Image courtesy of Steven Branco
It has been two months since I came back from Israel and people still ask me what my favourite part of the trip was. It is a question that I find impossible to answer. The trip has become a series of moments and a blur of places. Each place has their own story, but none more than Netiv Ha’asara – a small Moshav (cooperative agricultural community) that is the closest Israeli community to the Gaza Strip. The distance is 400 metres away or a little less than a 5 minute walk. Just to give you some perspective, the distance from Niagara Falls, Canada to Niagara Falls, US is around 5.6 kilometres. When we first were told that we would be visiting Netiv Ha’asara, I was filled with a sense of excitement. How many people get to visit this place? Other people may be a little fearful, but I knew that by going, that I would be able to see things differently. It would not just be my own love of the country of Israel – it would be seeing, first hand, the day to day struggles of people living under the threat of rocket fire and now, the thousands of burning kites.
To get to the Moshav, we drove through an imposing gate with barbed wire – it gave off a prison-like feel. This quickly dissipated when we stepped out of the van into the hot, desert sunshine. A short distance away, we could hear children laughing and playing in a pool. It felt like we could be anywhere in the world. We were met by a resident and we walked a short distance to a building that was the community bomb shelter. It was larger than I expected and looked more like a place where you would have a town hall meeting versus a safe haven from missiles. He explained the founding of the Moshav (they moved from the Sinai Peninsula after the Egytian/Israeli Peace Accords when they were displaced) which is why they feel that they cannot move. He showed us some of the Qassam Rockets that rained regularly on the community. We had the chance to hold them and they are quite heavy and capable of a lot of damage. He also showed us an Iron Dome which Israel uses to intercept and destroy the rockets. He patiently took our questions, but one question that he was not sure of is how much longer he could live with the rocket threat.
We were then taken a short distance to an outlook where you could Jabalia (Gaza) a very short distance away. It really brought home, to me and my traveling companions, how precarious the situation was for these residents. As we drove another short distance, we could see these little buildings decorated with artwork. They were bomb shelters, decorated for and by children to make them less scary. When an air siren goes off, the people (including the children) of the community have 15 seconds to get into a bomb shelter. Imagine living your life that way. We were dropped off at the Path to Peace (Netiv Hashalom) Visitor Centre where we had the pleasure of meeting its owner, Tzameret Zamir, Zamir lives in a house that is closest to the imposing gray walls that protect the people in Netiv Ha’asara from gunfire from the Gaza Strip. We were shown in and told to select a colourful tile with a saying on it; I selected happiness. We then sat and watched a movie about Zamir, her daughter and the Moshav that they call home.
We learned more about Zamir and what the Path to Peace is. We took a moment to write a wish on the back on the small tile we were given. We walked beyond the Visitor Centre (which is attached to her home) to the walls that protect the Moshav. The walls, huge and imposing, are covered with a sign made up of thousands of tiny mosaic pieces, like the ones we just wrote our wishes on. On one wall, there are doves and peace signs with Path to Peace written in English, Hebrew and Arabic. On other, smaller walls, there are butterflies and flowers and an Israeli Flag mosaic lives on yet another wall. It was overwhelming. There, the scale of what Zamir has created finally made sense. She told us that she wanted to create these beautiful works of art so that the first thing that the Gazans see is something beautiful and welcoming when they look across at Israel.
Image courtesy of Steven Branco
We each placed our tiles down and took a photo. We had just a brief time to walk around before our visit came to an end. I hugged Zamir and told her what an incredible person that she is and how moved I was by the experience. I was also a little embarrassed that I did not know about the place or the Path to Peace artwork. It is, of course, not controversial enough to make conventional news. It is also too positive of a story to get any traction. It is a reminder of possibility in these very dark times. The residents of Nativ Ha’asara do not hate the people on the other side of the wall. They want peace and this wall is there as a reminder to all that anything is possible if you set aside fear and embrace hope.