'For the founders, the land is an extension of their bodies'

On fields near Gaza, farmers and volunteers struggle to mitigate huge wartime damages

Growers dealing with multiple challenges, ranging from manpower shortages to sun-blocking dust, are enlisting help from unexpected places and vowing not to leave

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Rahamim Mughrabi in his moshav near Netivot, Israel, on November 9, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
Rahamim Mughrabi in his moshav near Netivot, Israel, on November 9, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

A farmer with 40 years of experience growing vegetables near the Gaza Strip, Rahamim Mughrabi is not easily deterred by rocket fire.

Normally he largely ignores warning sirens as terrorists fire toward the moshav community where he was born, which is situated about 15 kilometers (9 miles) east of Gaza.

But the fall of 2023 is not normal.

Over the past month, Hamas terrorists have launched so many projectiles at his fields — perhaps in an attempt to strike nearby Iron Dome and artillery deployments — that they are scarred by multiple impact craters (Mughrabi’s community cannot be named here due to the security sensitivity).

So when the alarms began to wail on Thursday afternoon, Mughrabi dashed across his tomato greenhouse with uncharacteristic haste. “Bastards, goddamn bastards,” he hissed, his voice conveying more disbelief than anger as he ran.

Mughrabi, 63, is one of the hundreds of farmers who have refused to leave the northern Negev region despite war-related challenges on a scale that they have never experienced before, including an employee shortage that is threatening to undo their life’s work.

Rahamim Mughrabi examines stunted coriander seedlings in his moshav near Netivot, Israel, on November 9, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

In Mughrabi’s case, rockets are the least of his worries. Following the October 7 onslaught by Hamas terrorists in Israel, Israel Defense Forces artillery units deployed near the netted fields where he grows several herbs, including coriander, parsley and arugula, as well as tomatoes. In addition to attracting inbound projectiles, the artillery cannons’ recoil is pulverizing the earth and sending it up in clouds of dust that are settling on the nets, blocking sunlight — and killing his crops.

“This season’s crop is basically all ruined,” Mughrabi said, holding up a stunted coriander plant growing in a bald patch that this late in autumn should have been overflowing with green.

Rahamim Mughrabi stands amid overgrown arugula plants in his moshav near Netivot, Israel, on November 9, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Over at the arugula fields, the lack of sunlight has triggered an early blossom at the expense of foliage, which is the commercial part of the plant. In the light that filtered in through the grimy netting, the yellow blooms were reminiscent of a Claude Monet painting, but Mughrabi wasn’t in the mood to enjoy it. “I don’t even come to this field since the war started. No point. It’s just watching effort and money go down the drain.”

For harvesting most of his crops, Mughrabi is dependent on 40 foreign workers, mostly from Thailand. Only six of them have stayed, but they’re afraid to go out into the fields (one Gaza rocket landed inside the greenhouse where Mughrabi grows tomatoes, destroying about a quarter of the crop).

The aftermath of a direct rocket hit in a residential home in Netivot, Israel, pictured on November 9, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Hamas has been launching rockets into Israel since October 7, when some 3,000 terrorists crossed into Israel and marauded through Israeli towns, killing at least 1,200 people, including dozens of foreign workers, and abducting some 240 others, among other war crimes and atrocities. Israel has launched a massive military operation in the Gaza Strip, sending in thousands of troops and carrying out artillery and air force strikes on Hamas targets with the stated aim of toppling its regime.

When Hamas invaded Israel, the western Negev region had some 8,000 foreign workers, who constituted the bulk of the manpower in the agricultural sector of the area sometimes referred to as Israel’s vegetable basket. The area contains about 4,000 acres of tomato fields, which account for some 70% of the entire national yield, and another 2,700 acres of leafy vegetables. Peppers, cucumbers and multiple varieties of citrus trees are grown in thousands acres more in the area, known informally as the Gaza envelope.

Smoke billows up from the Gaza Strip behind the avocado orchards of Nahal Oz, Israel, on October 15, 2023. (Canaan Lidor)

Much of that territory cannot be farmed at all now, as it is too near the Gaza border and is threatened by Hamas’s snipers and anti-tank missiles. Places like Be’eri, Kfar Aza, Nahal Oz and Nir Oz are deserted following the Hamas onslaught.

A shed burns following the attack by Hamas terrorists on Alumim, Israel, on October 7, 2023. (Stevie Marcus)

In some of the first-line settlements, such as Alumim, a skeleton team of farmers risk their lives to sustain farm animals. Stevie Marcus, a 61-year-old member of Alumim, returned there to care for the kibbutz’s cows within days of the assault. The terrorists killed many of the animals but some calves survived, he said.

But villages and kibbutzim farther away, that lie beyond sniper range, are seeing a resumption of agricultural activity even in the absence of foreign workers — thanks to a steady stream of thousands of Israeli volunteers taking the foreigners’ place to help farmers stay afloat and assist in the war effort.

Stevie Marcus, left, his wife Esther and his father. (Courtesy)

Several organizations have taken it upon themselves to recruit volunteers on a daily basis, including HaShomer HaChadash, originally set up to help farmers deal with theft, violence, and harassment; Ahim Lemeshek — which means Brothers for the Economy, and rhymes in Hebrew with the name of its parent group, the anti-overhaul protest group Ahim Leneshek (Brothers in Arms); and Zav 8.

Farmers also use social networks to find assistance, and municipal workers from the regional councils also help connect the farmers with helping hands. And human resources departments of multiple companies have organized harvest and other war-related volunteering activities, often instead of team-building excursions.

Ofer Spielberg, head of the Hematology Department at Assuta Medical Center in Tel Aviv, was recruited by one of his patients. The woman, a resident of Netivot situated about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from Gaza, put him in touch with Avner Davidian, who grows peppers and cherry tomatoes in nearby Shibolim.

Noga Spielberg, Avner Davidian and Ofer Spielberg take a break from picking tomatoes in Shibolim, Israel, on November 9, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

“I’m on my remote working day,” Spielberg told The Times of Israel at Davidian’s greenhouse. “As you can see, I am remote and I am working,” the physician said, pointing to a bucket of cherry tomatoes he picked with his wife, Noga.

It was the second time the couple had come to work at Davidian’s greenhouse. The first time, a warning siren caught them mid-harvest. With no immediate shelter available, the two were forced to lie on the ground with their hands over their heads, as emergency services advise. It did not deter them from returning.

On his lunch break, Spielberg examined on his phone a daily summary on patients from his department. “Everything seems to be in order,” Spielberg said, and returned to picking. In the background, speakers Davidian brought into the greenhouse played Israeli music. Sodas and snacks and sandwiches were laid out on a table for the volunteers.

Noga Spielberg said she enjoys the picking because it gives her “relief from constantly thinking about the war and our hostages in Gaza.” But the work is tough, she said. “The bending is just a killer on your back.”

Avner Davidian, right, instructs Ofer Spielberg on how to pick peppers in Shibolim, Israel, on November 9, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Davidian said the few neighbors who left because of the rockets have returned. He and his children are “never going to leave,” he added. “Look around you. All the moshavim and kibbutzim here were founded on agriculture by people who regard this earth, soil and land as an extension of their own bodies.”

He conceded that many in the younger generation have abandoned agriculture as the Israeli economy has shifted away from its agrarian roots. But, he added, “their connection to this land is as strong as steel because that’s how we were raised. So we’re not going anywhere, no matter what they throw at us.”

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