A Visit from a True Friend: Journalist Pilar Rahola Tours the Negev with KKL-JNF

Wednesday, March 13, 2013 10:14 AM

“KKL-JNF has provided proof of the civic resilience of the State of Israel and the Jewish People as a whole.”

Spanish Catalonian Journalist Pilar Rahola is one of the Spanish-speaking world’s most important and impassioned participants in the public debate of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and she is renowned for her pro-Israel sympathies. Recently she arrived in Israel for a two-day tour of the Negev with KKL-JNF, during which she heard about “security tree-planting” and the creation of security roads in Israel’s Gaza periphery, the creation of communities for Gush Katif evacuees, forest-planting in the desert and KKL-JNF’s activities on behalf of the Bedouin population.

L-R: Alejandra Kadan, Pilar Rahola, Michael Adari & Hernan Felman with KKL-JNF
planting certificate at newly unveiled recognition plaque for Rahola. Photo: Yoav Devir

Television and radio presenter Pilar Rahola, who is also recognized as an important newspaper columnist in Spain and Latin America, is considered to be an opinion-maker. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict appears frequently in her work, and she reveals a profound understanding of the complexities of the situation.

“I identify with Israel, because it represents democracy, tolerance, equality and human rights,” she said during her visit. “Even though it lives in the shadow of constant conflict, it has to be said that Israel manages to preserve its function as a strong and active democracy.”

Rahola has visited Israel around twenty times since the late 1970s, but this time she was given a rare opportunity to observe at first hand some of KKL-JNF’s remarkable activities in the Negev. On this two-day excursion, she was accompanied by KKL-JNF Emissary to Spain Michael Adari and Alejandra Kadan of KKL-JNF’s Latin American Desk.
Watch Video: Pilar Rahola's Visit to Israel's South

Life-Saving Trees in Israel’s Gaza Periphery

The tour began with a visit to the Black Arrow site created by KKL-JNF to commemorate the heritage of IDF Paratroop Unit 101, which conducted reprisal actions against Palestinian fedayun who infiltrated Israel in the 1950s and sowed terrorism and death. 
In Kibbutz Kfar Aza, Rahola met KKL-JNF forester Elisha Mizrahi, who told her about the security tree-planting initiative that KKL-JNF is implementing along the border with Gaza. These trees, once grown, will provide a green wall that will screen local communities and main roads from the eyes of those attempting to aim rockets into Israel from the Gaza Strip, making it harder for them to find their targets. Mizrahi explained that eucalyptus trees are normally used for this purpose, as they are fast growers that can thrive in the desert climate.

Rahola with an olive tree growing out of an old army tank. Photo: Yoav Devir

“Trees are stronger than missiles,” said Rahola, with emotion. “This is because a tree symbolizes the desire for life, while missiles represent only the desire to spread destruction.”

From a vantage point inside Israel, Rahola and her hosts looked over into the Gaza Strip, which is only two kilometers distant from the houses of Kibbutz Kfar Aza, and observed the Israeli farmland that divides Gaza from Israel.

The memorial to Jimmy Kedoshim, a member of Kibbutz Kfar Aza who was killed by a rocket while working in the garden beside his home, is located close to the site of the security trees. Nearby an olive tree grows out of an old armored vehicle. Rahola approached the olive tree, touched its leaves and said sadly, “The day when the Palestinians have leaders whose goal is to build Palestine rather than wipe out Israel, we’ll all have a better future.”

Elisha Mizrahi described to Rahola something of the sorrow experienced by residents of Gush Katif when they were evacuated from their homes, and told her of KKL-JNF’s role in establishing new communities in the Negev that would provide new homes for the evacuees. These people who were forced to leave have now built new lives for themselves on the sand dunes of Halutza, establishing new communities and working the land.

“KKL-JNF has provided proof of the civic resilience of the State of Israel and the Jewish People as a whole,” declared the visiting journalist in response.

Sderot: Building Hopes for a Better Future

Sderot Mayor David Buskila hosted Rahola in his city and told her, “It’s very important to us to present the realities of the situation here, as it’s usually very different from how it’s portrayed in the international media.” He told her of the comparative quiet that has prevailed since Operation Pillar of Defense, but also of residents’ fears that the missile fire could flare up again at any moment.

Over 8,000 rockets have been fired at Sderot in the past twelve years, killing twelve residents of the city, injuring hundreds more and leaving thousands scarred by emotional trauma. In a city of 24,000 people, over 7,000 individuals require regular treatment for post-traumatic stress. The main challenge, according to Mayor Buskila, is “to educate the children so that they don’t live in fear, but are nonetheless aware of the danger and know how to protect themselves.”

Buskila explained that in the past around a third of the local population had left Sderot as they felt unable to cope with the rocket fire and believed there was no hope for a better future. Today the city is in much better shape: some of those who left have returned, new residents have arrived from the center of the country, new apartments are being built and property prices are on the rise.

“It’s hard to talk about peace when one side thrives on terrorism and educates its children to hate,” said Buskila. “But despite the situation, we try to teach our children that everyone can be good or bad, no matter what their origins may be. The leadership in Gaza leaves little room for hope. When Israel has poor leadership, we suffer – and when the Palestinians have poor leaders, we suffer then, too!”

Rahola was formerly Deputy Mayor of Barcelona, and one of the Sderot locals, with a broad smile, proposed an original peace initiative: perhaps if Lionel Messi, the football star who plays for Barcelona, were to be brought to Sderot the whole world could unite in celebration of his unique talent.

Meeting Sderot Mayor David Buscila in Sderot. Photo: Yoav Devir

A Memorable Lecture to Spanish speakers

In the evening, in central Israel, Rahola had the opportunity to meet KKL-JNF World Chairman Efi Stenzler, and she gave a lecture to six hundred Spanish-speaking Israelis who filled a local hall to capacity. Her talk focused on three main topics:
1. Scenarios in South America in the wake of the death of Hugo Chávez, and the experiences of Argentina’s woman president.
2. The Iranian issue: the Argentinian agreements with Iran and their significance in the context of the Arab Spring.
3. Israel and the Jewish National Fund: Rahola explained to her listeners how Israel is perceived in the international media. With regard to KKL-JNF’s activities she said: “KKL-JNF’s staff represents the deep bond between the people, the land and the nation. KKL-JNF brings people life.”

KKL-JNF World Chairman Efi Stenzler extended a warm welcome to Pilar Rahola and told her, “The State of Israel is indeed fortunate to have the support of such a prominent figure. I met you in Barcelona at an event attended by the Catalonian Prime Minister, government ministers and the President of the Parliament, all of whom showered compliments upon you and praised your work. I am glad that Pilar Rahola is to represent Israel and the KKL-JNF at a series of lectures and meetings to take place shortly in South America. As usual, she has come to see what’s happening in Israel before setting out to tell others about it. Because the fact is, when we’re talking about ecology and what’s being done in general, we’re talking about KKL-JNF.”

Forestry in Desert Regions: How the Desert Blooms

The following day, Rahola returned to the Negev to observe how KKL-JNF plants forests in desert regions that no one had ever previously considered suitable for trees. “KKL-JNF symbolizes three values that are vital to every nation: land, trees and people,” she said. “This trio is what guarantees the life of the nation.”

At this time of year the Negev is green and blooming, thanks to the efforts of both Man and Nature: wild flowers have sprung up after the rains, while the green fields are the work of the farmers. Rahola contemplated the green landscape around her and said: “When I see all this green around me and hear about KKL-JNF’s activities to develop settlement, tourism, agriculture and water resources in the area, it’s frustrating to think of the dream that could have been realized here for the benefit of all parties concerned.”

In the Foresters’ House in Yatir Forest Rahola met Hernan Felman, who is a member of KKL-JNF’s Board of Directors, and forester Abed Abu’l-Qian, a resident of the Bedouin village of Hura. Abu’l-Qian told the visitor about the techniques developed by KKL-JNF for planting in desert regions, including the construction of limans (dams) and shichim (terraces) to collect runoff water and so take maximum advantage of the sparse desert rainfall while preventing flooding and the land erosion that it causes. KKL-JNF has acquired an international reputation in this field of expertise and it helps developing countries worldwide to learn the lessons of Israel’s experience and apply its methods.

This visiting journalist did not just ask questions and listen to what her hosts had to tell her; she also planted an olive tree for herself. Forest specialist Abu’l-Qian realized at once that Rahola understood something of horticulture, and she told him that she has a number of ancient olive trees – one of which is a thousand years old – at her home in Spain, and produces her own olive oil. The conversation developed at this point into a mutual promise to exchange oil samples in the future.

After planting her tree, Rahola declared: “Planting an olive tree in Israeli soil is not just an exciting thing to do and a symbol of the desire for peace and the nation’s connection to the land – it is also an action motivated by concern for the generations to come and the hope for a better future.”

“Although we feel that you really are part of the family, we wanted nonetheless to hold a brief ceremony in your honor,” Felman informed his guest, who unveiled an appreciative plaque for Rahola, bearing the inscription: “In appreciation of her support for the Jewish People and the State of Israel, and of her being the voice that is never afraid to speak its mind.”

Wadi Atir – Conserving the Bedouin Heritage

From Yatir, the party made its way to Wadi Atir, where KKL-JNF is a partner in the establishment of a unique project combining a tourist center, employment opportunities and heritage conservation for the benefit of the local Bedouin population. Anat Gold, Director of Planning for KKL-JNF’s Southern Region, hosted the delegation and spoke about the complex relationship with the Bedouin. She emphasized that KKL-JNF does not intervene in land disputes, but, as an executive arm of the State of Israel, the organization sometimes gets dragged into the discussion and is unjustly accused of driving the Bedouin from their lands.

“KKL-JNF’s activities are designed to benefit the totality of the citizens of Israel,” Gold stressed. “KKL-JNF supports the Bedouin communities in the Negev by establishing parks, recreational venues and forests, and by initiating educational projects and cleanup campaigns.”

Wadi Atir is an excellent example of cooperation between a number of different organizations and official bodies, including KKL-JNF and the Bedouin authorities in the Negev. The site, when completed, will include a visitors’ center, a dairy and fields cultivated by traditional farming methods. KKL-JNF is now in the process of completing preparation of the land for construction and agriculture, and the presence of the heavy machinery engaged in this task was evident throughout the visit. The center itself is due to open in around a year’s time.

One of the important objectives of this project – and one that is especially close to the heart of this visiting journalist – is the provision of employment for Bedouin women. The hope is that hundreds of workers from Bedouin communities in the Negev will find work at the center in the future, and that many of these will be women.

“The combination of ecology, sustainable development and gender and sectarian equality renders this project especially important,” said Rahola. “In this way you are not only improving the life of the local Bedouin, but also connecting them to the State.”

At the end of her Negev tour Rahola returned to Jerusalem in preparation for her journey back to Spain. As a true friend of the State of Israel she had acquired further knowledge about the country and has observed at first hand KKL-JNF’s work to develop the state for the benefit of all its inhabitants. It is not clear whether or not Israel will henceforth be the subject of more balanced reporting in the international media, but it is good that we have a friend like this who is not afraid to express her opinion and speak the truth aloud.

Photo Gallery: Click on each image to enlarge.