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Tucsonans grow Path to Peace on Gaza border

Tucsonans Ron and Jacquelyn Feller at the Path to Peace wall in Netiv Ha’asara, Oct. 21 (Debe Campbell)

Netiv Ha’asara, a moshav (cooperative farming community) northwest of Israel’s Negev, in the Hof Ashkelon region, is part of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona partnership area. With pastoral charm and fragrant lemon trees, lush gardens hug its 250 cozy homes near the Mediterranean coast. In the shadow of the Gaza border, it is home to a grassroots peace movement recently expanded by the hands of Tucson visitors.

Tucsonans Ron and Jacquelyn Feller at the Path to Peace wall in Netiv Ha’asara, Oct. 21 (Debe Campbell)

As drones buzzed overhead and guards undoubtedly looked down from nearby watchtowers, a band of 50 Tucson travelers with the Weintraub Israel Center’s 2018 Israel experience stood in the sandy desert terrain at the Gaza boundary between the fence and the walls. That was on Oct. 21. Like thousands of other recent visitors to Netiv Ha’asara, they came to see the Path to Peace project and visit its founder, ceramic artist Tsameret Zamir. The moshav and its many recent visitors together have created the Path to Peace, a mosaic of painting and stones decorating the drab walls, to foster hope, love, and happiness among all people, according to Zamir.

Today, such a visit might be impossible. Last week, peace was shattered by hundreds of rounds of Hamas missiles targeting Israel’s southern district. Iron Dome interception strikes, tanks and Israeli Defense Forces massing along the Gaza border, and a tenuous cease-fire are creating turmoil. Unfortunately, this is not unusual for the residents of this area.

Evacuated by the Camp David Accords from a settlement of the same name in the Sinai Peninsula, Netiv Ha’asara residents relocated there in 1982. Born and raised nearby, Zamir moved there 20 years ago to give her four children the beautiful and peaceful life she grew up with, she says.

But missiles raining down on homes disturbed the bucolic solitude in 2000. By 2005, Israel evacuated Jewish settlements inside the Gaza Strip as Palestinian shooting and terrorism continued. There were long periods of gunfire and three wars, Zamir recalls. Following a 50-day war when terrorists came out of tunnels onto the Israeli side of the border, Operation Protective Edge initiated Israel’s disengagement from Gaza. Netiv Ha’asara became the closest community in Israel to the Gaza Strip, just 438 yards from a Palestinian town. A barbed wire-reinforced metal fence marks the borderline skirting the moshav. A concrete wall blocks the view into the community while a second wall provides a further layer of protection from random cross-border shooting.

In 2012, Zamir tired of seeing the gray cement wall from her nearby home. “I couldn’t help but think what hides behind it,” she recalls. She went to the wall, began painting a huge white dove, and wrote “Path to Peace” in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. The mosaics and colorful display face the Gaza border. She intends for those across the border to see the message of peace when they gaze at the wall.

“Every moshav resident and visitor who comes here chooses a ceramic stone to place on the wall to create beauty,” she says. “It’s to show strength and bravery and it has become a tourist attraction.” Every participant pencils a personal wish on the back of a colorful ceramic piece and glues it onto the security wall. The water-resistant, mosaic pieces are handmade in the Path to Peace studio, just steps away from the wall. Designs evolve but include whimsical animals, flowers, hearts, symbols, and slogans.

“We work together to help others and our neighbors, nurturing the moshav,” she says. New homes are under construction and people who grew up there are returning to build homes near family. Today, protective bunkers or bomb shelters stand every few hundred yards, some brightly painted in floral and geometric patterns. Under constant threat of attack, residents have just five seconds when a security alarm sounds to enter a bunker — either in their home, those scattered throughout the community, or the school, which is a secure shelter.  One such alarm sounded just minutes before the Tucson group arrived in the otherwise quiet and quaint community.

“Every one of us can dream and want peace, and in the Path to Peace wall we all together create shared hope,” Zamir says. The thousands of pieces on the wall attest to the volume of visitors who chose to leave their mark and wishes for a better future. Every visitor takes the hope for peace with him and passes it forward in different ways, Zamir says.

Back at her studio, Zamir plays a video for visitors that describes the project. She sells stones and a few ceramic items to support and continue the project. She encourages other communities to make an active contribution to peace by launching their own Path to Peace projects. The studio offers a kit with stones to replicate the Gaza wall project in other locations.

The Path to Peace is about tolerance and kindness to others, about happiness and staying optimistic, creating mutual hope as a way of solving problems, says Zamir. “We feel safe now and sleep well at night,” she said four weeks ago. “The goal is to bring happiness to my community and change the fear into hope.”

Today, residents maintain the Path to Peace in the moshav, in hope that peace soon will return.

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