North Africa, West Asia

My neighbourhood and its impact on world affairs

A new contributor to This Week's Window on the Middle East often takes visitors around his neighbourhood to show off some of the more interesting sites; from the ancient Synagogue of Maon to Kerem Shalom and the Halutza settlements.

Efraim Perlmutter
7 October 2013

I often take visitors around my neighbourhood to show off some of the more interesting sites. I usually begin at the ancient Synagogue of Maon. Maon was a thriving town during the Byzantine era. The Synagogue was built or refurbished sometime in the fifth century. The only thing remaining of the synagogue is its mosaic floor, decorated with images of the flora and fauna of the area. Part of the mosaic includes a small inscription noting the names of the individuals who donated the funds for the floor's construction. It seems that contributors have always been happy to get public recognition for their generosity; a tradition that anyone visiting a modern synagogue or innumerable institutions and forests in Israel can see is alive and well today.

The town of Maon was one of several dotting the western Negev during the Byzantine era. They were all abandoned and disappeared into the desert sands after the Arab invasion in the seventh century. No one knows exactly why this happened. My guess is that the Arab conquest disrupted the trade relations between the Middle East and Europe, destroying the economic basis of these communities. When the Arabs invaded, the Jews were primarily an agrarian population. A curtain came down over the area for two centuries and when it lifted, the Jews were primarily part of the urban scene. The rural towns of the Negev had disappeared along with the surrounding agricultural populations. There are no signs of human habitation at these sites for the next thousand years.

The next stop on our tour is the transit station at Kerem Shalom. This is the main crossing point for goods going into the Gaza Strip. Anywhere from 200 to 300 hundred double articulated trucks pass through the station every day carrying up to 40 tons of cargo each. Most visitors are surprised at the amount of food, manufactured goods and raw materials passing through. About a year ago I participated in a demonstration with the residents of this area where we blocked the road leading to the transit point. We were demanding that the government widen the road to four lanes to accommodate the traffic more safely. Our demonstration lasted about two hours, long enough for TV news cameras to capture the scene for the evening broadcast. As I drove away from the demonstration I measured the distance that the trucks were backed up in the two hours that we blocked the road and it was over two kilometers long. 

Kerem Shalom is the name of the nearby Israeli kibbut, Hebrew for the vineyards of peace. Three borders come together at this spot; the Egyptian, Israeli and Palestinian borders. Perhaps some day this will be a place of peace and cooperation but not today. Some months ago a group of Islamic extremists attacked an Egyptian army base just across the border, killed more than a dozen Egyptian soldiers, stole two Egyptian armoured vehicles and crashed through the border adjacent to the transit station. One vehicle blew up as it crossed into Israel and the other was destroyed by a well placed Israeli tank shell before those inside could do any more harm. No one at the Vineyards of Peace seems ready for peace.

The next site on our tour is the Halutza settlements. The Halutza area was last populated during the Byzantine era. Until the final withdrawal of Jewish settlements from Gaza in 2005, the whole area looked very much like the kind of desert Hollywood produces for its films. It was mostly sand dunes and almost no vegetation. There are some underground water resources but they have remained untapped for more than 1000 years. However, the old Zionist propaganda slogan about transforming the desert into a garden is becoming a reality in this area. Water is being piped in, the dunes were leveled, the sand was planted with various crops and houses are built. The core of the settlers in the Halutza area is made up of people who were evacuated from the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. They were augmented by others from elsewhere in the country. Unlike most of my neighbours, these are religious Jews who see their settlement activities as a religious duty.

During the Camp David negotiations Arafat was offered the Halutza area as part of a land swap. He was said to have complained that the Jews kept the best land for themselves and offered the Palestinians only desert waste land. I have a hunch that in future years some Palestinian spokesman will point to what will then be a very productive Halutza area as proof that we Jews keep the best land for ourselves.      

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