ANZAC 100: In the Footsteps of ANZAC Soldiers on the Gaza Border

KKL-JNF has commemorated the legacy of the ANZACs with the help of its friends in Australia.

The seventh day of the memorial trek in the footsteps of the ANZAC soldiers in 1917, which this time focused on the Gaza border region, combined the story of World War I, meetings with people who live close to the Gaza border, and an introduction to JNF Australia’s work on behalf of the people who live in the region.

Sderot: Parks instead of rockets

No place along the Gaza border symbolizes determination for life better than the city of Sderot. Although Sderot has suffered from relentless rocket and mortar fire from militant Gaza factions for many years, it has continued to grow and thrive, becoming a symbol of steadfastness and bravery. On this day, the tour began at a new project in Sderot that is being supported by JNF Australia: the development of the Park of Courage (Park HaGevurah), adjacent to a new residential neighborhood.

“As the terrorists from Gaza try to make our lives bitter, the best answer is to transform Sderot into the most beautiful place, with large, green parks,” said Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi to the delegation members. He also told them about what life is like in Sderot. “As the father of seven children, I know very well what it means to live in fear. We want a city that is full of the joy of living, and your partnership is a Zionist act of the first degree that enables this to happen.”

The JNF Australia contribution will be used for the creation of an artificial lake in Park Hagevurah, located in the heart of the Musica neighborhood under construction. In the middle of the 1.2 acre lake will be an island, with an open classroom for nature and environmental studies.

Delegation member Ronit Fried was delighted to see the progress being made as she recalled her visit to Sderot approximately a year ago. The earthworks for the construction of the lake, the park, and the neighborhood are going on at full strength, and the delegation could see trucks and tractors driving around the area, raising clouds of dust.

“I promise you that this place will look completely different a year from now,” Davidi said. One could already imagine families from the neighborhood and the entire city coming to the park and enjoying the lake and the beautifully cultivated greenery around it.

Sderot resident Hagit Yaso, the winner of the ninth season of Kokhav Nolad (“A star is born”), Israel’s version of Pop Idol, sang at the ceremony. At its conclusion, Pam Krail presented Mayor Davidi with an Australian bush hat.

Open classrooms on Kibbutz Nir Am

Kibbutz Nir Am is located approximately one kilometer away from the Gaza border. An open classroom for environmental study and a donor appreciation center were built on a hill on the outskirts of the kibbutz, with the generous support of Geoff and Valmae Morris and John and Debbie Schaffer. The site overlooks the Gaza Strip, and is located near the Negev Water and Security Museum.

The view of the Gaza Strip allows us to realize how close the Jewish residential communities are to the border. A farmer from the kibbutz discovered a terror tunnel in the kibbutz field, a few dozen meters from the plaza, while harvesting his wheat some years ago.

“Our lives are not so simple,” Alon Schuster, head of the Sha’ar ha-Negev Regional Council, told the delegation members. “The leaders of our neighbors across the border decided to invest all their resources in terrorism instead of construction. At the same time, we are building and developing the area.”

The delegation members visited The Negev Water and Security Museum, which is located in a historic structure that once served as the pumping station of the Negev’s first water pipeline, which was laid during the pre-state era. They gathered in the museum’s auditorium to hear a lecture about the history of settlement in the Negev, and learned the major role that water played in the region’s history.

Plaques expressing appreciation to friends and supporters of JNF Australia, who helped to establish a variety of projects in the Sha’ar ha-Negev Regional Council and the Gaza peripheral region, are placed around the plaza.

Referring to the ANZAC troops, Schuster said: “Your ancestors came here a century ago, liberated the land, and helped the Jewish people to realize its dream.” Speaking more personally, he said, “When I complete my term as council head in a year, I will remember how the residents’ spirit and how the loving support we have received from you and from other friends - Jews and non-Jews all over the world - has been the key to our success.”

He noted several of the projects for which JNF Australia provided support, including the Sha’ar ha-Negev High School and water reservoirs on the kibbutzim. “We came here to build and to be built, and that is exactly what we are doing here together,” he said.

As the group looked out over the Nir Am reservoir, they heard about KKL-JNF’s contribution to the development of water sources in Israel, rainwater recycling, and the prevention of sewage pollution. Israel, which is a world leader in water recycling, treats more than 80 percent of its effluent, which it then uses for agriculture. Most agriculture in Israel is irrigated by treated wastewater.

Nahal Oz: Standing Firm

On their way to Kibbutz Nahal Oz, the delegation members stopped for a brief lecture at the Black Arrow Memorial, a commemorative site for the Paratroopers Brigade. As they looked out over the Gaza Strip, they learned about the heroism of the paratroopers during the Retaliatory Operations in the 1950s. The Black Arrow Memorial recounts the history of Unit 101, which is known for its deeds in the Retaliation Operations, which were carried out in Arab countries following incidents of infiltration and murder in Israeli territory.

On Kibbutz Nahal Oz, which is located just seven hundred meters from the Gaza Strip, the delegation members met with Yael Raz-Lahiani, who told them what it was like to live so close to the border. “If there’s shelling, we have only three seconds to get to the shelter, so even the Iron Dome cannot help us. What you hear on the news is real life for us.”

She told the group about Daniel Tragerman, the four-year-old boy who was killed by a rocket strike in his home at the end of Operation Protective Edge. “Although that was the hardest day that our community has ever experienced, we decided not to give up on Nahal Oz, not to leave, and to continue to absorb new families.”

Yael expressed her gratitude to the group from Australia, whose partnership makes the development of the kibbutz possible - including the renovation of the old water reservoir and the expansion of its capacity, as well as the creation of water efficient landscaping in the kibbutz’s open spaces through upgrading of the irrigation system and using water-conserving vegetation.

Our next stop was the old site of Kibbutz Be’erot Yitzhak, a historical site developed in partnership with KKL-JNF that recounts the local residents’ steadfast stand in battle against the Egyptian army during the War of Independence. This is also a significant place in the journey of the ANZAC troops in their great charge from Gaza toward Beersheba.

The ANZAC Memorial: Remembering the fallen

The ANZAC Memorial, located in the heart of the Be’eri Forest, commemorates the 544 soldiers from Australia and the 186 soldiers from New Zealand who fell in battle in the Land of Israel and are buried in British military cemeteries. The cornerstone of the memorial was laid in 1967, fifty years after the battles took place. Its shape, which resembles the letter A, for ANZAC, is designed as a silhouette of a horse’s head and chest in homage to the mounted troops who played a decisive role in the war.

Visitors to the site can look out from the tower toward ANZAC sites in the Gaza region, read about the history of the battle from wall plaques, look at maps showing the battlefields, and read letters that were written by soldiers who took part in the fighting.

Delegation members read excerpts in memory of the fallen at the ceremony that was held at the ANZAC Memorial. Arnie Friedlander read: “The fallen sit no more at the table in their homes, and no longer go out to their working day.” Jenny Simons read a letter written by a relative of hers who served in the ANZAC unit during World War I, and described his battle experiences.

Adrian Hepi said: “What the soldiers managed to do here is incredible. These people knew that they were never coming back, but they fought with courage and passion. I feel fortunate to visit this country in your company after many years of having thought about it, and to reflect on all the events that took place here.”

Anna Berger read excerpts from letters written by soldiers who expressed their excitement at the approaching battle and described the battle itself, including the charge on Beersheba. Michelle Korn ended with the blessing “Lest we forget.”

Rabbi Yossi Friedman recited the El Male Rahamim prayer for the fallen, and the ceremony concluded with the laying of wreaths at the foot of the monument and a minute of silence in memory of the fallen.

Nahal Assaf: Learning about the region

The group proceeded from there to the ANZAC recreation area in Nahal Assaf. KKL-JNF, in partnership with its friends from Australia, developed a learning and rest area in the forest. The trees provide shade for the picnic tables, and around the area are signs telling visitors about the ANZACs, the route that the troops took to liberate Beersheba, and general information about the area.

The site’s major supporters, Gillian and Colin Mandel, were among the delegation. Colin was particularly happy to see that the tree he planted back in 2011 was growing nicely. “This site gave me an opportunity to connect my Australian heritage to the fact that I am a Zionist Jew. I hope to return here one day with my grandchildren.”

KKL-JNF began planting the Nahal Assaf Forest, which spreads out over approximately 840 acres, in the 1950s. The forest contains eucalyptus trees, a lovely reminder of home for the delegation’s Australian members. Nahal Assaf flows toward the foot of the scenic lookout and empties out into Nahal ha-Besor, one of the largest seasonal streams in the Negev.

The water, which collects on the loess plains, sweeps away the soil and cracks the ground. This makes it hard to grow anything in the soil, and the natural vegetation suffers as well. KKL-JNF established an experimental laboratory in Nahal Assaf to prevent soil erosion by planting forests that help in soil preservation, diverting the surface runoff into canals, controlled grazing in order to prevent fires, and streambed rehabilitation. Many experts from all over the world come here to learn these techniques from KKL-JNF foresters.

Eshkol National Park: An oasis

The group took its midday break in Eshkol National Park, a green area on the banks of Nahal Besor - itself another point along the ANZAC Trail. A spring flows deep inside the loess plains of the western Negev, surrounded by grass and trees- the perfect place to take a rest on a warm day.

KKL-JNF Southern Region Director Ami Uliel, who came to meet the group in Eshkol National Park, said: “JNF Australia are the best friends we have in southern Israel. Thanks to this partnership, we have developed an abundance of projects in the fields of water, the environment, and education.”

Along the way, the group members went over the Nahal ha-Besor Bridge and looked out over Besor’s reservoirs: an array of three water reservoirs that collect purified wastewater and floodwater that flows in Nahal ha-Besor. The reservoirs enable the conservation of water from the winter rains, which is used to irrigate the fields in summertime.

Yeruham: Growth and prosperity

The group members ended the day in Yeruham by meeting with local council head Michael Biton. He told them how his parents had come from Morocco in the 1960s, arriving in Yeruham when it was still a temporary camp. “If you are crazy enough to travel from Australia to Israel, it seems that we have a strong connection,” he said. “You are here because you care about Israel. I hope that you are enjoying yourselves here, but I know that you are committed to the country in addition to that.”

Biton told the delegation members that dozens of teenagers come to Yeruham from Australia every year for a volunteer stint lasting about half a year. “They were told about the Promised Land. They expect to arrive in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, and then they get Yeruham. They are a bit surprised at first, but they meet the real Israel here very quickly, and become connected to the community.”

Biton spoke about the major challenges that the State of Israel faces, as he sees them: solidifying Jewish identity in Israeli society, creating a connection among all facets of society, and reducing inequalities.

He added that Yeruham has been undergoing a revolution in recent years via growth, investment in education, attracting the young generation to live there, the development of a hi-tech center, tourism, developing environmentally-friendly infrastructure, and changing the city’s image.

Some of the delegation members stayed overnight with local families in the community of Lehavim. This was an opportunity to get to know residents of the Negev in a personal, unmediated way.