Southern Israel was filled with blood and death. Brilliant red wildflowers now bloom among the ashes

REIM, Southern Israel (AP) — Each year as spring approaches, wildflowers erupt across Israel, a splash of color before the punishing Middle Eastern summer. Nowhere is the show more dramatic than in southern Israel, near Gaza, where brilliant red anemones burst forth with such intensity that rolling hills seem to be covered in red carpets.

Along the Gaza border, the flowers, which look like poppies, have been crowned with their own festival, Darom Adom, or Scarlet South. It’s been a major economic engine and source of local pride for nearly two decades, bringing hundreds of thousands to a little-visited and conflict-scarred part of Israel.

This year, even as explosions ring out and tanks churn across the fields as the war in Gaza drags into its fifth month, the flowers have burst forth with intensity. But the festival has been canceled, another war casualty.

For festival organizer Vered Libstein, everything is different.

Libstein lived in Kfar Azza, a kibbutz on the Gaza border hit hard by the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that started the war. She lost her husband, Ofir Libstein, her 19-year-old son, Nitzan, her mother, Bilha Epstein, and her nephew, Netta Epstein.

Ofir Libstein was on the kibbutz’s local security team and one of the first confirmed deaths on Oct 7. It took 12 days to find Nitzan’s body.

Seeing the dramatic red blooms return after so much loss pierces her heart, Libstein said as she walked through a field.

“On one side it’s hard, but on the other side it just proves to us that life is stronger than everything, and it renews itself, and we’ll need to find the strength to renew ourselves as well,” she said.

Hamas killed some 1,200 people and kidnapped around 250 during the Oct. 7 attack. Israel responded by launching one of the deadliest and most destructive air-and-ground offensives in recent history. Over 28,500 Palestinians have been killed, mostly women, children and young teens, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants in its count.

Libstein founded the Darom Adom festival with her husband 19 years ago, around the time when Palestinian militants started launching frequent rockets into Israel from Gaza. The flowers were a way to build pride and attract visitors.

The blooms are a symbol of resilience for Palestinians as well as Israelis. Palestinian artwork features the red flowers, whose black-and-white center and green leaves are the colors of the Palestinian flag. In 2013, an Israeli conservation group ran a popular vote that named the red anemone Israel’s national flower.

The Darom Adom Festival started as a volunteer hotline helping hikers find the most concentrated blooms. It quickly grew, spawning its own tourism company and becoming one of Israel’s largest nature events, Libstein said.

It usually features a packed schedule of concerts, organized hikes, bike rides, races, kids’ events, foodie markets, art galleries and farm visits. Events are spread over four weeks in January and February, when the blooms are at their peak.

In recent years, Darom Adom has drawn over 400,000 visitors and accounted for more than 80% of local tourism income for the year, according to the financial paper Globes.

Anemones grow across Israel, in whites, purples and pinks, but in the south they only bloom in bright scarlet. The festival name is also a nod to the “red alert” sirens that warn of incoming rockets.

Although the festival was canceled this year, some local businesses and artisans have organized pop-up markets. Israelis can order anemone bulbs to grow at home, though some are still making the trek south.

“It’s really beautiful, to see this blooming, because when we came here everything was totally burned,” said Moshe Federman, who spent three months as a reserve soldier at the nearby site of the music festival where 364 people were killed.

While charred remains of trees still dot the landscape, riots of red flowers peak out from between the slender trunks of new eucalyptus saplings. A few weeks ago, relatives of those killed at the music festival planted trees on the Jewish holiday honoring trees.

Nearby, a memorial at the music festival site has photos of the victims arranged on stands in a semi-circle around a stage, as if they were dancing together. It’s become a pilgrimage site for visitors to grapple with the aftermath of the bloodiest day in Israel’s history.

Federman said it was strange to be back as a civilian with his wife, seeing the newly planted trees and wildflowers. He paused next to a tree in honor of a victim he knew.

“It’s growing anew. I guess that’s part of life,” he said.

As Anat Katz, a New Yorker visiting her daughter who lives in Tel Aviv, walked around the memorial, she said the flowers were beautiful, but their red blooms felt too bright, reminding her of blood and death.

“The flower is pulling at our strings both ways, the beauty and the conflict of it,” she said.

“We see them popping up everywhere we go, so that feels a little hopeful in a place that feels like a real hit in the stomach,” Katz added. “There’s something that feels cyclical, how they’re alive right now, how they’re blooming at a time when it doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of blossoming.”

Today, Libstein visits the south sporadically. She lives with much of the Kfar Azza community in a hotel north of Tel Aviv. She is helping oversee their move into mobile homes on a kibbutz about 20 kilometers (12 miles) east of Kfar Azza, while their houses, many of which were badly damaged, are rebuilt.

It’s strange to be among the flowers she and her husband helped turn into a symbol of the region, without him and away from the home she loves during the most beautiful time of year.

The yellow dandelions blooming among the anemones remind her of the 134 hostages believed still held in Gaza, she said. Yellow ribbons have emerged as a symbol of the protests demanding their release.

Libstein said even though nature is marking the passage of time, it’s impossible to move on while members of her community are still held captive.

“It’s a symbol to us about the importance of blooming again, but it will take a long time,” she said.


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