In southern Israel, barbed wire guards 'heaven'

Israelis say cheap land along the Egyptian border has made their dreams come true, but it comes with some risk.

Christa Case Bryant/TCSM
Graphic designer Yael Katsir moved to Kmehin, an agricultural community on the Egypt-Israel border, five years ago with her husband, who grows cherry tomatoes.

As Yael Katsir tells it, the Israeli army makes it possible for civilians who live along the border with Egypt's Sinai Peninsula to have their cake and eat it, too – almost.

She and her husband moved down here five years ago to take advantage of the affordable agricultural land so he could fulfill his dream of becoming a farmer.  Now, he cultivates cherry tomatoes on a moshav, Kmehin, and she works as a graphic designer from home.

"As farmers, this is heaven for us," she says.

This piece of heaven, though, comes with a bit of barbed wire for protection, a reminder of the smuggling and jihadist activity just across the border.

Just this week Ms. Katsir was at a birthday party with her daughter. They were just about to cut the cake when she got a text from the local security team warning of a potential border incident.

"We almost got to the birthday cake but everyone had to take a little piece and go home," she says. "Nobody wanted to get stuck if they close the area."

After nearly 35 years of quiet on the Egypt-Israel border since the 1979 Camp David accords were signed, smuggling and jihadist activity has caused Israel to take greater precautions in the last few years.  Groups affiliated with or at least inspired by Al Qaeda roam the canyons, caves, and desolate terrain of the Sinai, which has an average population density of one person per square mile. After eight Israelis were killed in a brazen attack two years ago, the government accelerated plans to build a 150-mile fence – already in the works to stem human trafficking – and completed it in record time.

Smugglers will still throw bags of hashish over the fence, says local security team member Anon Seaon of the moshav Kadesh Barnea, who is responsible for the text messages that keep citizens informed whether at birthday parties or in their fields. Often there are as many as 20 alerts per day, though most pertain to smuggling activity rather than terrorist actions.

But last week school was canceled after a reported breach of the fence. Katsir and her kids made cookies for the soldiers who work nearby.

"I tell them, 'People are trying to hurt us, but the army is protecting us, so let's make the most of [the day off],'" says Katsir, who says she also has confidence in the Egyptian army’s efforts to protect the fence. However, she adds later, the recent upheaval in Egypt has put her more on guard. "I'm alert, more alert than other times."

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