On Zikkim beach, south of Ashkelon, noisy boys with swinging earlocks scurried about last Friday in the early afternoon. Girls in dresses and head coverings swam fully clothed in the water, their mothers shouting at them not to go in too deep. Three little ones stood in a row in the face of the waves, holding hands, thrilled by the shifting foam on the sand. Behind them, easily overlooked signs warned that this was Israel Defense Forces Firing Zone 609, which separates Israel from the Gaza Strip.
Around the happy group loomed remnants of a brown, rusting barbed-wire fence and broken concrete plinths; on the beach nearby, a black skirt was laid out to dry. The father of one of the families, a solidly built man, sat down on a green army jerrican and insisted vehemently that it didn’t bother him to go to a beach that’s also a firing zone. “If they open fire – we’ll crouch down,” he laughed and arranged his shirt, which he’d tied around his head like a hat. He said he can see polluted water that has been carried here from the shores of the Gaza Strip.
“It’s not so terrible, because we don’t drink the water,” he said smiling, and then immediately grew serious. “It’s just that this place makes me nostalgic for the beach at Gush Katif” – a reference to the onetime bloc of Israeli settlements in the Strip that were dismantled in 2005.
The IDF is in possession of more than one-third of the country’s land on both sides of the Green Line. Those areas include some of the most impressive and most popular nature sites in Israel, such as the Dead Sea region, the Ramon Crater and the Golan Heights, but they are also the sites of military facilities and training zones. Some of the latter are closed to the public, among them the Crusader fortress in Atlit Bay and the area near the air force base on beautiful Palmahim beach. However, the IDF allows visits to some of these places on weekends or holidays. Getting into some of them requires prior coordination with the army.
Blond boys who look alike though they are of different sizes began a soccer game between the concrete and the fence. Behind them were the belching smokestacks of Ashkelon’s power plant, and a bridge that stretches out into the sea, part of Firing Zone 610. Lightly sidestepping the metal rods scattered in the sand, the boys skipped about and kicked the ball at a corroding bunker. Their mother, a young woman with a green head covering, said she’d come here because her husband serves as a battalion commander in the area. “We knew it was worthwhile coming to this beach, because it’s lovely here and relatively empty,” she says.
Behind her, a bare-chested bearded man took advantage of the comparative coolness of a canopy that hung between iron storage containers. A large commercial vehicle carrying members of the IDF’s Negev-based Yoav Unit drove into one of the shaded sections. “Everything is fine, folks,” three uniformed men who spilled into the sand from the truck reassured the beach-goers.
On the way to the beach, a determined line of cars led to the entrance of something that resembled an amusement park of tanks. Huge concrete cubes arranged one on top of the other, with incomprehensible Arabic inscriptions sprayed on them, along with “NOV [November] ‘03” and “Savta Samelet” (“Sergeant Grandma”) in Hebrew. Next to them is a tottering tower of Pisa of a bottle-recycling bin and a crooked “Disabled Persons Parking” sign. Behind them, across the concrete mountains, vapors rose from a photogenic old armored personnel carrier.
A young Eritrean man wearing a hat emerged from the path of the Saharonim detention facility for a morning run in Firing Zone 600, before the desert heat surged. Behind him, a row of asylum seekers walked next to an old, rusting train car and an armored personnel carrier, which serves as a monument, that seems to have been dumped in a dirt parking area. An armored military vehicle that looked like a huge bug covered soldiers in a cloud of dust. “Not all firing zones are very pretty,” said Littal, from the coed Caracal Battalion, who had emerged from the vehicle to rest in the shade of a small grove on the fringes of the firing zone. “I like doing army service here, both the landscape and the work, but maybe that’s because I’m not tired of it yet. I’ve only been a soldier for a year.”
Gila, a paramedic, leaning on a dusty pine tree, pointed toward the horizon and suggested that we look for hikers hiding in the old Ottoman train car. “There’s a great view from the engine, and people go there in order to look at birds,” she said. According to Gila, some of the most beautiful nature areas in the country are situated in firing zones. “There’s an amazing place south of here, but it’s closed to hikers most of the time. It’s only open on holidays. We’re there all the time doing our work. It’s the most gorgeous region in the country, kind of virginal.”
Two birdwatchers who were dug in a nearby hideaway, in the hope of spotting a few birds, spoke of a disappointing day, distinguished mainly by the noise of warplanes hurtling across the sky.
Around the tiny community of Azuz, where the sand of Egypt becomes the sand of Israel, two horses and a donkey wandered about indifferently, oblivious to the firing zone marked by a triangular metal pole and a barbed-wire fence that blended in with a tasty bush. Along the path that borders Firing Zone 600, old yellow signs warn travelers, “Caution: Firing zone on the right.” And, “Caution: Firing zone on the left.”
The eastern boundary of the zone, 15 kilometers away, abuts Highway 40, which traverses the Negev. Along the side of the road, between the educational center Midreshet Ben-Gurion and the therapeutic village Shalva Bamidbar, travelers stop on their way to doing the famous nighttime hike in Nahal Hawarim, taking advantage of the strong moonlight of Tu B’Av, the Jewish holiday of love. The road winds southward toward the Arava desert, like a frontier region between Firing Zones 600 and 520. At Mitzpeh Ramon, the road turns sharply and snakes down into the impressive area of the Ramon Crater, a lone island between Firing Zones 1000, 1390 and 1005.
Just as Kees Wisserhof from Holland wonders aloud about whether we are really within an army training area, echoes of explosions boom in the background. He’s standing with his fair-haired family at the edge of the largest IDF firing zone in the country, which is actually a succession of several zones located in the Southern District, as it’s referred to by the army, and covering seven million dunams, or 1.75 million acres – 49 percent of the Negev.
His partner, Jooske, dismisses his words with a wave of her hand. “I noticed that we are in a combat zone, I just repressed it,” she explains. Two tall adolescent girls in hats, Rossa and Kiri, display blatant indifference to the echoing explosions and focus in an attempt to understand their parents’ English. The youngest sister, Freia, is excited at the sight of a dog that decided to lie down in the middle of the dusty ground.
Kees says he chose to tour this area because of the landscape. He knows Israel from his time as a volunteer on Kibbutz Beit Guvrin 20 years ago. “The first time I saw a desert was special for me,” he reminisces. “I’d hoped that they would experience the same feeling.” According to Jooske, the girls have in fact fallen in love with the desert’s distinctiveness. “Before we arrived, I thought a desert was boring, just a lot of sand and stones. But when we got here I was stunned by the beauty of the place,” she says.
Next to the kibbutz that Kees misses, in the heart of Firing Zone 309A, surrounded by hills, the silence of Friday at midday reigns. A small yellow gate marks entry into a training area; scattered inside are a row of structures made of exposed concrete and various sorts of containers. A cacophonous convoy of all-terrain vehicles emerges from the winding dirt road. Mouths covered with cloth and eyes protected by dust goggles, the riders shout directions at one another. Abruptly, the lead rider gives a signal and they hurtle onto the trail, humming past “Firing line” and “Shooting Range 8” signs and spraying gravel on a drowsy soldier sitting nearby.
When Yossi, who’s 56 and lives in the center of the country, goes cycling on weekends, he contemplates coordinating his entry into the IDF’s firing zones. “Sometimes you don’t have to coordinate, because we know the area and the training hours,” he explains. “But it’s not formal, so you have to be careful with it. The bottom line is that it’s better to coordinate.” The disadvantage of arranging a visit with the IDF, he says, is that the army informs the inspectors of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. “That’s not nice of them. The IDF is the biggest destroyer of nature. We’re a bit miffed at that, but there’s no choice. We, with our two wheels, are considered motorized vehicles, supposedly, so the INPA doesn’t let us enter certain areas, such as [nature] reserves.”
According to the IDF, the army “invests large resources protecting the nature reserves in its areas. As part of these protective measures, spraying and other active operations to prevent fires are carried out, firefighting equipment is acquired, the use of combat means in certain areas is prohibited, and coordination with the INPA is reinforced with the aim of stepping up protection of the area.”
Military firing and training areas are not confined to the remote regions of the country. An invisible layer of them exists in the Central District, too. On weekends, 80,000 dunams (20,000 acres) of land that the army uses on weekdays for training purposes become tracks for off-road motorcycles and birdwatchers. One of them, No. 203, is located east of Ben-Gurion International Airport. “Motorcyclists know this area, it’s absolutely incredible, it has one of the best single tracks in Israel,” one of the riders, who also trained in the area during his army service, told us.
When Nitzan Yifrach, a 29-year-old economist from Tel Aviv, asked his partner, Mayan Finkelshtain, 30, an architect, to live by his side forever, he knew they were sitting on a bunker in Firing Zone 123A. “In the army I did a few tours in that firing zone,” Yifrach said in a phone call. “It’s not the first firing zone I’ve hiked in. Even in the army, when you’re walking with so much equipment on you, soldiers behind you, getting a glut of orders, exhausted, with no food and overall filth – you sometimes succeed in not ignoring the landscape. I did five years of service in the IDF, so I walked through plenty of landscapes.
“I don’t like to look at it as a marriage proposal,” Yifrach continued. “I gave her a ring, whose meaning was ‘I am yours for life.’” They stopped there because the rain ended just then, he recalled. “It’s an enchanting place, with a 360-degree view. We saw concrete thrusting out of the wet ground, and we said, ‘Okay, we can put two beach chairs on concrete in this winter.’ The bunkers are buried by earth and cow dung, and we placed the two chairs, which I keep in the car, there.”
Yifrach crossed this vantage point a few times in his army service. “Our relationship has gone through lots of ups and downs,” he said. “If there’s anything that can tell the tale of the ties between me and Mayan, it’s a story that starts in firing zones.”