The ANZAC memorial, Beeri forest
Photos & text: Lydia Aisenberg
Although I have been living in Israel since the 1960s and have for many years been dealing with educational tourism, I had always considered the Western Negev too off-the-beaten-track for most overseas visitors. Also many Israelis when out and about neglected to take in this amazing part of the country.
During Operation Protective Edge, as the Israel-Palestinian conflict raged, not only were Israelis from all over the country focusing on what was commonly known as the ‘Gaza Wrap’ or ‘Gaza Envelope’, but so also was the rest of the world. The residents of the region refer to it as the Western Negev and are more than peeved by the constant use of the Gaza related names.
An invitation by highly accomplished guide and historian Joe Perlov to join him for a tour of the Western Negev proved to be a memorable day seeing the region through his eyes, his stories and his bottomless barrel of passion for the area where he also made his home.
At one point travelling along an extremely dry, dusty and exceedingly bumpy track, I had the feeling that breaking an ankle sitting down would definitely be within the realm of possibilities! The vehicle in question was a large 4x4 driven by Perlov, a former American with a deep passion for the Jewish people and Israel, and who is particularly mesmerized by the Western Negev, where he has resided since making aliyah in the early 1970s.
The 6 ft. something larger-than-life former Philadelphian is the founder and executive director of Israel Experts, one of the country’s largest and most successful educational tour operators dealing with thousands of Birthright and other first-timers visiting the country, synagogue congregations, politicians, pilgrims – the list just goes on and on.
“I started up the company with money I borrowed from my father and sister and it has been a long haul to success, but I'm not sorry for one single grain of pain and sand along the way,” said Joe, whose sister Adele eventually also joined him in the company.
A short time after leaving the Israel Experts headquarters in Yavne, Joe started an astounding running commentary on what one can – or cannot – see from the road. At the entrance to the port city of Ashdod, he stopped at an unusual (and in my case, shamefully never heard of) obelisk memorial to soldiers who lost their lives in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. The memorial is named Ad Halom which literally translates to “up to here”. The soldiers memorialized are Egyptian, and the site marks the most northern point the Egyptian Army reached following fierce battles during the War of Independence, with heavy losses on both sides.
After the signing of the Israel-Egyptian Peace Treaty, Israel invited Egypt to build an obelisk memorial for Egyptian soldiers who fell at the Ad Halom Bridge alongside the memorial for Israel’s fallen soldiers. The inscriptions on the four sides of the obelisk are in Hebrew, Arabic, English and hieroglyphics. A sign in Hebrew and English put up by the Ashdod Municipality and situated at the pathway entrance reads: This is a memorial for Egyptian soldiers who fell in the battles of Ashdod during Israel’s War of Independence. Please help us maintain the dignity of this site.
Apart from the obelisk memorial there is a renovated British-built pillbox fortification that was also used by the Haganah, and the remains of an Egyptian bunker in the Ad Halom Park. The close-by Ashdod railway station is also named Ad Halom.
Back on the main highway, Ashkelon's high-rise buildings can be seen against the skyline, followed by additional modern high-rise buildings – only these are the northern neighborhoods of Gaza, and a sign points the way to the Erez checkpoint.
We entered Netiv Ha’asara, a moshav hugging – if one can use that expression when dealing with such stark realities as meters-high defenses literally at the bottom of the garden – the border separating the Israeli families from hundreds of thousands of Gazan Palestinians immediately on the other side. The call of a Gazan muezzin from a mosque over the wall was as clear as a bell. A flock of pigeons took off from the top of a minaret as soon as the call for prayer began broadcasting, giving new meaning to the expression on the wings of a prayer as some of the birds flew over toward the Israeli side.
The original Netiv Ha’asara (the path of the ten) was founded in 1973 in the Sinai Peninsula near Yamit, named after ten soldiers who had perished in a helicopter accident in the region two years earlier. Evacuated as part of the Camp David Accords, many of the families resettled in the north-western Negev, directly across from Gaza, keeping the same name as their destroyed Sinai settlement.
In some parts of the ominous defense system, concrete walls stand high against the bright blue sky, parts of the walls decorated by artists and visiting groups participating in the Path to Shalom project organized by members of the moshav. Sections of the concrete slabs are covered with mosaics and pebbles decorated in many styles over the years. Most contain the words shalom, salaam and peace and images of doves (not pigeons) are abundant. It is somewhat surrealistic that the colorful, tasteful and creative artwork on the walls can be seen only by one side of the conflict-laden divide, the Israeli side.
The Path to Peace project at Moshav Netiv Ha’asara
Leaving Netiv Ha’asara we headed for the Black Arrows Memorial near Kibbutz Nir Am.
Perched on a hill overlooking a portion of the patrol road and electronic fence surrounding the Gaza Strip, the memorial affords a view over Palestinian Gaza neighborhoods and the Mediterranean beyond. Large color photos in metal frames describe the view you see directly in front of you, naming each of the Gaza neighborhoods included in the daunting vista before you. The sheer size of the site, and the number of soldiers and civilians memorialized on clusters of 3-meter high white rocks placed around the site, forcefully bring home the heavy Israeli losses incurred in military and terrorist action over a three-year period in the 1950s. The Black Arrows memorial site is a history lesson hewn in stone and totally overwhelming.
Continuing on to the extensive Beeri forest, Joe Perlov and his 4x4 took on extremely rough tracks in the sand dunes and Negev soil, rocking and rolling driver and passengers from side to side, up and down, in an extraordinary but also slightly frightening adventure.
Then, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, we came to an unusual memorial honoring soldiers of the Australian and New Zealand Armored Corps (ANZAC) who died in the battle for Gaza in World War 1. Built on a hill with a marvellous view over the tops of eucalyptus trees and the security fence into Gaza, one is basically looking over extensive World War 1 battlefields, and with a little imagination, a few riders on horseback in the near distance could well have been the proud mounted ANZAC troops from Oz and New Zealand coming forth to tell their brave tale. Around the site large signs in Hebrew and English, with photographs and detailed text of the ANZAC battles in the region, made fascinating reading whilst standing under the shade-giving eucalpytus trees, which are also a long way from their native Australia.
Not far from this site, one can see the remains of enormous WW2 British-built bunker-style ammunition storehouses and the outbuildings of the sulphur mines and processing factory, operative from 1933 until the mid-1940s. The processed sulphur was exported through the port of Gaza, the British having paved a road especially for this purpose.
In the vicinity of Kibbutz Nirim is the intriguing mosaic floor of an ancient synagogue from the time of the Mishnah and Talmud, known as the Maon antiquities. The large, impressive mosaic floor depicts Jewish ritual objects and wildlife in large medallions, and nearby is a restored mikveh. The mosaic and mikveh were discovered in the 1950s by a tractor driver ploughing a field, who ended up not only turning over the top soil but ploughing up a large chunk of Jewish history as well.
“The Maon synagogue dates back to Roman and Byzantine times. Modern archaeologists suggest that this was the site of a small Jewish community that was abandoned at the time of the Arab conquest. The mosaic floor is one of the best preserved on display in Israel at its original location,” Joe explained.
The mikveh alongside the Maon ancient synagogue near Kibbutz Nirim
With a few more stops along the way we reached the Kerem Shalom checkpoint, frequently in the news, where Israeli and Egyptian flags were flapping in a breeze a short distance one from the other. No differences here, they flap noisily together in the same direction at the same time, or flop languidly against the flagpoles when the wind abates.
A short distance from the checkpoint and within sight of the border fence with Egypt is a field of remembrance of a different kind. The rubble of Yamit, a literal concrete cemetery of the remains of the dreams of hundreds of Israeli families who built up and settled in the Sinai town and surrounding communities after 1967, only to have to leave their islands of Utopia in the desert by the sea as a result of the 1979 Peace Treaty with Egypt.
The mostly prefabricated buildings of Yamit were bulldozed before the area was handed over to the Egyptians in 1982. The rubble was trucked just over the border into Israel. This large area of heart-wrenching wasteland is strewn with the walls, windows and doorless entrances to what had been, for a relatively short time, family homes. Sections of tiled walls from bathrooms, pieces of sinks and toilet bowls peek out from under the short and high undergrowth, slowly but surely covering over a painful period for those who had had to leave.
Originally most of it was buried under sand, but over the years, heavy winds and other natural and unnatural weather patterns have slowly but surely once more bared the silent and unintended memorial to Yamit and the other Sinai communities, given up 30 years ago in the name of a peace that is yet to come. Poignantly as we were about to leave, a flock of storks swooped over, then landed on a few piles of concrete to take a break from their lengthy travels. Normally these birds are seen as bearers of new- born life, but here they were resting up on a symbol of exactly the opposite.
A field across from the remnants of Yamit is one of the largest memorials to Israel’s fallen soldiers to be found in the country. The enormous and chilling Pladah (Armor) Memorial is in memory of combatants who died in the 1967 war in Sinai.
The Armored Division is made up of 400 concrete poles with pieces of tank, armored vehicles and helmets on top of each pole. The names of the IDF soldiers who fell in the Sinai Peninsula during that war are engraved on large concrete plates at the foot of the memorial.
The original Armored Division memorial was constructed in 1977 in the Yamit city center, some 30 kilometers into the Sinai desert. Following the peace agreement the memorial was dismantled and reconstructed at the present site from where, perched on the top of the gigantic central tower, one gets a view not unlike that seen by the flock of storks – over the present-day most densely populated place on earth, Gaza.
A large sign at the entrance to the memorial quotes one of Israel’s most controversial characters - former Irgun fighter, former member of the Israeli Knesset and prolific writer Uri Avneri, founder of the Gush Shalom movement. The large sign reads:
It was not the steel of the tanks that won the war, but the strength and dedication of the young people who fought the battle.
Physically, emotionally and spiritually exhausted, I have, however, been left with an insatiable appetite to return to see and learn more about this fascinating region of the country. I could not resist asking Joe, the energetic guide and educator par excellence, a walking, talking, gesticulating almanac on two legs and four wheels, about the source of his never-ending enthusiasm for this part of the country.
“For me it’s the excitement of the unknown that makes touring fun. The off-the-beaten-track sites of Israel are what attracted me to educational tourism. Not very different than how I felt as a child wandering through places I shouldn’t have been, I am drawn to the sites that are not often travelled or explored, and the Western Negev, bordering the Gaza Strip and Egyptian Republic, are all full of surprises and just the place for me,” he answered.