Any effort to develop tourism in this place might sound delusional, divorced from reality and a sure recipe for failure. Only a few days before our visit to the new viewpoint in Netiv Ha’asara, a small Israeli village overlooking the Gaza Strip, rockets have been fired at the area. But residents and entrepreneurs alike seem excited to turn the Israel-Gaza conflict into a touristic opportunity.
Perhaps Netiv Ha’asara, with its proximity to Gaza, could become Israel’s very own extreme tourism attraction. Think storm chasing or volcano boarding, but with a geopolitical twist.
The observation point will open to the public in a few weeks, affording visitors a view of the area from a relatively high spot. You can clearly see the northern neighborhoods of Gaza City and the buildings in southern Ashkelon. You also see the lovely expanses of sand, the Shikma reservoir and nearby Kibbutz Zikim, and the chimneys of the Ashkelon power station.
Visibility is poor, but the white homes of Gaza look close. The high residential buildings and densely packed dwellings seem almost at arm’s length. Gaza has suddenly turned from some vague and threatening concept into a tangible residential city.
A short conversation with a group of young Americans who had come for a two-hour visit revealed that none of them had known anything about the place before visiting it. When asked who was afraid to be spending time so close to Gaza, around half raised their hands.
“We now understand that Netiv Ha’asara is an exact microcosm of Israel,” one of the tourists ventures. He says the village, like Israel, is a small entity that suffers from constant warfare, but people still live there despite the difficulty and the risk. “They could leave, but they keep on living relatively normal lives here,” he notes. For them as tourists, he adds, that was fascinating. Would they advise friends to visit? A clear majority say yes.
Suzi Wachs, a longtime resident of the moshav, shows visitors some pieces of metal from mortars that had fallen in the community and a broken piece of an Iron Dome interceptor, and then points to a large map to clarify where we are located. Most of her remarks are personal, pleasant and heartrending. She speaks about her grandchildren, about children who had grown up on the moshav and on the resilience of the local community. She does not present the members of Netiv Ha’asara as long-suffering heroes.
At the end of her talk a member of the group asks what Gaza residents think of Netiv Ha’asara. Wachs answers honestly that she does not know. She remains in telephone contact with some of the Palestinians who worked in the moshav greenhouses in the past, she says, but doesn’t talk to them frequently. Even when she does speak to them, she stresses, she refrains from talking politics; the conversations deal only with personal questions about children and grandchildren.
Drawn by the risks
Smadar Shmilovitz and Liat Sahar coordinate the tourism activities at Netiv Ha’asara for the moshav’s agricultural committee. They operate one tourism initiative, but there are others in the community that both compete and cooperate with one another. In a detailed but vigorous explanation (“I have a group at 10:30”), Shmilovitz recounts the history of the community.
In 1982, 70 families arrived here after being evacuated from the settlement of Yamit in the Sinai Peninsula as part of the peace agreement with Egypt. The moshav now comprises 230 families, with another 70 families in the process of building their homes. Demand far outstrips supply. Shmilovitz says that no family left Netiv Ha’asara after the difficult period of the Gaza war in the summer of 2014.
On the day we visit, Shmilovitz was expecting three buses of foreign tour groups. Of the 300 tour buses that come to Netiv Ha’asara annually, around a third bring foreign tourists.
“Our guests leave here thrilled,” Shmilovitz says. “We tell them a happy and personal story. We show them an Israeli pearl.” It’s not clear whether the rise and fall in the number of visitors to Netiv Ha’asara correlates to how frequently the Israeli communities abutting Gaza are featured on the news. Despite the recent increased tensions along the border, Shimlovitz says there have been no cancellations.
“Now everyone know who and where we are,” she says with a smile, as she hurries to welcome another group. She adds that as far as she’s concerned, the biggest surprise is that visitors often inquire about places to stay overnight. There are no lodging options at Netiv Ha’asara for now, but the matter is seriously being looked into. “To us it’s weird that they’d want to sleep here. It’s apparently related to looking for a thrill and being proud of having visited a dangerous place without fear,” she says.
A short drive of a few minutes leads from the lookout point to the southern edge of the moshav. There, on a protective wall that shields residents and visitors from direct fire from the Strip, ceramic artist Tzameret Zamir has developed the most popular initiative on the tour. Netiv Hashalom (“Path to Peace”) is a colorful picture on a gray wall. Guests come to Zamir’s pottery workshop; at the end of the hour-long visit, they choose colorful stones, write wishes on them and affix them to the wall. Thousands of stones have been glued there over the past six years.
“Here there is the joint power of a lot of people who overcome the fear and create hope,” Zamir explains. “At the beginning, when I painted a peace dove on this gray wall, in a place where no one dared stand for fear of the shooting, they said I was crazy. My aim was to have people come to the moshav without being afraid. Since then six years have passed and every day I get between two to four buses of visitors. I didn’t plan for this to happen, but it’s wonderful.
“At the time they told me it was a mistake to write the word ‘peace’ on the wall, but I think it’s the most important thing,” she continues, “to talk about tolerance and to see the beauty and the possibility of talking to the other side, and also among ourselves. On the Israeli side and also with Gaza.” She says there are people with different political opinions on the moshav, but the community is stronger than any differences. “It’s important to know how to live with one another. To listen,” she says.
Roni Keidar, a member of the organization Kol Aher (“Another Voice”), represents another side of Netiv Ha’asara’s tourism “industry.” She also tells visitors about life in the shadow of the wall, but immediately makes it clear that “Most of those who come to me know that I have a different outlook. They know that I’m sensitive to the people on the other side of the wall. It’s important to me that they understand that our lives are dependent on one another. That’s the way I deal with the fear and I respect the fact that each of us has his own way of coping with it.”
Keidar emphasizes that she hasn’t adopted the position of any specific political party but is simply expressing human concern about the other side. She has many contacts in Gaza and sometimes calls them so that they can explain their positions and opinions to the visiting tourists. She notes that during the 2014 Gaza war, her house received a direct hit.
“Not everyone in Netiv Ha’asara shares my views and that’s all right,“ she says. ”Smadar Shmilovitz once told me that she doesn’t have the faith I have, ‘but if there’s even a shred of hope, we’re behind you.’ Those were important words for me.” Like the other speakers on the tour, Keidar also stressed the social cohesion of the moshav, but at the same time mentions that two years ago singer Achinoam Nini was supposed to perform at a festival there and several people in the community objected, because of her [left-wing] political views. “We remained friends after that incident, that’s our strength,” Kedar sums up. She works as a volunteer, and when tourists offer to pay her, she asks them to instead donate to Kol Aher.
A few hours later, in Ashkelon, I find myself almost automatically searching for the closest bomb shelter.