Done with all the touristy things to do in Israel and ready for an off the beaten path adventure to learn more about the Gaza-Israel conflict and people’s daily life in the shade of the wall? In this blog about my trip to the Gaza border I will show you what it is really like.
Book the Gaza Border Reality Tour offered by Abraham Tours and visit Gaza Border! It might not be the first thing on your mind when you travel to Israel, but it’s a really impressive must-do experience on your Israel trip for any adventurer. For me, it was one of the most unique things to do in Israel.
Is it safe to go to the Gaza Strip?
Signing up for this Gaza Border Tour is not without risk. The situation in this area is very unstable and turbulent. It can change rapidly and there are times that rockets get fired. But visiting the Gaza border is possible!
Is it safe to visit the Gaza border and signing up for this reality tour? Yes, it is! Despite the unstable situation I felt safe all the time. It may be isn't the main reason to travel to Israel or the first tour to book when visiting, but damn it was an incredible experience.
Apart from the above Abraham Tours will - of course - cancel the tour if the situation becomes too dangerous. As I said before, as long as people still live right at the wall it shouldn’t be too crazy. And yes, occasionally rockets get fired. However, this doesn’t happen on a daily base. Thanks to Eliyahu it was by far one of the most interesting Israel tours and I would join again.
The Gaza tour is a great way to understand the Gaza-Israel conflict and will give you the experience of becoming part of the daily life around the Gaza border. It signifies the reality about the Arab war against the Jews of Israel. If the situation becomes too dangerous the tour will get cancelled. As long as the tour is running it means: enter at your own risk! Hamas will definitely be watching you.
Welcome to the Gaza Border Reality Tour!
While we were waiting for our tour guide in the Traveller’s Centre of Abraham Hostel Jerusalem, I was checking the news on the current Gaza situation and to my surprise I read this disturbing headline of something that happened the night before: ‘Rocket fired on Israel, lands within Gaza strip’. The second article was dated a few days earlier: ‘Gaza rocket strikes Sderot after deadly clashes on border’. The tour didn’t even start yet, but the Gaza-Israel conflict became already reality for me!
I felt a bit tensed. Rockets got fired the past days and we were actually going to visit the town of Sderot, also known as the bomb shelter capital of the world. I was asking myself why I signed up for a Gaza Border tour and if it would be safe enough to visit the Gaza border, but because of my curiosity and interest I wanted to witness the daily life of the many people living around the Gaza strip.
I mean, as long as people still live right at ‘the wall’ it shouldn’t be too dangerous, right? Let’s find out!
Places to visit around the Gaza Border
It’s not possible to actually travel to Gaza, but during this tour you will explore the region around the Gaza border on the Israel side. Together with a professional guide, Eliyahu McLean, you will visit the entrance of the Erez border crossing and drive through the area adjacent to the border of Gaza. You will stop at different lookouts and memorial sites for fallen soldiers. You will experience the daily life of a Kibbutz (communes in Israel traditionally based on agriculture) and get in contact with the Gaza Youth Committee living in Gaza.
In the neighbourhood of Sderot, you will visit the Quassam rocket gallery and rocket safe playgrounds. Just next to Sderot you will see the Iron Dome defence system and pass by the ruins of a Palestinian village, whose descendants are in Gaza. This tour also includes a visit at Moshav Netiv HaAsara; the town where we met the artist Tsameret Zamir, the creator of the unique and impressive project ‘Path to Peace’.
By visiting these places you will get a good impression of the Gaza-Israel conflict and you are able to witness some results of the conflict with your own eyes and get in touch with Israeli living in the shade of the wall. I can assure you that visiting the Gaza border will leave its mark on every participant.
In my blog about the best places to visit in Israel I mention the Gaza Border tour, but that does not mean this is an Israel tourist attraction. It is merely for those who travel to learn and to educate themselves.
After a short briefing we started the Gaza border tour at the much-discussed Erez border crossing on the Northern border of the Gaza Strip that has been affected by the blockade of the Gaza Strip imposed by Israel and Egypt in 2007, after Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip during the Battle of Gaza. Now, the Erez border crossing is the only land crossing that serves as a point of entry and exit for people traveling between the Gaza Strip and Israel and the West Bank.
The permits given to Palestinian residents by Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) are very limited to for example merchants and ‘humanitarian exceptions’, like medical patients, visiting a dying first-degree relative, or to be present at a wedding or a funeral of a first-degree relative.
The Erez border crossing is heavily guarded with a lot of security. While looking up I noticed ‘white balloons’ in the air. These are 360-degrees security cams of the Israeli army operating over the border. Everyone is being watched!
You are also not allowed to take photos of the border building and you can definitely feel some tension in this area. Some people are willing to talk, others don’t. We met a couple of Israeli-Arab taxi drivers who were waiting at the crossing to pick up Palestinian merchants from Gaza.
We even spoke to a Palestinian trader in Tobacco. Because tobacco needs to be imported from outside Gaza, it’s a highly demand product. Traders earn a lot of money because of its real scarcity. Residents of the Gaza Strip are willing to pay a lot of money for Tobacco, contrary to the low level of money they can spend (average of 30 shekels/9 dollar a day). In Israel this is 9 dollar per hour.
These Gaza merchants we’ve met, are one of the lucky few that are able to travel outside Gaza. Apart from trading in tobacco, they also import for example, vegetables like lemons and tomatoes. We had some very interesting conversations at the Erez border crossing.
The ones who feel like talking about the situation in the Gaza Strip tell us it’s one big prison and they feel freedom once they set foot in Israel, on the other side of the border. It’s crazy when you think about the fact that those few meters can make so much difference in some people’s lives: prison on one side versus liberty on the other side!
Sadly, freedom still isn’t obvious in many parts of our world!
While still processing the Erez Crossing conversations and observations in my head, we drove through the fields of Kibbutz Erez to a place where a rocket killed the 67-year old Moshe Feder, only 6 weeks before we had visited this exact place. Can you imagine that? A rocket got fired at this exact place only 6 weeks ago. Will it get more real than that?
According to reports, Moshe Feder was the partner of Iris Eden, who lost her first husband, Yashish Eden, in the 1997 ‘Helicopter disaster’. That incident, when two aircraft crashed near the northern border with Lebanon, killed 73 soldiers. I feel very sorry for Iris, who lost both of her loved ones as a result of this devastating on-going war and the Gaza-Israel conflict.
Asaf Siboni Lookout point and memorial
Another victim of this ‘helicopter disaster’ crash was a member of the adjacent Nir Am Kibbutz, Asaf Siboni (1976-1997). The memorial of Asaf Siboni is a moving observatory with 20 wind flutes, representing the years of his life. Apart from the beautiful memorial, this lookout point provides a great view into Gaza. I found this location pretty surrealistic.
In contrast of the observation into Gaza and the tough reality of the helicopter crash, you can enjoy the calm sounds of the flutes on the lookout point. You will face these kinds of contrasts the whole day when visiting the Gaza Strip border.
From the lookout point, you can see the Gaza power plant, located on the Mediterranean coast in Ashkelon. This power plant began operating in 2002 to provide electricity to the Gaza Strip and is very important. A shortage of electricity will interrupt the functioning of medical facilities, as it has before. By providing electricity and fuel, Israel keeps taking their responsibility. This knowledge makes you understand the (psychological) impacts of the Gaza-Israel conflict.
The Black Arrow Memorial
Not very far from the Asaf Siboni lookout point, there’s another military memorial site called ‘The Black Arrow Memorial’. The site on the Gaza border is named after the military heritage of the paratroopers during ‘the period of reprisals’. There is a memorial dedicated to each (of the eleven) reprisal operation. It is a well-contained and impressive site with stone monuments, detailed engraving each action and its consequences. The site also offers picnic tables, as well as a direct view of the Gaza strip.
Being in this area comes with mixed feelings (again). While enjoying the view, Eliyahu told us about a bus that was hit by an anti-tank missile fired by Hamas in November 2018. The bus had previously been filled with troops but was apparently empty except for the driver, who got seriously injured.
According to an initial IDF investigation the soldiers acted in contradiction to orders forbidding the bus's entry to the 'Black Arrow' monument. Because of this action, a massive rocket attack was launched at the communities surrounding the Gaza Strip.
At the site, you could still see the damage of burned trees and residual pieces of the bus. While holding a melted piece of metal that still was a bus a few month ago, I realised again we were moving around a war zone and that this Gaza Border tour was one of the unique things to do in Israel. The physical reason of this attack was probably a serious warning to show Israel that Hamas sees everything.
You now probably understand why this tour is called the Gaza Border reality tour! It’s reality from the start to the very end!
Nahal Oz and the battle of 2014
From the Black Arrow Memorial site, we went to Kibbutz Nahal Oz. This is the closest place in Israel to the Gaza strip. An open field of 800 meters, with an iron fence in the middle, separates Nahal Oz from the Gaza Strip. On the other side of that fence – in Gaza – is the neighbourhood of Shejaiya.
This place was almost completely destroyed during the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict, also called ‘Operation Protective Edge’ or ‘the 2014 Gaza War’. This was a military operation launched by Israel on July 8 2014 in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. This 50-day War was one of the deadliest battles in a decade, with Israel and Hamas both claiming victory.
We stopped at the edge of Nahal Oz, where Gaza appears on the horizon beyond a burned sunflower field that was probably the work of Molotov Kites. A site that used to be a beautiful yellow sunflower field with their back turned to Gaza, as if they didn’t want to see what was going on, now symbolises the tragedy of this conflict. A sad sight as if they are still grieving.
To come even more close to the Gaza Border we drove along a dirt road to a tank platform to have a quick look across the border into the Gaza Strip. We hurried up to the platform and saw different military vehicles driving back and forth. “Let’s wave to Hamas”, Eliyahu said to us. “They are definitely watching us!” It may be the closest we got to the Gaza border.
The look into Gaza was pretty impressive and surreal, so close and yet so far. I definitely felt being watched by Hamas as well as the Israeli army. Before the Israeli army would warn us, we took some quick photos of the scene and went off.
Weekly border protest
In this area, every Friday, Palestinians in Gaza protest along the fence separating the strip from Israel. The so-called Great March of Return demonstrations (GMR) started on the 30th of March 2018, to demand the end of the Israeli blockade and the right of return for refugees. The demonstrations have continued since. Violence during these demonstrations has resulted in the deadliest days of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the 2014 Gaza War.
Despite the violence and kills in the weekly protests, Palestinian demonstrators keep continuing. They fight for their lives, freedom and a better future with the thought of ‘nothing left to lose’.
Kibbutz Alumim and Be’erot Yitzhak
From Nahal Oz we headed to Kibbutz Alumim, founded in 1966. It was built on the old Kibbutz Be’erot Yitzhak that was destroyed in a battle with the Egyptian Army in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Every building in the kibbutz was destroyed except for the water tower.
Today you can still see the heavily damaged – but renovated – water tower, in order to illustrate the fierce battle that took place during the Independence War. Traveling to Israel can sometimes be confronting, traveling to the Gaza border shows you the reality of this sometimes crazy world.
The name Be’erot Yitzhak recalls the patriarch Isaac's search for water in this area and the visitor and heritage centre serves to pass on the legacy, heritage and history of all the Northern Negev communities.
For lunch we went to Kibbutz Sa’ad, located a few minutes of Kibbutz Alumim, in the Northern Negev region just south of Ashkelon. At Sa’ad you will find a Modern Orthodox community. They have a large synagogue and Beit Midrash (House of learning) with a religious library. There are daily and weekly ‘Shiurims’ (lessons on any Torah topic) given by a Rabbi (Jewish teacher) and kibbutz members.
It’s important to know that it is well mannered to cover your knees and shoulders when you enter the dining hall. After a good lunch and exploring the site of Kibbutz Sa’ad we continued to the city of Sderot and had a Skype call with the Gaza Youth Committee.
Gaza Youth Committee
Luckily, there are still people living inside Gaza who keep fighting for peace and freedom. Through Skype we spoke to Manar al-Sharif, who works as a spokesperson and (social) media specialist for the Gaza Youth Committee.
Although the connection was very bad, Manar told us about the life in Gaza, goals of the Gaza Youth Committee and the projects they organize. They do incredible work by training young people. They let them concentrate on their skills for a better future to keep them away from demonstrations and violence.
The Gaza Youth Committee encourages the relationships between the young people in Gaza and Israelis. To improve these relationships, they organize activities to fight for peace and freedom. For example, they arranged a youth bicycle ride. Participants representing Gaza’s youth cycled from the centre of Gaza City to the border of Gaza with Israel, carrying banners of ‘Peace and Freedom’.
Another way to connect the Gaza's to the world outside the Gaza Strip is by operating (skype) calls like our call during the Gaza Border Reality Tour organised by Abraham Tours. They think it’s important to talk to people outside of Gaza, so they know what is going on. It is very impressive and surreal at the same time.
Sderot - Bomb shelter capital of the world
The city of Sderot is the largest city in the Gaza Strip area, known as the bomb shelter capital of the world. Since 2000 Sderot has been a target of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel. Right outside the police station in Sderot, you can view the ‘Qassam rocket gallery’ of missiles and rockets fired into Sderot.
We’ve also visited Yeshiva University, where we saw a prayer session, which is the world’s premier Jewish institution for higher education. At the roof of the University, there are different sculptures made of rockets and there’s a good view of the entire neighbourhood of Sderot.
The city of Sderot invested in a lot of precautionary measures. You will see lots of bomb shelters and walls reinforced with steel.
New (school) buildings have cement roofs and you will find rocket safe playgrounds. The most intriguing place I’ve visited was the ‘Park of Good Wishes’, a rocket safe children playground. More cement pipes have been added as rockets continued to fall.
Sderot amazed me! You could literally find a bomb shelter on every corner and yet it’s still a busy town with kind of a laid back vibe where you can find a lot of new construction projects.
The people stay true to their city and don’t even think of moving out, perhaps as a statement. The children who grow up there, don’t know better and live with the fact rockets can fall every minute. They might be afraid at times rockets ad missiles get fired into Sderot, but they don’t let themselves scared away; that’s very inspiring to see.
Iron Dome defend system Israel
Next to the city of Sderot you will find one of Israel’s most famous military inventions; the Iron Dome defend system. This air defence system is designed to intercept rockets from Gaza and definitely makes traveling to Israel much safer.
With cameras and radar, this system tracks incoming rockets and shoots them down within seconds of their launch. It has a success rate of 90 percent. Unfortunately it doesn’t cover the Gaza border region, because the distance is too short.
Palestinian village Al-Najd
Just around the corner of the Iron Dome Defend System, you can find ruins of a Palestinian village called Al-Najd. This village was destroyed in the 1948 Palestinian exodus, also known as the Nakba, which literally translates as ‘The Catastrophe’. Over 700.000 Palestinian Arabs — about 50% of the pre-war Palestine's Arab population — fled or were expelled from their homes. The former residents of the village Al-Najd fled to Gaza and their descendants are still in there. The only thing what’s left is some ruins and an intense historical story.
Moshav Netiv HaAsara: ‘Path to Peace’
Our final and most emotional stop during the Gaza Border tour is at Moshav Netiv HaAsara, on the Northern Gaza Border. For me, it was one of the most extraordinary places to visit in Israel. This village is living under the most extreme conditions next to a threatening wall that is built to protect the villagers of rockets and snipers.
You also find bus shelters transformed into colourful bomb shelters. Although they live in a dangerous environment, these villagers stay positive and that’s very inspiring to see.
We had the privilege of meeting the artist Tsameret Zamir, the creator of the unique project called ‘Path to Peace’. She explained about their life in the shade of the wall, the security situation, the good life in the Moshav and above all about staying optimistic and having hope for a peaceful future.
She started a project of transforming the ugly grey defensive wall into a colourful artwork. We participated in this project by placing a colourful ceramic tile with a positive text on the wall. It is truly inspiring to see this growing artwork!
The ugly defence wall is getting more and more beautiful and peaceful, but I hope there comes a time this wall can be aborted and destroyed forever!
Gaza Border Tour operated by Abraham Tours was an unforgettable interesting and impressive experience as well as an emotional rollercoaster, right from the start to the very end. You will learn more about the life in the shade of the wall and you will get to understand the conflict much better. The Gaza-Israel conflict definitely became reality and is hard to put into words.
Traveltomtom has been traveling to Israel multiple times and with the help of Kim that resulted in more than 10 blog posts full of Israel travel tips already. Check out my tips for buying an Israel sim card for tourists, a boutique hotel Fabric Tel Aviv review or the luxurious Renoma Hotel in Tel Aviv. Visiting Masada Mountain on the Dead Sea, click on the link to find out the best way.
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