Wish You Were Here: Holidaying on the Gaza Border

The village of Netiv Ha'asara, next to the Gaza Strip, has turned the security situation to its advantage and launched a campaign to attract tourists. Just don't say it's to die for.

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On a good day

We can’t linger here. “We are in shooting range. They can shoot at us, for sure, without any problem. But we are continuing. Now the wall and Gaza City are coming into view, and behind it you can see the officers’ towers the first place where white flags were held up in Operation Defensive Shield [a large-scale Israeli army operation in the territories, in the spring of 2002]. The wall is actually the Green Line. Because the terrain slopes downward [toward Gaza], we also have a second wall. Here it is, to the right of our houses. You can see it from the village, so it was painted a dune color that way we have less concrete to look at.”

Smadar Shmilovitz does not get flustered. A veteran resident of Netiv Ha’asara a moshav (cooperative farming village) that abuts the Gaza Strip to the north she is always prepared. As a skilled tour guide, she hurries from one place to the next, describing each item she sees with a heady rush of words, not leaving an empty moment.

In fact, she is not even willing to consider the possibility of disaster. “A ‘See-Shoot’ device is installed over there,” she says, continuing to regale us with the realities of the Mideast jungle. She points toward a round, black head-like object with a cylinder at its center. “It’s a machine gun, a computerized system. Women soldiers watch the area all day from a distant base. If anyone approaches the wall, they shoot. They activate the weapons. We have a few like that along the wall.”

It’s midday. When the vehicle stops, she gets out, strides across the soft yellow sand and climbs to the top of a hill. The Palestinian city across the way is simultaneously both a spectacular and bizarre sight. “You can see the sea,” she says. The wind lashes our faces. “The route from here to the sea ends with an electrified fence that separates us from them. The route that runs next to the electrified fence further to the left is the road that once led to Elei Sinai [a former Israeli settlement]. Now it’s inhabited by Bedouin from northern Sinai. They raise crops on the groundwater. The road to Nisanit [another former settlement] ran here, through the abandoned iron gate. You can still see the ruins of the houses on the other side of the wall.”

Shmilovitz, 62, is involved in a new project called Tourism to the Edge. The idea is to lure the public to the moshav, which is situated within touching distance of the separation wall between the Gaza Strip and Israel. The members of the moshav, who first settled in the bloc of Israeli settlements in northern Sinai known as the Yamit District in 1973, will shortly be marking the 30th anniversary of their departure from the old Netiv Ha’asara and the establishment of their new home along the Gaza border in 1982.

The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 severely undermined the village’s security. A young woman, Dana Galkowicz, was killed by a Qassam rocket while visiting her boyfriend at the moshav in July 2005 on the eve of the disengagement and five years later, another rocket killed a Thai farm worker, Manee Singueanphon, 30. Recently, the villagers most of whom are farmers decided to parlay their shaky security situation into a business venture.

The two deaths and other security-related events go unmentioned, but their presence is unrelentingly palpable. “From here you can see Beit Lahia, Jabalya and, on a good day, even the Gaza City marina,” Shmilovitz says. “At the edge, on the shoreline, you can see high towers Gaza’s hotels. Next to us, on the left, that blue structure is the Palestinian border crossing. Next to it, in that gorgeous white structure, is the most advanced border-crossing station in the world, without human contact: our Erez checkpoint. Close by is the office of the coordination and liaison unit with the Palestinians. After the wall, the border route continues and passes by Kibbutz Nir Am,returns to Beit Hanun [in Gaza], behind Kfar Aza, then runs to Kibbutz Nahal Oz and Kibbutz Kerem Shalom. Here are our hothouses.”

Smadar Shmilovitz, a tour guide in Netiv Ha'asara.
The hothouses at Netiv Ha'asara.
Architect Zvi Pasternak, the driving force behind the project at Netiv Ha'asara.
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Smadar Shmilovitz, a tour guide in Netiv Ha'asara.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
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The hothouses at Netiv Ha'asara.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
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Architect Zvi Pasternak, the driving force behind the project at Netiv Ha'asara.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Where do we go from here?

“We will continue in another minute and stop in a farm to pick organic vegetables, in the hothouses where Shaked’s Cucumbers are grown. At the end, there is a bus where you can buy coffee.”

Complex situation

The unique Tourism to the Edge project was devised in a rural-tourism course which was jointly organized and financed by the Hof Ashkelon Regional Council and the Tourism Ministry. The head of the regional council, Yair Farjoun, says he was immediately taken by the vision to promote “security tourism” in his area. “I could just as easily have neglected tourism here, because of our problematic security situation,” he says, “but I think that would be a mistake. I prefer to sell our wares to the public.”

Farjoun entered politics after a 30-year career in the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel which included founding and managing a field school.

Speaking at his home in Nitzan (a community between Ashdod and Ashkelon), he adds, “I believe that people who live within this area but make their living outside it have cognitive dissonance. If you earn a living elsewhere and have only security problems at home, maybe you’re better off living somewhere else, too so what’s the point of staying here?” he asks, tugging on his unkempt black beard. “My point of departure is that we need to cultivate, in both the individual and the community, a fondness for the region in which they live.”

He is determined to implant a sense of pride “and loyalty to the place,” he says, but is also aware of the difficulties he faces. “People who live in a security situation like ours, which characterizes all the communities around Gaza, adopt different norms of behavior. They simply accustom themselves to living with tension. Nearly half the communities in our regional council lie in the ‘Gaza envelope.’ Some of them, such as Netiv Ha’asara, are right on the fence. Most of us are within daily range of threat. On the face of it, we have become used to living with constant anxiety, in a complex reality. Since September 1 alone, six Qassam rockets have landed within the council’s area.”

One such case occurred three weeks ago, on a Saturday evening, while the singer Shlomo Gronich was giving a performance at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai.

"After two songs I received a report that two rockets had been fired at us,” Farjoun recalls. “One rocket landed in an open field, the other near the entrance to Kibbutz Zikim, about four kilometers from Yad Mordechai. My dilemma was: Should we evacuate 400 people from the hall, or should I say nothing? Maybe only inform them? It’s difficult to figure all the angles, because it’s a fluid situation. Possibly after one launch the army will immediately take out the launch squad, and that might spark a volley of 30 more rockets. Things can flare up here within an hour.”

One might think it would be preferable to play down the situation, but you have chosen the opposite route.

“Just so. Every tourism brand sets out to make known the uniqueness of the place for example, to stress that you are situated at the highest spot. Here we are saying to the public: come to the southwestern-most point in Israel, which is situated right along the Gaza fence. Come and have a special experience.”

You could also phrase it: Come to one of the most dangerous places in the country!

“I would not put it like that, though the point is clear and we are not trying to play down or hide the situation we live in. To hide reality is unhealthy. You can’t hide an existing reality. On the contrary: I want to expose the situation, and even say to people that it’s worth their while to see what we see from our windows, feel what we feel. People hear so much about the Gaza Strip in the news, but they don’t know much about it. Many Israelis have never seen Gaza. Many just talk, rocking in their armchair in Rishon Letzion or Tel Aviv and talking.”

What do you think visitors will gain from viewing Gaza from an armored observation point?

“It is important to be positioned opposite this city, even without entering. This is where the big political questions will be asked. People go to a hill on the Golan Heights and view Kuneitra, which is in Syria. It’s the same idea. It’s special, even thrilling. Some will say, ‘We were in Netiv Ha’asara. We saw crowded Gaza, how a million and a half people are chafing under occupation, while across the way Jews live in luxury, in open spaces. What kind of lousy Jews are we?’ Others might be impressed by the severe situation of the people who live in Netiv Ha’asara, below a wall, under constant risk, with intense mental fear. On the front line. The interpretation is open.”

Working from below

The driving force behind the unusual project at Netiv Ha’asara whose name commemorates 10 Israeli soldiers who were killed in a helicopter crash in northern Sinai in 1971 is the architect Zvi Pasternak. Born in Dimona, he now lives in Moshav Tzofit, near Kfar Sava, in the center of the country. We meet in the village club at Netiv Ha’asara. He describes his vision with the aid of a visual presentation in which short, succinct messages appear on a screen.

For some years, Pasternak has been working with various government ministries to promote tourism in outlying areas. He has had impressive success in encouraging tourism to Druze and Circassian villages in Galilee.

“Even though architects generally like to draw lines from above and impose them on the territory, my idea in each place has been to work from the bottom, from the people,” Pasternak says. “In outlying areas, I believe it is better to avoid unconventional projects which require complex statutory approvals by committees. Because it’s not easy to find entrepreneurs who are eager to work in those areas, I advocate a completely different approach. The goal is to move ahead with the existing human element. In other words, to create tourism interest in a place through the people who live there.”

Pasternak began working with the Hof Ashkelon Regional Council a year ago and coined the phrase Tourism to the Edge. “The point is simple,” he says.

"When I visited the area for the first time, I passed Yad Mordechai Junction. I found a lot of tourism flyers there, but not so much as one page of information about tourist attractions in the Hof Ashkelon area. It was incredible. My idea was to start with the communities which generate polarity by their nature, such as Netiv Ha’asara, which is next to the separation wall; or Moshav Mishan, a traditionalist village which has seven synagogues; or Nitzan, where the evacuees of the Gaza Strip settlements live.”

Pasternak’s words are momentarily drowned out by the boom of a warplane that breaks the sound barrier, rattling the club’s windows. “It all depends on the ability to find as many small initiatives as possible, which have a connecting link and will induce visitors to spend time in the place,” he says. “If someone comes to Netiv Ha’asara and leaves 20 minutes later, we haven’t done our work properly. That is why from the outset we invested our major efforts in designing a totality of attractions that would be meaningful to Israeli visitors. Our motto in this context is, ‘If God gave you a lemon, make lemonade out of it.’ The thinking was to take the security problem and leverage it for our benefit.”

Was your idea to market Netiv Ha’asara in this way accepted immediately?

“No. Some people wanted to know why we should play up the fact that we are in the front line of rocket attacks. But there was also a good response by people who were ready to move ahead with me. A tourism committee was formed and people started to talk and think tourism, to come up with and implement personal projects. We were also able to create joint projects, such as the spa, which brings together seven alternative therapists. That’s a field that has developed a lot in the wake of the security pressures. It is now possible to reach them through one number.”

What you have done here is very odd.

“It’s a whole different story here. Definitely. We took a place which would seem to be the antithesis to tourism and turned it into a tourism engine.”

Panoramic view

The project is set to be launched next week, during the Sukkot holiday. “We started the tourism course last November, and we are already working,” Ifat Ben-Shoshan says with pride. “Our point of reference was the Red South Festival, which is held every February in the Negev and revolves around the flowering of the anemones. Thousands of people from all over the country come to the area, but regrettably they turn left at Yad Mordechai Junction and skip us.”

A member of the local tourism committee, Ben-Shoshan says the committee set out to bring about a minor change in the visitors’ route. “We realized that the smart thing would be to use local fixtures to attract people, even if that meant ‘exploiting’ the wall,” notes Ben-Shoshan, who was formerly the director of the production department in the Second Television and Radio Authority. “The wall is not the heart of the matter,” she adds, “but if people come here anyway out of curiosity and conduct tours either privately or in organized groups then why not? It’s nothing to be ashamed of. There is a wall and there is a beautiful observation site of 280 degrees, from the sea to Kibbutz Nir Am. There are also gorgeous sand dunes and a farm where you can pick your own organic vegetables, and a spa. It’s diverse.”

We are in her home, which is 30 meters from the wall: it’s visible from the bedroom and through the window in the living room. “This kind of life means you have to be vigilant at all times when it comes to the children,” she admits, sipping a cup of coffee. “At first my son screamed hysterically when he heard the Red Alert warning. Now he is able to cope. He knows that the alert and the wall are not threatening, but that they help us stay alive. There are still stressful moments, such as when the children are out on their bikes and see a rocket intercepted in the sky. But we must not allow fear to enter. People who get into a blue funk cannot live here. The tension is impossible and the fear eats you from within.”

What prompts secular people who have no religious attachment to the soil to stay here and put your families at risk?

“Danger does not constitute the majority of our life. Most of our life consists of lovely, quiet moments. We live in wide-open spaces, in the house and outside. We feel good here. The community life in the village is wonderful. We celebrate all the holidays together. Last year, for example, we built one sukkah for everyone. This is our home. As children we played in the dunes, before there were sidewalks and asphalt roads. My parents and my sister live here. Life is certainly more complicated than in other parts of the country, but that’s how life is in Israel. If there is an attack on Iran tomorrow, people in Tel Aviv will also make for bomb shelters and look for a protected space. This is not Canada.”

Did you have hesitations about starting a tourism and holiday project in an area where there is fighting?

“Yes, of course. No one here is hallucinating. We are aware that our story, which includes a wall, a border and Qassam rockets, can deter certain people. But tourism in Upper Galilee overcame the Katyusha rockets, and after the Second Lebanon War the Bed & Breakfast occupancy returned to its former level and even increased. So it is possible to generate tourism in this situation. In any event, a protected space is available from every place in the village within 20 seconds. There are places to shelter here, God be blessed. I am actually more afraid in Ashdod, because there I don’t know where to run to.”

Tell me about the concrete evidence you got about the project’s complexity when you presented it to various officials a month ago.

“Well, we invited representatives of the Tourism Ministry, the Jewish National Fund, the Negev Development Authority and local leaders everyone who is involved in rural tourism in Israel. In the middle of the tour, rockets were fired at Yad Mordechai. Then we had a Red Alert. Afterward we continued, but when we were in the club for the project presentations, there was another alert and Qassam rockets were fired. Someone asked whether we had coordinated the firing with Hamas, and then we all entered the secure space. There were about 70 people. We came out a few minutes later and went on with the presentations.”

What is your part in the project?

“I market documentary films all over the country. I distribute films that have been screened in festivals and organized screenings. Amid raising public funds for the screenings charges for outlying districts are reduced I connect between the filmmakers and the audience that is thirsty for documentaries. My project in Tourism to the Edge is a documentary film festival that will take place next Shavuot [mid-May 2013]. The festival will be held here, in an outdoor setting with 300 seats, on a huge screen of 30 x 40 meters.” 

Gigantic letters

One of the standout projects at Netiv Ha’asara is being implemented by Tzameret Zamir, who runs a ceramics workshop in the village. She is waiting below the nine-meter-high wall, next to a guard post occupied by a lone female soldier, above whom a camouflage net stretches sloppily. “I find the story of the wall very touching,” Zamir says. “I was here when it was built. I saw them put it together, like a huge jigsaw puzzle, section by section, closing the horizon for us, shutting down the familiar landscape. The wall is something momentous which affects everyone here. On the one hand, it is very frightening and off-putting; on the other, it accords us a great deal of security.”

Against the background noise of a passing tractor, she recalls how the village’s tranquil way of life was violated immediately after the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip. “The border suddenly drew close. Hamas men waving green flags were perched on the hills opposite. A strange situation was created.

Because our village also stands on a hill, the wall which ran along the border in the valley below did not really create a barrier between us. They could see us and we could see them. They stood on the hill and shouted. It was scary, because they would look at us when we were in our homes. That’s why the second wall was built, to provide protection against direct shooting.”

Nevertheless, Zamir went on dreaming. “I often toyed with the idea that something could be done with the wall,” she says, laughing. “I came up with all kinds of ideas. Recently, while looking for tourism projects, I had the idea to attach pieces of mosaic to the wall. I admit that I was a bit skeptical at first, but we got positive feedback. Later, I tried to figure out how I could adapt the idea to what I passionately believe in. Even if many people say I am naive, I aspire to peace and that became the theme of the project.”

Zamir calls her project “Path of Peace.” “Based on the same point of departure,” she notes, “the explanatory page that will be distributed to the visitors is in three languages: Hebrew, Arabic and English. Obviously, peace is made with enemies, and you have to talk to them. I also believe that the other side also wants to live a normal life, just like us, to forge a high-quality family life and make an honorable living. I plan to write the words ‘Path to Peace’ on the wall in huge letters. The visitors will stick the mosaics on the letters, and above that I myself will make a huge dove with an olive branch.”

Some people might see the security tourism here as a very sad metaphor for life in Israel. What are your thoughts?

“I see things differently, of course. There was a very rough period here in the war, but there was resilience, a strong force that held us together. I find a parallel between the mosaic and our life here. The mosaic is a collection of individual pieces which are glued together and create a whole that is bigger and more beautiful than its parts. The whole work is made possible thanks to the partnership between the people of the moshav and the outside visitors. I feel that those who will come here to attach a stone to the wall share the belief that, one day, our heart’s wish for a life of tranquillity, for the dream of peace, will be fulfilled.”

Shmilovitz, the veteran tour guide, agrees. “Despite the fact that we are constantly being hit by rockets, in the middle of the day you hear the jubilant sound of infants,” she says. “People can learn something here about life in our country mainly that there is no reason to grumble all the time. We, who are on the border and taking all the dreck so that people can walk about freely elsewhere, say: ‘Life here is good.’ There is no problem for a couple with three children to drive down on Shabbat it’s 40 minutes from Tel Aviv. Leave the children at the mosaics with Tzameret, have massage therapy and then go and pick a few vegetables. You can easily spend three and a half hours here. What could be bad?”

The road along the Gaza border in Netiv Ha'asara.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum