'It was full of young people, and now everything's neglected'

Once-thriving agriculture struggles to stay afloat in evacuated northern border area

Almost no supplies are delivered and few people remain at farms and food tech startups in zone battered by rocket fire and drone attacks from Lebanese terror group Hezbollah

Brothers in Arms volunteers help on a farm. (Brothers in Arms Civilian Situation Room)
Brothers in Arms volunteers help on a farm. (Brothers in Arms Civilian Situation Room)

In a mostly empty kibbutz in Israel’s evacuation zone near the Lebanese border, Lior Shelef has stayed behind to keep watch as a reservist in a protection force. He still tends the cows and chickens, even as Hezbollah rockets keep coming closer.

The chicken coops had been damaged in a rocket attack and the frequent sound of explosions panics the animals.

“We don’t know what will happen tomorrow. We don’t know if the day will escalate to be worse or better,” he said.

“If the chicken is very afraid because of the noise of the rockets, how will it affect her life? Maybe she will die from a heart attack.”

Over 2,000 rockets have been fired from Lebanon into northern Israel since the outbreak of the war in Gaza, when Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah terror group launched a campaign of attacks in support of Hamas.

Around 100,000 Israelis have had to evacuate from the area around the northern border, as have tens of thousands of Lebanese from communities on the opposite side.

Smoke rises after a rocket fired from Lebanon hit Moshav Avivim, northern Israel, March 26, 2024. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

The evacuation has turned some of Israel’s most productive farming communities into ghost towns, like Kibbutz Snir, which rears cows and chickens and grows avocados and some vegetables around 3 kilometers  (approximately 1.8 miles) from the Lebanese border.

Shelef said suppliers were not coming into the area due to the bombardments, making it hard for the skeleton staff to keep the farm fully functioning.

Israel’s northern region accounts for a third of the country’s agricultural land, and about 73% of its domestic egg production is concentrated in the Galilee and Golan regions, the Agriculture Ministry said.

Parts of southern Israel near the Gaza Strip have also been evacuated since Hamas terrorists burst across the border on October to murder some 1,200 people and kidnap 253.

Greenhouses and dairy farms have been damaged there, a hit to an agriculture sector that is the pride of a country founded on dreams of making the desert bloom.

In February the Agriculture Ministry said it would lift duties on imported eggs to meet needs for upcoming Passover in April, forecasting a drop in local production due in part to the security situation.

Eggs stacked on shelves at the Osher Ad supermarket in Givat Shaul, Jerusalem, October 27, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

‘Endangering their lives’

Devora Evgi, who was evacuated from the small farming community of Avivim on the Lebanese border where she raises chickens, said the coops there were still being maintained by a few people who had stayed behind.

“They know that they are literally endangering their lives each time they go to the coops,” she said. “Hezbollah is constantly keeping them under surveillance and can fire a rocket suddenly at any time, with no warning.”

Keeping the community going would depend on restoring security, she said. “I’m not going to hold down the front line like I have for my entire life if I don’t have a way to make a living or security.”

Israel has long fostered agricultural technology companies exploring ways to squeeze higher yields of higher-value crops from arid land.

Kiryat Shmona, a major city in Israel’s upper northern region some seven kilometers (approximately four miles) from the Lebanese border, was being developed as a hub for food technology companies.

But since the city was evacuated in October, companies have left. On a recent visit, shops and homes were shuttered. Soldiers patrolled the quiet streets.

Israeli security forces at the scene where a rocket fired from Lebanon injured two people in the northern Israeli city of Kiryat Shmona, February 13, 2024. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

The offices were mostly shut in a building used by Fresh Start, an early-stage agriculture tech investment company in the city. So were the adjacent offices of the 10 food tech startups Fresh Start supports, though chief technology officer Tammy Meiron told Reuters the businesses were still operational from different locations elsewhere in Israel.

Apart from laboratory equipment left behind and schoolchildren’s drawings on the walls, there was little sign of the cutting-edge research work undertaken there.

“It’s heartbreaking because it’s empty. The town is empty,” Meiron told Reuters as she looked out onto the lush green hills above her office window. “It was full of young people … And now everything is neglected.”

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