, where he still works.

Zvi was also a Tel Aviv night-life person; at the age of 17 he was a partner in the bohemian club Improvisation, in the Hayarkon Hotel; the club burned down after a few years. He then lived for a while in the Double Chin Club, run by the iconic entertainer Uri Zohar together with Mordechai “Pupik” Arnon. Zvi married a Miss Israel runner-up, Dalia Ben Yehuda, who modeled for the Rosh Indiani fashion firm together with super-model Tami Ben Ami. Dalia became religiously observant 20 years ago, and now she and Zvi, who is secular, share a home in Jerusalem on the edge of the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, Mea She’arim neighborhood, but the family leads different kinds of lives. Their two daughters are Haredi, their two sons are secular: One is a globe-trotting musician, the other is chief tester at Sagi Motors Center in Petah Tikva – he built the track for the electric all-terrain vehicles at Philip Farm. Zvi adds that his brother, David Golan, was a stunt man at Universal Studios in Los Angeles.

Storytelling time on Philip Farm. Nadolni is looking for a writer to do his biography.

“Who does the white Nissan Juke belong to?” someone asks. “It’s blocking the parking lot.”

Mexico a la Rahat

The Bedouin city of Rahat begins with a sheep pen and ends at a graveyard for cars. The cars are interred here vertically, like in Yarkon Cemetery of Metropolitan Tel Aviv. The heaps of metal skeletons create a surrealistic vision. Between the pen and the graveyard lies a quite surprising, vibrant city for a passing guest. Inside a truck of the Zoglobek meat-processing company is a fuel tank, and a young man is selling diesel from it at 4.50 shekels (about $1.25) a liter, far below the going price. On a limestone hill, amid grocery stores, a horse is hidden, within an enclosure the size of its body, and covered with a tarpaulin. Almost all the store signs are in Hebrew, too; some are in Hebrew only.

Three audiology centers, one of which also sells insoles, about half a dozen dental clinics, one of them called “Smile,” an aesthetic-medicine center, gyms. There’s a Salon Golda and a Boutique Judy, three cafes and ice cream parlors called Roma, two Mexican restaurants next to one another: Sombrero and Tortilla. The Bedouin are fond of Mexico.

Large posters invite people to weddings. Local residents say that one can hear the customary, celebratory shooting that goes on at them almost every night until dawn, especially on weekends. Slot machines are being loaded onto a truck of Nissim Refrigeration, importers and marketers of freezers. Desert mirages.

“There’s no one like Mom,” thus reads the tattoo in Hebrew, in large scriptural letters, on the arm of Salem Touri, 22. Five months ago, he opened the Brothers’ Mini-Supermarket in the city’s covered marketplace. Business has been mediocre so far. At midday the store was empty. Rahat, with a population of more than 60,000, is ranked No. 2 on an economic-social scale of 10, in Israel, says Wikipedia. Only 2 percent of the population is age 65 and above; half the residents are under the age of 19.

Alex Levac

“I’m trying to succeed,” says Touri. He grew up among the butcher shops of the Hatikva neighborhood in south Tel Aviv, where he worked and lived. Those were wild years, he recalls now, when he “did stupid things.” That’s what happens when your parents are far away. There are a lot more dangers in Tel Aviv than in Rahat, he adds. Here his parents watch over him. Touri will never again leave his hometown; only here does he feel protected. Like many young people in town, he has no big dreams: He just plans to marry by the age of 24, he doesn’t yet know to whom, raise children and get his business on a solid footing. He had the tattoo done when he lived in Hatikva, and was missing his mother. Now he doesn’t get along with his father.

There are trucks everywhere in Rahat. Many men here are employed as drivers, an in-demand profession around the country because of a shortage of people willing to do the job. There are even trucks parked on the quiet street of mansions in Neighborhood 11, where most of the residents are people of color.

Rahat’s neighborhoods are divided largely along hamula (clan) lines. Sitting in the yard of a corner house that’s not completely built yet is Mussa Siag, from Hura, a nearby Bedouin town, who drives a semitrailer, and his friend O., also a truck driver, whose family owns the house. They’re having an afternoon coffee. Siag works for the trucking firm of Elyakim Ben Ari, from Ashdod. O., who doesn’t want his name published, will be joining the company next week. Siag’s sunglasses are perched on his head, lending him an ultra-Israeli look.

The subject of the local housing crisis came up immediately. Nothing troubles the people of this city more than the housing plight of the younger generation. There are no lots to build on. O. has lived for years in an illegal hut on the edge of town, without paying rent or municipal taxes. Now he’s building an apartment for himself on his family’s property, where there used to be structure housing a kindergarten that was rented out.

“I look at Moshav Klahim [near Sderot],” says O. “Young people [there] get land. It’s heartbreaking. You’re a human being, too. You want to develop, too. As far as I know, we are Israelis. Everyone is equal to everyone. In Be’er Sheva they get, and here, we don’t? It’s not fair.”

O. points to the large two-story home opposite. “Do you know how many people live there? Twelve.” That’s not a lot for two stories. “Not a lot? When I say 12, I’m talking about 12 men. Around 60-70 people live there, including women and children.” He’s 34. “Since the age of 20, I’ve been hearing, ‘Soon they’ll make lots available for us.’ My brother is 27, and he’s not getting married. Where would he live? In the street? He’ll build an [unauthorized] hut and they’ll come and demolish it, while the wife and children will watch?”

Alex Levac

Many of O.’s friends did army service. “Those who enlist – look at their situation. They have nothing to eat and they can’t marry. They just wasted three years for nothing. Some enlist and say, ‘If I’m going to waste time anyway, it there’s nowhere to live anyway, I’ll live in the army.” So how did these handsome homes get built?

O.: “Herzl said, ‘If you will it, it is no dream.’ If [the authorities] provide lots, the Bedouin will build houses like you don’t see even in America. The Bedouin are like the Iraqis. They have a good head.”

O. finished high school but didn’t do matriculation exams. Only about 40 percent of the students in Rahat obtain a matriculation certificate. “I told myself I would go to work. How long is my father going to support me?” His first job was as a tractor driver in Moshav Patish. He was treated well. “Everything is good in this country, except they don’t give out lots to build on.”

Nasser Nasser. He’s 52, from the Tarabin Bedouin tribe, born and raised in Cairo, studied engineering in Sudan. He’s been in Rahat for 22 years, since marrying a local woman. For three years he was a building inspector in the Ashdod Municipality, rarely encountering racism, though once someone said to him, “Go back to your city.” He enjoyed the work in Ashdod, where he was treated more courteously and respectfully than in Rahat.

“What I liked in Ashdod is that they understand what a building violation is,” says Nasser. “Here, no one understands what you want from them. The people here grew up in the desert. No one grew up in a city. They were moved into a city, but no one taught them what a clean city is or what a building violation is.”

Nasser also vied for an inspector’s job in the Ramat Gan Municipality, but in the end decided to remain in Rahat. Now he’s the manager of the city’s infrastructure systems. Only three streets in his city have names: Omar ibn Hattab Street, Yitzhak Rabin Street – whose name was changed at some point to Peace Street for some reason – and Saladin Street. There’s also a new street in the industrial zone: Industry Street.

One time someone fired a gun at Nasser’s house – he too lives in Neighborhood 11 – and he called the police, fearful for his children. The police showed up after half an hour and did nothing. He will never leave his city. This is his home.

Sky-high testosterone

A group of Bedouin young people from the Ziadna tribe, residents of the Bedouin dispersion north of Rahat, arrive in cars at the Philip Farm’s paintball field, accompanied by a photographer, later in the afternoon when we return there, too. A young Jewish Israeli with dreadlocks issues pre-combat orders. “You have to open the safety catch. Once every 50 rounds or so, you’ll feel that you can’t shoot; move the bolt back. The [minimum] allowed firing distance is five meters. Don’t shoot from less than five meters. That’s blood. That’s injuries.”

Alex Levac

These are the sons and other relatives of Selim Ziadna, who for decades has been tilling the farm’s fields. This is the second time they’ve come here to battle, with weapons that don’t require a permit. They put on the face-masks and helmets and also cups to protect the crotch, which makes them giggle. The testosterone is sky-high. The battle is about to begin, in the shadow of olive trees and the car wrecks that are scattered about. The two rival teams have to move a flag from one side to the other, amid the colored pellets.

Dusk fell. A herd of sheep returned from grazing, making their way silently to their pen, licking the last leaves of the day. Arab music wafted from a rusting trailer where a Bedouin family that works here lives. Children drove the electric vehicles on the tracks, the dog Goldie scampered about, and on the paintball field the guy with the dreadlocks gave the signal to commence firing. The combatants charged at one another, rifles at the ready and fire in their eyes. They shouted hoarse throats; perspiring heavily, they shot at one another. No one was injured.

And suddenly, that moment – when no one knew who was a Jew and who was an Arab, the pellets didn’t cause any damage, the sheep returned to their pen and the Arab music rose from the Bedouin trailer, in the place that was founded to stop them from settling – became one of rare enchantment.

Part 3 of this series will appear next Friday.

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