Negev tourism now an easy train ride from the rest of Israel’s treasures

By Jeffrey F. Barken/JNS.org 

Click photo to download. Caption: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli Minister of Transportation Yisrael Katz seen aboard a train in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, where they inaugurated a new rocket-proof train station, on Dec. 24, 2013. The new train line connects isolated Negev communities to larger Israeli population centers. Credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90.

Past the Gaza Strip, toward the rocket-battered city of Sderot, a new train now connects isolated Negev communities to the larger Israeli population centers. Not surprisingly, the Sderot line also opens the gates to increased tourism in that region.

For many people in Sderot, the new rocket-proof train station, which opened in December 2013, was a landmark event symbolic of the noble national effort that Israel’s first president, David Ben-Gurion, outlined in his 1963 speech, “The Renewed State of Israel.” 

Click photo to download. Caption: Kibbutz Dorot, situated eight kilometers (about five miles) east of Sderot in southern Israel. Credit: Jeffrey F. Barken.

“The Negev is a great Zionist asset, with no substitute anywhere in the country,” Ben- Gurion said. “It is a desolate area which… has the potential to be densely populated, even amounting to millions.”

This is an exciting process of infrastructure development, expansion, and national renewal. The train ride through the desert territory to the south offers travelers a unique glimpse into the social-economic and national security realities faced by the modern state of Israel. It is also a starkly beautiful, scenic, and rugged trail of adventure.
 
Indeed, the view from a southbound train is a spectacular realization of Ben-Gurion’s vision for the Negev. Tall cranes dot the horizon of Israel’s rising cities south of Tel Aviv. Among the white sands, shrub studded hills, and sprouting wheat fields, high-rise apartments are under construction everywhere. New developments gradually are easing Israel’s shortage of affordable housing, and cities like Ashkelon and Sderot are booming despite the ever-present threat of terror from hostile neighbor Hamas.
 
“Sderot was dying until we went into Gaza with operation Pillar of Defense,” Marianne Navon, a resident of Kibbutz Dorot, situated eight kilometers (five miles) east of Sderot, tells JNS.org.
 

“Now the city is safe. [Israel’s] Iron Dome [missile defense system] is effective, and every single apartment in Sderot has had a shelter built. It’s no longer fun for Hamas to aim rockets here,” she says.

According to Yankele Grosfeld, who manages the small guesthouse at Kibbutz Dorot, Israel’s south is a practical destination for tourists seeking to make the “star trip of Israel.”

“We are only one hour from every major site,--Jerusalem, the Dead sea, and Tel Aviv-- and it is much cheaper to stay here,” Grosfeld explains. Couples can enjoy a cozy room at Kibbutz Dorot for as little as 400 shekels (about $115) per night. Their accommodation includes an Israeli breakfast, and on Friday evenings they can join kibbutz members at the communal dining hall for a traditional Shabbat dinner experience.

The kibbutz itself is a beautifully landscaped oasis, including a lap pool, and there are scenic trails to be taken through the surrounding garlic and carrot fields, citrus orchards, and olive groves.

“Tourists love the cows,” says the secretary of Kibbutz Dorot’s guesthouse, Orian Orbach. “Foreigners come to enjoy the quiet country, biking and hiking trails, commute to the other major sites, and then return for a pleasant weekend.” 

Nearby, at Kibbutz Ruhama, early risers can catch a brilliant sunrise over the badlands. The rolling grassy landscape marked with scattered Roman ruins offers the ideal picnic spot. For 1,000 shekels (about $29), tourists can also experience the best view of the Negev and Gaza by chartering a hot air balloon tour of the countryside.

Further south, the hot springs and Turkish baths at Kibbutz Zeelim are also a popular destination. Be sure to arrange your visit in advance, as space is limited.

History buffs seeking a perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should visit “Black Arrow” park, where they can glimpse a panorama of the no man’s land between Israel and Gaza, and read the memorial plaques illustrating the military campaigns fought to defend this territory. A little secret: There is also a small museum behind the police station in Sderot, where visitors can view some of the mangled Qassam rockets fired from Gaza.

The sporadic rocket assaults that have stymied Sderot’s growth in the past are an unfortunate reality, one of which visitors and resident are all too painfully aware. “Normally we are not really having that experience,” Orbach explains.

But while area residents “hear the booms [of Gaza rockets] and it is vivid,” the threat “is small,” according to Orbach.

“During the attacks, we had a few guests with families that were frightened. We showed them we have shelters, and they relaxed. If they wanted to leave, of course, we were pleasant with them. Afterwards, they came back,” Orbach says. 

Sderot has proven resilient in the face of aggression. “The Sunday market takes place weekly, rain or shine,” says Shaun Deakin, a former kibbutz volunteer who now manages Kibbutz Dorot’s gardens and landscaping projects. With the promise of safety and improved transportation comes new investment. New houses are springing up in almost every neighborhood around Sderot’s Sapir College, and students now find space and opportunity to live comfortably. There is even a busy youth center with a cinema where student films are shown.

Negev kibbutzim are popular destinations in the summer for Israeli tourists. Many families travel together and rent out guesthouses to host parties. “There is a lot of meat,” Orbach jokes, regarding the summer barbeques. The best time to visit the Negev, however, is fast approaching. Every year, beginning in late January and continuing throughout February, Sderot is host to the Anemone Festival, a four-week event celebrating the rare red wildflowers that blossom in patches throughout the countryside.

The festival is punctuated with music venues, culinary attractions, and celebrity appearances. Fun for the whole family, events are kid-oriented. There is “a whole week of activities related to fairytales and lots of sweets,” says Orbach.

“We anticipate over 60,000 visitors to the festival this winter,” Grosfeld adds. “The city has organized a shuttle service from the train station to all the sites.”

Israel is fulfilling its founder’s ambitions in the Negev at a remarkable pace. Perhaps nowhere else in the country is the true Israeli experience and character more accessible to tourists. Sderot may not offer the same intensity of culture and history as Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, but it certainly has many charms of its own and should be a choice destination on tourists’ itinerary. This is kibbutz country, a pioneering experiment—and now an easy train ride from the rest of Israel’s treasures.
 

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Posted on January 15, 2014 and filed under Special Sections, Travel, Features.