Tag Archives: Negev

The Air Force Museum, Near Be’er Sheva

Yakov, Moshe (holding his history of the IAF), and Sara in front of Kfir fighter, near the entrance to the Air Force Museum
Yakov, Moshe (holding his history of the IAF), and Sara in front of Kfir fighter, near the entrance to the Air Force Museum

Moshe, our ten-year old grandson, has become enamoured of the Israeli Air Force (IAF). He has read a thick history of the IAF at least three times. One day in the late summer, when I saw him reading the book, I mentioned I had visited the IAF museum several years ago. He immediately asked his parents to take him there. They agreed, and planned a family trip for Succot. The group quickly expanded to include two of his siblings and both sets of grandparents.

This week, the long anticipated outing took place. Nine of us piled in to a rented van for the trip to Hatzerim, a little to the west of Be’er Sheva. Harold, Aliza’s father, asked Moshe how excited he was, on a scale of 1 to 10. The answer came back immediately: “20.”

An open-air museum

The word “museum” generally brings to mind a picture of a large building, full of pictures on its walls and tastefully displayed artifacts. The IAF museum has no large building. Just inside the museum entrance are a snack bar and souvenir shop. Nearby are a few small buildings: the administration offices, archives, and exhibits related to the history of the IAF. This is the desert—the annual rainfall of nine inches makes large roofed areas a needless expense. Besides, most of the exhibits are outside.

More than 150 aircraft are parked on a large expanse of concrete. The aircraft are arranged in chronological order of their use by the IAF. We were lucky—because there were so many of us, we had our own English speaking guide. Audrey made aliyah from France as a teenager. She spent a year improving her Hebrew before drafting into the Air Force. She was probably assigned to guiding museum tours because of her fluency in three languages. As she led us around the field, she told us about the history of IAF, the air planes, and the men who flew them. (Women have been able to train as pilots only in the last decade or so.)

One of the reasons the Israeli-designed Lavi was outstanding was that it was made with input from pilots, specifically for Israel;s needs
One of the reasons the Israeli-designed Lavi was outstanding was that it was made with input from pilots, specifically for Israel;s needs

Audrey had her work cut out for her. Moshe kept interrupting her with added information or questions. Several times she stopped in the middle of a comment to tell him that the plane was he had just asked about was “parked over there—we’ll get to it in a few minutes.”

 

Messershmitts: The beginning of the IAF

The first plane in the first row is one of the Messerschmitts Israel purchased from Czechoslovakia in 1948. The planes were brought disassembled to the new country as pieces of “agricultural equipment.” When the six planes were re-assembled, some parts were missing. For example, there was one more body than engine. After a frantic search, the procurement team located the wreck of a Messerschmitt whose engine remained in good condition. The wreck was dismantled and its engine placed in the German plane, whose body had been repainted to cover the Nazi insignia.

By now it was late May 1948, and the Egyptian army was advancing on Tel Aviv. Israel was desperate. With no time to test fly the aircraft, the newly assembled planes were immediately pressed into battle just in time to stop the Egyptian army from capturing Tel Aviv. Twenty-five percent of the Israeli Air Force—one air plane—crashed into the Mediterranean.

Audrey pointed out a major problem with the German craft. Its machine gun sits behind the propeller. Any slight defect in the timing mechanism could cause the bullets from the machine gun to destroy the propeller. The Czechs were not as careful synchronizing the timing as the Germans, who had designed and first manufactured the planes, had been. Later Israel acquired some Messerschmitts with guns on their wings, which did not require synchronization with the propeller.

Another problem was psychological. Many people felt uncomfortable that Israel was using German aircraft so soon after the Nazis had tried to wipe out the Jewish people. The air force needed to find new sources of equipment.

The aircraft came from many countries

Israel bought aircraft from whoever was willing to sell them. We walked past rows of American planes and French ones. A British Spitfire was also on display, which seemed odd. When the British Mandate for Palestine expired, the British were determined not to leave anything usable in the hands of the Jews. A few Spitfires were left at one airfield. Since since none of them was complete, the British must have felt these planes were of no use. They failed to take Jewish ingenuity into account. The Israelis were able to construct two completely functional Spitfire planes, from the pieces they cannabalized from the planes. They used the engine from from a downed Egyptian Spitfire. These planes served the IAF well for years.

Audrey pointed a French Ouragon, which had survived a dangerous malfunction during a flight. As soon as she mentioned the pilot’s name, Yakov Turner, we knew the story would end well. In her introduction, she had mentioned that the

The Ouragon crash landed by Yakov Turner, which was repaired and returned to active duty
The Ouragon crash landed by Yakov Turner, which was repaired and returned to active duty

museum was the idea of General Turner when he was the commander of Hatzerim Air Force base. It had opened in 1991 when he was mayor of Be’er Sheva.

Turner was returning from a mission, about to land, when he discovered his front landing gear would not deploy. The control tower told him to eject and ditch the plane. Yakov refused to obey orders. He was not about to lose his plane. He told the tower to cover the runway with foam, he was bringing the plane in. While the airfield crew was covering the runway with foam, he dropped his remaining bombs somewhere they would do no harm and emptied his fuel tanks. When the tower radioed they were ready for him, he landed the plane on its belly on the foam covered runway. The plane sustained much damage, but was successfully repaired. Yakov walked away from the crash, and eventually flew that same plane again.

We walked past one French-built Mystere fighter, painted in a different way from the rest of the Mysteres. This plane had a history of having killed 13 enemy planes, the most hits by an IAF plane. When the IAF retired it, it was sold to Argentina, for use in its war against Great Britain over the Falkland Islands. A few years later, the IAF wanted to buy it back to display at Hatzerim. The Argentines agreed to sell it to Israel for $1, on condition that its Argentinian colors were retained.

A Soviet MIG fighter

One unusual plane parked at the museum is a Soviet MIG-21. At one time the MIG was the best fighter plane in the world. No one else had a plane like it; no air force could defend against it. The MIG-21 was deadly against the Mystere, the major fighter plane of the IAF in the early 1960’s. At the time, the Soviets supported the enemies of Israel. Military support included supplying several Arab countries with MIGs. Israel wanted one to study and figure out how to defend against it. They found an Iraqi pilot who was willing to steal the plane and fly it to Israel, if his family could first be smuggled out of Iraq.

The plane, obviously, did not come with an instruction manual. Danny Shapiro, who had been one of the pilots trained by the French to fly Ouragons and Mysteres, was assigned to figure out what made the MIG so lethal. He trained himself, flying the plane hundreds of hours. He realized that because the cockpit was so narrow, the only way to bring down a MIG was from almost directly behind it. Thanks to his work, the IAF was the first air force to kill MIGs.

Capturing Egyptian radar 

One of the non-aircraft exhibits was a large radar array on top of a truck. In the late 1960’s, when Egypt purchased this array from the Soviets, it was one of the most advanced in the world. The IAF needed to understand how it worked in order to counter the advantages it gave their enemy. They had to study it closely, which they could not do while it was in Egypt. To bring it to Israel, the Israelis cut the apparatus in two pieces. Two Sikorsky CH-53 Yas’ur helicopters were sent to lift it off the ground and carry it. The helicopters had problems because the machinery was heavier than they had estimated. One of the helicopters almost crashed several times. As soon as they were over Israeli territory, they landed. The radar was safe.

Daniel and Moshe filled in a few details Audrey had left out. Before the helicopters left the country, Israel sent paratroopers to Egypt to secure the site. At the end of the operation, the IAF was supposed to return and pick up the paratroopers. But when the radar arrived in Israel, the Israelis were so excited over the success of the operation, they forgot to go back. The paratroopers spent more time in Egypt than they had expected, until the IAF remembered to send a Super Ferlon helicopter back to pick them up. That Super Ferlon is parked next to one of the Yas’ur helicopters, close to where the now obsolete radar sits at Hatzerim.

Special for younger visitors

Because was in the middle of Sukkot, when schools are on vacation and many adults off from work, the museum had several activities directed to younger visitors. Tow historic planes made frequent demonstration flights directly above. A biplane flew Figure Eights, each one a little lower than the one before. It alternated with a bright yellow two seater Tzukit plane, which was used to train new pilots for more than forty years.

"Pilots for a Minute" Yakov and Moshe dress up as fighter pilots
“Pilots for a Minute” Yakov and Moshe dress up as fighter pilots

An activity strictly for children was “Pilot for a Moment,” where children had the opportunity to dress up in pilot’s uniforms. Yakov and Moshe wanted to participate; Sarah deliberated for a few minutes and then decided not to do it. Despite the lack of a visor, Moshe seemed very happy to be wearing the uniform. But, as Aliza pointed out, the boys will be in uniform soon enough. There was no need to rush it.

Over Shabbat, I asked the kids what they liked the best at the museum. Yakov said he liked dressing up as a pilot and getting in some of the planes. Sarah said she liked seeing the small planes flying so close above us.

And Moshe?
Predictably, he said it was all so good, he couldn’t choose.

Where is the Air Force Museum ?

Visiting the Gaza Border Area

Esther Marcus holding arson kite at Kibbutz Alumim
Esther Marcus holding an arson kite that landed at Kibbutz Alumim

Nogo Gulst fondly remembers the years when she could go to the nearest large city to do her shopping or to catch a bus to Tel Aviv. Noga, who lives in Kibbutz Mefalsim, Danny Rachamim from Kibbutz Nahal Oz, and Esther Marcus from Kibbutz Alumim, all say the same thing. From 1967 until the signing of the Oslo Accords, Gaza City was the place to go.

Noga said, “We did everything in Gaza.” They shopped there and ate in its restaurants. “It was the best hummous I ever eat,” Danny reported. The fastest to route to Tel Aviv was through Gaza City. They were friends with Arabs. Danny reports having hosted several families from Gaza at the wedding of one of his children. Long time residents of Sderot have happy memories of walking less than a kilometer to the beach on Shabbat during those years.

Touring with Honest Reporting
The Asaf Siboni overlook. Gaza City, less than a mile away, is on the horizon The black patches are fields that were burned in arson attacks by Hamas.
The Asaf Siboni overlook. Gaza City, less than a mile away, is on the horizon The black patches are fields that were burned in arson attacks by Hamas.

On August 7, my husband and I spent the day with Honest Reporting on a briefing tour of the Gaza border areas. The places we went, Asaf Siboni, Kibutz Nahal Oz, and Kibbutz Alumim, are all in areas allotted to Israel by the 1947 UN Partition PlanThey have been part of Israel since the founding of the state in May 1948. Elliot Chodoff, a military and political analyst spoke about the background of the current situation.

At each stop, we met several long-time residents, and toured their towns and farms. Today, the situation is different from what it was in the 1970s and 80s, when travel between Israel and Gaza was easy and safe. No Israelis go to Gaza City. The only exceptions are soldiers, and they only go armed, under military orders. In many Arab areas, in the Shomron as well as Gaza, Israeli soldiers are the only Jews anyone under the age of 25 has ever seen.

Hamas demonstrations at the Gaza border fence

Hamas has been trying to destroy Israel, ever since the founding of organization in 1987. But this summer has been particularly difficult for the residents of the south, especially for those living in the area closest to Gaza.

Since April, Hamas has directed weekly demonstrations along the border with Israel. Although billed as peaceful, the demonstrations are neither peaceful in intent, nor in actuality. Hamas leaders have encouraged demonstrators to come armed with knives slingshots, guns, and Molotov cocktails. They have urged Gaza residents to break down the border fence, and attack Israeli soldiers, and civilians. Hamas has distributed maps of Israeli towns near the border. With the map, any Gazan who gets through the fence can easily find Israelis and kill them.

Arson attacks against Israeli farms

This year’s summer unrest has unveiled a new weapon, which may have been more effective than Hamas originally envisioned: kites. The kites and balloons from Gaza may have started out as innocent children’s toys, but now they are weapons of war. They carry fire. Some are set on fire before being sent aloft, others carry Molotov cocktails or incendiary devices on timers. Their purpose is to destroy Israeli agriculture.

The kites have been remarkably successful. They are hard to detect when in the air, and when they land, the small fires they set spread quickly. Standing at Asaf Siboni, a high point overlooking the border with Gaza, Noga pointed out several fields that were recently burned by Hamas. Six months ago, she told us, from this spot all you could see was wheat. Half of it was burned by kite-triggered fires. Grass grows fast, and some of the fields and forests in the area burned more than once. She laughed when she said “forests,” because as she said, “Fifty trees is a forest in Israel.” But in an area where every tree was planted by hand and carefully irrigated, the loss of a stand of fifty trees hits hard.

At Nahal Oz, Danny pointed out a large wheat field, now scorched black from a fire. He reported that five thousand dunams of their land (about 1235 acres) is planted in wheat. This year Hamas burned a fifth of their crop, causing a loss of about 700,000 shekels from kibbutz income (a little more than $190,000). Their fields of sunflowers are almost ready for harvest. Because the fields are very dry,  they worry an arson kite or balloon will land in the field and destroy that crop as well.

Less than two kilometers away, Kibbutz Alumim lost a field of chickpeas to a fire two weeks ago and earlier this week a fire burned their corn. Although the government provides compensation for destroyed crops and lost income, it can not provide a sense of security for the residents.

Hamas rockets attack Israel

Kibbutzim, farms, and cities all over the Negev have been under sporadic attack by Hamas for almost twenty years. This area has been farmed by Jews since 1946, when the first kibbutzim in the Negev were founded. Be’er Sheva, about 50 km (30 miles) from Gaza, has been hit by rockets and a few arson kites which have drifted inland. The first

Esther shows remnants or some of the rockets that have landed at Alumim in the last ten years
Esther shows remnants or some of the rockets that have landed at Alumim in the last ten years

Kassam rockets were first launched in 2001. Noga says her youngest son was five years old then; he cannot remember a time when there was no terror. The  reinforced concrete protective rooms in every house and public building, and the squat shelters in parks and playgrounds, offer physical protection. Older schools and public buildings have been adapted by constructing thick reinforced concrete roofs above their original roofs. But these structures also constantly remind people of the rockets that necessitate their presence.

Kibbutz Alumim, when they recently erected a new children’s building, they made the whole building bomb proof. They needed the new center because, despite the constant danger, the kibbutz is growing. In the last three weeks alone, nine babies were born, including one set of twins.

Tzeva Adom: Warnings of rocket attacks

Even during quiet periods, everyone has with one ear listening for the warning “Tzeva Adom” warning, the woman’s voice announcing “Color red, color red.” They know when they hear that announcement they have fifteen seconds, sometimes less, to get into the shelter. To make sure they hear any announcement, they always keep a window open wherever they are, even if it is a hundred degrees outside and the air conditioner is struggling to keep the inside temperature down to 85.

When in places where there is no chance of a rocket warning, they are nevertheless on alert. Noga mentioned being in a foreign airport and hearing the little “tick” a loudspeaker makes as it turns on just before an announcement. Her whole family tensed, ready to run to shelter. “You can never 100% concentrate because you are always listening for the alarm.”

Hamas also occasionally fires mortars from Gaza at the Israeli farms. Mortars are small, with flatter trajectories. There’s no way to protect yourself from mortar, and there’s no warning. Four years ago, a mortar killed a young child in his own front yard, in the area we were touring.

Child care workers and teachers spend time working with children, teaching them what to do in case of an alarm. They also try to decrease the stress of rocket attacks. A teacher in the South wrote a song for the children to sing during an alert, that has body and hand motions to go with it.

Children have Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Nonetheless, there is a very high rate of PTSD among children in the areas within the 30 second warning area. Children have stopped using the color red in their art projects because of its association with rocket attacks.

To destigmatize the color, Esther Marcus wrote a children’s book called, Tzeva Adom. It is the story of about how all the colors gathered to choose the color of the year. Each color, starting with purple, explained all the things it can found in and why it should be chosen. But when it came to red’s turn it sat in the corner because people are afraid of it. All the other colors comfort red. It’s the life-saving color of warnings. They elect red as color of the year, and then all join together in a rainbow.

Esther talked about trying to “raise children not to have hate in their hearts, not to want revenge.” Noga talked about the electricity made by solar panels in nearby fields. The owners want to send the excess  electricity to Gaza, instead of selling it to the Israel Electric Company, as required.   Doing so would could give the people might have five or six hours hours of electricity a day, instead of four hours. They feel that “Making it better for them will make it better for us.”

Early August escalation of attacks

Wednesday night, August 8, into Thursday morning, Hamas fired hundreds of rockets into Israel. When I awoke Thursday morning, my phone alerts showed screen after screen full of Tzeva Adom notifications. The alert system has been so refined that only the area projected to be the target of a specific barrage is notified. The rest of us find out from the radio or notifications on our phones.

One of the painted public bomb shelters at Kibbutz Nahal Oz. Inside, the walls are bare unpainted concrete.
One of the public bomb shelters at Kibbutz Nahal Oz. Inside, the walls are bare unpainted concrete.

So, while we were sleeping peacefully, thousands of residents of southern Israel dozed fitfully or sat up all night in their bomb shelters. About twenty people were wounded in the attacks, and many more suffered psychological trauma.

When I saw all the notifications, I thought of Noga, spending the night sitting or lying on the floor in her son’s bedroom, which is their family’s bomb-proof room. I think of all the children crowded into one room for the night, and then not being allowed out of the house to run around and get rid of their tension during the day, because there could be a Tzeva Adom at any second.

I think of those people walking outside when they hear the alarm and running to the nearest public shelter, a small windowless concrete box on the side of the street or in the middle of the park. In many places, the shelters are painted with cheerful designs, but inside there’s nothing but the bare concrete walls and other people standing there, all of you worried about your families and whether or not they were able to get to a shelter within 15 seconds of the Tzeva Adom.

All the people we met want to restore peaceful relationships with our neighbors. To Noga winning means staying where they have always lived; Winning is peace. They want to the Arabs to came to Israel in peace to work and to shop. They want to go to Gaza to shop, to swim, to have their cars repaired.

And Danny Rachamim wants a plate of Gaza’s best hummous.

Where we were.

Nahal Oz and Alumim are about eight kilometers south west of  The observation point

Fighting for Kibbutz Yad Mordechai

Reconstruction of the battle for Yad Mordechai
Reconstruction of the battle for Yad Mordechai

In 1948, the Egyptians thought it would be easy. The British were leaving the Palestinian Mandate in mid-May. The sparsely populated areas where Jews lived in the south were ripe for the picking. The Egyptian army could quickly wipe out the few Jewish defenders in the Negev and on the Mediterranean coast. In two or three days they would be in Tel Aviv.

On May 14, the Jews declared independence, as of the British departure at midnight. The Egyptian army, gathered on the border in Sinai readied to attack. I’m sure no soldier sleeps well the night before a battle, not even those about to fight poorly armed untrained Jewish farmers and refugees. Still, I imagine Egyptian soldiers dreaming about lying peacefully in the sun with their families on beaches of Tel Aviv within the week.

The new nation of Israel woke up Shabbat morning, May 15, to news of the Egyptian invasion. The Egyptians headed north east towards Nirin and Kfar Darom. Facing unexpectedly heavy opposition from the Israelis, they withdrew after two days. Since the eastern path to Tel Aviv obviously would not work, they headed west, closer to the coast. Several towns posed obstacles, but they remained confident. Tel Aviv would soon be in their hands. Their air force was already dropping bombs on the city. The only real obstruction in their way was Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, located at a crucial crossroad. They had the superior power—two infantry battalions, one armored battalion and one artillery battalion. They thought the fight would last a few hours.

The agricultural kibbutz had been founded in the late 1930s by Polish immigrants. The founders learned apiculture from some British and Australian soldiers. Soon they were selling honey throughout the land. In December 1943 it was renamed Yad Mordechai, in memory of Mordechai Anielewicz, one of the leaders of the uprising against the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto. By 1948, about 130 people lived there. The farmers had dug trenches so they could move about fairly safely if under attack. They had been joined by a couple dozen Palmach fighters in anticipation of the coming battle. Even so, it couldn’t hold out for very long against an onslaught of thousands of Egyptian soldiers.

On May 18 the Egyptians camped around the kibbutz.

The Israelis worried about the children. It would be too dangerous for them to stay on the kibbutz, but it was also dangerous to send them away. The only road to safety led through the Egyptian lines. With much trepidation they decided to evacuate the children. I imagine the parents trying not to show their fear as they bundled their children into vehicles in the middle of the night. I doubt any of them slept that night, as they envisioned the vehicles slowly making their way around and through the Egyptian encampment and Arab towns. As first light dawned in the morning, word came through. All ninety-two children were safe.

Now it was time to prepare for battle.

We heard the story about the battle at Yad Mordechai standing on a small hill in the kibbutz, looking down at the plain which leads to the Mediterranean Sea. The field below was probably covered with new crops then. Today there are cast iron silhouettes of soldiers, a static reconstruction of the battle. Three old

Egyptian tank, at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai since 1948 invasion
Egyptian tank, at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai since 1948 invasion

Egyptian tanks face us. At the edges of the hill two reinforced bunkers overlook the battlefield, connected by the old trenches. The trenches have fresh gravel on their floors and metal sheeting lining the sides. I watched as young volunteers, dressed in the khaki shorts and kova tembel hats of the period, led a family through the trenches at a run, reminding them to crouch down so the Egyptians won’t see them.

The First and Seventh Battalions attacked. The kibbutzniks repelled them.

The Egyptians attacked again, but again they were repelled. Their artillery bombarded the kibbutz, destroying the water tower and buildings.

The Egyptians repeatedly tried to capture the outpost, and failed. Several thousand trained Egyptian soldiers should not have so much trouble overrunning small farming community. Even their tanks didn’t help. They had plenty of guns and ammunition, but they couldn’t wipe out a hundred and thirty Jews. The Jews were so poorly armed that at night they crept over the battlefield gathering rifles and ammunition from the enemy dead.

Five days later, the Jews were out of ammunition and exhausted. Half the defenders had died or were wounded. They could fight no longer. They crept away during the night, through the Egyptian lines, to safety at Kibbutz Gvar’am. Only Yitzchak Rubinstein and Livka Shefer, who carried the injured Binyamin Eisenberg, on a stretcher did not make it. .

During the ceasefires and then after the armistice, Chief Rabbi of the IDF Shlomo Goren searched for missing Israelis. It was crucial, he believed, to determine who had died, and to give them proper burial. Rabbi Goren crossed enemy lines many times, sometimes walking across minefields, to search battlefields and makeshift graves, looking for the remains of Israeli dead. He spoke to as many fighters, Jewish and Arab, as he could to gather eyewitness testimony. But he never learned what happened to the three missing men from Yad Mordechai. They are still listed as “Open Cases,” soldiers whose death and burial place are unknown, by the IDF MIA Accounting Unit.

On the sixth day of the battle, not knowing the defenders had retreated, Egyptians opened fire again. After about four hours of steady artillery bombardment, they realized no one was shooting back at them. They entered the kibbutz, only to find it empty. Not even bodies remained; the Jews had buried their dead in a mass grave.

The Egyptian army destroyed the kibbutz and continued towards Tel Aviv. In Ashdod the Israeli Air Force attacked them. Egypt hadn’t known Israel possessed an air force, nor that they had already seen it in its entirety—all four planes. Surprised by bombs dropping on them from directly above, they retreated.

Actually, a week earlier the Israeli Air Force had not existed.

After World War II, the Jewish community in British Palestine knew that sooner or later they would have to fight the British or the Arabs to gain a state. Agents were sent to Europe to buy surplus military equipment. One found Messerschmitts in Czechoslovakia, then ruled by the USSR. When the USSR decided to support Israel, the Czechs sold five planes plus spare parts, to Israel. Experienced fighter pilots and airplane technicians were recruited from the US and Canada.

Boxes of airplane parts arrived in Haifa and were taken to Zichron Yakov, a town near the coast. The planes were reassembled in a large wine storage cave. They were not equipped to drop bombs, so they were loaded with hand grenades and bottles full of water.

By this time, the Egyptian army was marching up the coast.

The brand new Air Force took off and flew south. One plane crashed into the sea, but the remaining four planes attacked the Egyptians in Ashdod. The pilots dropped the hand grenades and water bottles out the window. The grenades killed only a few soldiers. The water bottles broke with loud noise. The Israeli air attack was successful only because the Egyptians were surprised and panicked. They turned and fled back to the Negev.

In Ashdod today you can stand on the Ad Halom (“This Far”) Bridge. The Egyptian army got that far north and no farther.

Kibbutz Yad Mordechai paid a terrible price—twenty-three of its members had died and all its buildings had been destroyed. But in the six days it held the Egyptian army at bay, Israel had built an air force which saved its largest city.

About six months later Israel retook Yad Mordechai. The farmers returned and rebuilt. Today, with more than 600 members, it is the largest producer of honey in the country.

Several Egyptian tanks still sit in its fields. Defensive trenches still rim one of its hills. The cast iron soldiers stand where once live soldiers fought. And visitors look at it all, listen to the recorded description of the battle, and learn about the sacrifices it took to make the country.

Location of Kibbutz Yad Mordechai

Negev Ostrich Farm

Tsofia van Grevenbroek shows off some eggs laid by the ostriches at her farm in the Western Negev.
Tsofia van Grevenbroek shows off some eggs laid by the ostriches at her farm in the Western Negev.

An ostrich farm in Israel? Sounds about as realistic as US cavalry patrols on camels.

Except that both really happened.

It is not widely known that camels were imported to the US in the mid 19th century for use by army cavalry in the Southwest. However, as the Civil War heated up, the army abandoned many of the forts, and the camels were let lose to wander freely until they died out. There just weren’t enough camels in the wild to sustain a viable population .

The ostrich ranch also raises turkeys, chickens, and ducks in the Negev
The ostrich farm also raises turkeys, chickens, and ducks

 

In the first decade of the 21st century, ostrich farming was a thriving industry in Israel, but due to changing market needs and agricultural laws, today only the original farm still exists. It has been converted from an ostrich breeding endeavor to an educational one. Its owner, Tsofia van Grevenbroek, spoke of its history to our group from Pardes Institute of this week.

A city girl from Tel Aviv, Tsofia was learning agricultural skills at Kibbutz Yotvata in the southern Negev when she met Mike van Grevenbroek, a Dutch agriculturalist. He was the original manager of Chai Bar, the first wild animal sanctuary in the country, founded to reintroduce into the wild once indigenous species, such as the oryx, vulture and fallow deer. In 1978, with permission of the Shah of Iran, he captured four Syrian Fallow Deer from a small herd that lived near the Caspian Sea. Until this herd was discovered in the 1950s, Syrian fallow deer had been thought extinct. He brought them back to Israel on the last El Al plane to leave Tehran in December 1978, at the height of the Iranian revolution. The does were pregnant, and along with a male Syrian Fallow deer purchased from a European zoo, they thrived in Israel. Today, besides the herd of over a hundred at Chai Bar, fallow deer have been successfully released into the wild in the Carmel and Jerusalem forests.

After many years at Chai Bar, Mike wanted a change. He left the nature reserve, and he and Tsofia traveled to South Africa, where they worked at friend’s ostrich ranch for a year. Ostrich ranching is a big industry there; the large birds are grown for their feathers, meat, and leather. Because the government wants to keep a monopoly, it was illegal to export ostriches or their eggs. Since Mike and Tsofia wanted to start their own ostrich farm in Israel, the night before their return home, Mike went to the incubator room and looked for ones that were about to hatch. He found a dozen, which he and Tsofia carefully packed into their hand luggage.

Anxiously, they carried their hand luggage through South African customs. A few hours into the thirteen hour flight, Tsofia turned to Mike and said, “Your bag is making noise.”

Mike had chosen well—the birds were hatching.

You can’t keep baby birds in a handbag. To the delight of the other passengers, they let the birds out to run around the plane cabin for the rest of the flight. She did not tell us how they managed to round up all the birds when they landed at Ben Gurion. I imagine it would have been only slightly harder than trying to round up a dozen toddlers who don’t want to leave the playground.

Mike informed his friend of what he had done, in coded language so the South African authorities would not know he had broken the law. The friend invited him to return and pick up twenty more. This time he put cellophane tape around the egg so the chicks could hatch and breathe, but not escape the eggs. Tsofia and Mike now had almost three dozen baby ostriches running around their apartment.

Ostriches are big birds. They grow from being small one pound chicks to six and a half foot, 200 pound birds in a year. Luckily, Kibbutz Urim was willing to take care of the birds in its children’s zoo.

What the Grevenbroeks really wanted was some land to build a farm for ostriches. Most land in this country is owned by the Israel Lands Authority. The ILA does not sell land, but leases it to people for 49 or 98 years. The bureaucracy, like most other bureaucracies, moves slowly. Meanwhile, the ostriches were growing rapidly. So Mike called General Avraham Yoffe, the first head of the Nature Preserves Authority, the man who had sent him to catch the fallow deer. General Yoffe called his good friend, Ariel Sharon, and told him about the Grevenbroek’s plight. Sharon, then the Minister of Agriculture, was promoting development of the Negev, so he in turn called the Land Office and told them to give the Grevenbroeks some land.

They received a lease for an area in the Negev, near the borders with Gaza and Egypt. The land was unsuitable for agriculture, but worked for ostriches. Although they had permission to use the land, Mike and Tsofia could not build a house. They solved their housing problem by buy three old Turkish railway carriages, which they moved into in July 1981, without water or electricity. Somehow, they managed.

After twenty-five years, they finally received a permit to build a house. The railway carriages are still there, now converted to a beautiful home. I could see traces of the original railway cars in some of the outside walls.

The ostriches thrived and the Gevenbroeks started selling them. By the year 2000, they had eight hundred breeders; twenty-two ranches in Israel were raising ostriches. Most of the products—feathers, meat, and leather—went to the export market.

Then demand for ostrich products decreased. Prices fell. The worst blow was the outbreak of bird flu in Israel in 2006—ostrich ranchers could not export anything. Then ostriches were declared a protected species. Commercial ostrich farming in Israel died.

Today the original farm has only about forty ostriches. Each male has his own large pen which he shares with two females. During breeding season he digs a nest in the ground, in which both females lay around fifteen eggs. They all share incubating duties. The male sits on the eggs during the night,the females in the daytime.

Tsofia told us that ostriches have a long history in the land of Israel. Paleontologists have found remains of ostriches from the time of dinosaurs. A few years ago, a rancher in the Sharon, the area between Tel Aviv and, found four ostrich eggs that were estimated to be around 5500 years old. Ancient pictures of birds that look like ostriches have even been found etched on stone plaques uncovered in the Galil, near Nazareth. And the ostrich is also mentioned several times in the Bible, in the books of Leviticus, Isaiah, Job, and Lamentations. The birds roamed wild in the country becoming extinct in the 1920s.

The ostrich’s long legs and two-toed foot enable it to run up to seventy kilometers per hour, for most of a day, and tends to run in circles. It’s not a very smart bird. How could it be, when its eyes are bigger than its brain?

Side view of male ostrich, showing the relatively large eye
When an ostrich show his profile, you can see how large its eye is compared to the size of its head.

This surprised me until I really looked at the tall bird standing a few feet in front of me. Its tiny head and big eyes do look out of proportion. I started wondering about how it sees. Vision in mammals requires a large proportion of the brain to interpret signals from the eyes. How does that work, precisely, if the eye is bigger than the brain? Yet the ostrich is known to have acute eyesight both during the day and at night.

When checking the history of ostriches in Israel, I discovered that Tsofia’s tale of smuggling ostrich eggs from South Africa may not have been entirely accurate. There were too many inconsistencies in the reporting of how the ostriches came to the Negev. Nonetheless, my mental image of a dozen ostrich chicks running loose in an airplane cabin is one that will no doubt stay with me a long time.