Gaza Evacuees Pioneer New Farms

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HALUTZIYOT, Israel - Turn left at the end of the world and you'll come to Halutziot, say residents of this farming community established by evacuees from the Gush Katif settlement bloc in the Gaza Strip.

Located deep in the Negev Desert near the borders with Egypt and Gaza, Halutziyot is one of the few places where a handful of former Gush Katif farmers have carried on in agriculture.

"After we left Gush Katif, we looked for a new area where we can continue our ideals, our goals and we found this area of the Haluziyot, which is an area that was never settled," said Eli Adler, a rabbi who teaches at the local yeshiva (Torah seminary) and also works in agriculture.

According to Adler, it's possible that no one has lived in the area of Halutziyot - which means pioneers - for thousands of years.

Former Residents of Atzmona

Adler and his wife lived in the Gush Katif community of Atzmona for 15 years before the disengagement. Atzmona was a religious community that had a dual ideology of promoting Bible education as well as agriculture.

Along with a pre-army religious academy for young men, Atzmona boasted the largest nursery for flowers in the Middle East.

Four years ago, when the government of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon uprooted Atzmona, along with the 20 other Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip, as part of its Disengagement Plan, about 20 families came to the Halutza Sands to start a new life. They were joined by families from another Gush Katif settlement, Netzarim.

Adler believes that what has taken place here "is really a miracle."

No Infrastructure Whatsoever

When the families came to the area several years ago there was no infrastructure - only dirt roads - and no water and no electricity. They lived, and still do, in temporary housing in the tiny communities of Yated and Yuval, said Moshe Bernicker, a spokesman for the communities.

The area also has strategic significance. Because it is along Israel's long open desert border with Egypt, the new residents also had to deal with smugglers sneaking weapons, drugs, women and foreign workers into the country, Bernicker said.

Today, there are 160 new Israeli families living there - 90 from former Gush Katif settlements and 70 other families from around Israel.

According to Bernicker, about 40 percent of the families are working in agriculture, 40 percent in education and the other 20 percent work outside the area, but no one is unemployed.

The farmers grow organic herbs and vegetables including basil, potatoes, carrots and peppers in 500 acres of hot houses and another 3,000 acres of open land, mostly for export to Europe.

They are literally making the desert bloom, Bernicker said.

Four Agricultural Communities

There are plans to build four communities, with 300 families each, in the area, about 100 families in each dedicated to farming. By spring, the first 70 or so families hope to move into their permanent homes, he said.

Tzadok Ran, 28, is also a farmer formerly from Atzmona, who today lives in Halutziyot. He said the area is important because they could create something from nothing and because it's close to the border of Egypt, not so far from the former Gush Katif.

Israelis can live in the Mediterranean coastal city of Tel Aviv or they can live in the desert of Halutziyot, but it's important to put communities wherever they can in Israel, he said.

"This is our country not because we are coming here in '48. This is our country because this is from the Bible," said Ran.

Adler described the community as an "idealistic" one that has big families (he has eight children) and invests a lot of time and money in education of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). But community members are still building "very strong relations" with their primarily secular neighbors in the nearby existing communities, said Adler.

Jewish Ties to the Land of Israel

Adler said that the things they have been through only make them think more deeply about the "life of the Jewish people here in Israel…and its meaning."

The lessons of the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and all the political pressure on Israel should be answered by thinking about what the Jewish people are doing here and why they came back to the Land of Israel after 2,000 years in exile, he said.

Even though they live in the desert, more and more families want to join them all the time, Adler said.

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