We continued our exploration of the modern period with today’s trip to learn about the settlement of the Negev, the desert region in the south of Israel. Although the region has had some sparse habitation over history, in the Ottoman period the residents consisted of nomadic Bedouin tribes. The harsh conditions with little water and extreme temperatures did not make settlement overly appealing.
Still, the Ottomans established the city of Beer Sheva anew in 1900 and with the extension of the train to the area came renewed interest in settling it among the Zionists. Particularly David Ben Gurion, the future Prime Minister, saw it as a priority, and believed that the ingenuity of the Zionist movement would overcome any potential barriers.
Our first site of the day was the Museum of Water and Security at kibbutz Nir Am, situated a few km away from the border with Gaza. After conducting a geological survey of the area, the Zionists discovered a significant amount of groundwater here. Purchasing old piping from the UK (which had been laid in London to help deal with potential fires during German WWII bombing) they laid out a network to the early Jewish settlements in the area to provide them with water. They also pioneered drip irrigation techniques to help develop agriculture.
We left the kibbutz, stopping for a look out over into the Gaza Strip before visiting the Black Arrow memorial. Named after a major paratrooper operation into Egyptian controlled Gaza in the 1950s, this site is dedicated to the famous ‘reprisal’ actions of the same decade. In response to continuing violent incursions into the new Israeli state from Gaza, supported by the Egyptian army, Israel developed a policy of major reprisals in the hope of creating a deterrent to such actions. Each such reprisal action took its toll on the paratroopers involved and there is a memorial dedicated to each operation. From the top of the site it is possible to look over into Gaza, where these actions took place.
Continuing south, we visited the Beeri Forest, original site of the Beeri Kibbutz which has now moved very slightly south. The forest contains a couple of old buildings of the kibbutz, together with a sulphur mine and the ruins of a refinery (Israel’s only sulphur depository) which was operational under the British. An RAF squadron were based nearby and it is possible to see some graffiti on the concrete celebrating the end of WWII in 1945.
Also in the park is the ANZAC memorial, dedicated to the Australian and New Zealander forces in the British army who helped liberate the area from the Ottomans in WWI. Based here where you can look over into Gaza where many of their battles took place, we also learned about their key role in the capture of Beer Sheva.
Although today was dedicated to more modern history, we made use of our proximity to visit the site of the Maon synagogue. One of only three Byzantine period synagogues in the Negev, it is possible to see the remains of a stunning mosaic with some unusual motifs. It is very similar to a mosaic from a synagogue in Gaza and also to one found in a church at the nearby Ein Shelala – archaeologists believe they may have been made by the same artist.
After a brief stop for luncheon we visited the site of Mitzpe Gvulot. In 1943, there was still very little settlement in the Negev, and there was a decision to set up three mitzpim (look-outs) in different geological areas to test out agricultural techniques and learn about the best way to manage in the harsh conditions. Gvulot was one of these and we were able to visit many of the original buildings which had been constructed from local materials: bricks of clay and straw. It was quite remarkable to think of the teenagers who moved here from the Balkans in order to be pioneers in the desert; we learned that they had very good relations with their Bedouin neighbours and developed impressive techniques to collect water and irrigate their crops. They even constructed a factory for cutting diamonds although this particular industry did not last very long! It’s possible to visit the site and learn how to make the clay bricks with your own hands, if you’re in the mood for getting a little bit messy.
Our final destination was Kibbutz Ruchama, but on the way we had a brief stop at the hanging bridge over Nachal Besor. The bridge leads into the local badlands which provide pleasant view of rolling peaks and crevices. It is possible to hike in the area, but we had to press on.
Ruchama was actually the first Jewish settlement in the Negev in the modern period, established in 1911. These early pioneers had a very tough time but were managing to get on top of the conditions until 1917 when the Turks expelled them (they feared they would collaborate with the advancing British forces). The settlement was established twice more in the 20s and 30s before being abandoned in the face of the two major Arab riots in this period. Finally a kibbutz was set up in the 40s and is still around today. It is possible to see some of the original buildings, the impressively deep well and even the remains of an Egyptian plane that the kibbutz members managed to fell in the 1948 war!