A Country of One’s Own: An Israeli Couple Rules a Beach for 65 Years
JNS.org – When shooting the movie “Exodus,” Paul Newman was a frequent visitor at a remote, idyllic bay situated only a stone’s throw away from the Lebanese border and Nahariya, Israel’s northernmost city. It is a little stretch of beach run by Eli and Rina Avivi, the micro-nation of Achzivland’s only citizens.
This controversial place, nestled between the Mediterranean Sea and the green hills of the Galilee, about 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) north of Acre, is, strictly speaking, a dictatorship. Eli, the president, is elected by his own vote. His first lady doesn’t seem to mind.
Sixty-five years ago, Eli, a fisherman and former soldier, discovered this bay and founded his tiny country spanning 3.5 acres, whose borders are drawn by the country road on the right and the ocean waves on the left.
Achzivland’s flag depicts a jolly, topless mermaid, and behind a blue, metallic gate, sit several wooden houses, a wild arrangement of self-made cottages, a hut for passport control, an open-air parliament, boat docks and a museum. Numerous cacti pop out of the dry earth, with the smell of salt and fish sweeping over from the coast. Of course, Achzivland’s national anthem is the breaking of the waves.
Micronations are the rural brother of the urban squatter. People claim their right over a territory of land without the recognition of a country or permission of a government, and they rule it as they see fit. Some of these settlers-turned-founders wish to live a politically or ideologically alternative lifestyle, others seek to escape property prices and tax laws. For some, it is pure entertainment, while still others hope to create a space devoid of the law. The so-called Free State of Christiania in Copenhagen is famously known for its liberal handling of illegal substances. The Dominion of Melchizedek was founded to facilitate large-scale bank fraud and money laundering. The Free Republic Liberland, between Serbia and Croatia, is home to the Tcheque Party of Free Citizens. There are hundreds of such micro-nations across the world, with fantastical currencies, elections, stamps, border controls and even their own languages. They often go unnoticed, and are usually tolerated by the regional authorities.
“I met Eli when he was still living here all by himself. Nobody cared about this area. He sold fish to the Kibbutz I was living in at that time. To me he was a true Robinson Crusoe,” said Rina, who was 18 when she married her husband and moved to Achzivland.
Originally from Munich, Rina arrived in Israel at age 5, after the 1948 War of Independence. Eli was part of the Jewish militant underground organization Palmach, during the Mandate period, and served in the navy after Israel was established. In 1952, a wandering Eli, sailing throughout the Mediterranean, happened upon the bay of Achziv. Most of the 2,000 people from the formerly Arab village of Az-Zeeb had left during the war. Eli declared it his property.
The first years on Achziv were peaceful. The young country of Israel was still developing and the Avivis were all alone, and left alone.
But in the 1970s, Israeli authorities sought to build a highway and a national park on the Avivis’ premises, and nearly all remains of the village were razed (the mansion still standing was the former home of Az-Zeeb’s mukhtar and currently houses the museum of Achzivland). Eli stood on the bulldozers demanding them to stop, Rina recalled.
“That’s when we started to speak about our own country, our land,” she said. In 1972, the couple ripped up their Israeli passports and created new ones. “I designed the emblem all by myself,” Rina noted.
The Avivis’ protest led to their arrest, and they were held in custody for eight days. But the judges were faced with a curious legal loophole in which, ironically, there was no Israeli law against the founding of your own personal state. In a compromise, the Avivis agreed to officially lease the land from the state, turning them from squatters into renters.
“Since that day, they have left us alone,” said Rina, adjusting her blue sunglasses as two grey, scraggy dogs follow her movements with tired eyes. The only other time the refuge was disturbed was in 1982, during the First Lebanon War, when militants used the beach in order to land unnoticed on Israeli lands. “One time they even broke into our house,” said Rina. “Luckily, I was prepared. And I think they were so surprised to see a blonde women, barefoot, with a machine gun, that they left immediately.”
As a result, barbed wire fences and closed-circuit televisions were installed at every corner of the property. Achzivland suddenly had a proper border and a paradise had transformed into a fort. In Israel, you can become a hippie, but not without your gun.
The Avivis’s property is a treasure trove for any archaeologist. Rina points to the sand-colored walls down at the beach, to remains of Phoenician graves. On the day of this reporter’s visit, a newly-married Arab couple in tuxedo and wedding dress were taking pictures among the ruins. Throughout history, this little piece of land was fought over — by the Canaanites, the Greeks, the Romans, the Crusaders, the pirates. At one point, they all settled here, leaving behind a rich selection of vases, tools, jewelry, inscriptions and busts. Eli, an archaeological enthusiast, has spent his life digging up Achziv’s earth and storing his precious finds in the Achzivland museum. It is an impressive collection without order, and its content have been claimed by the state of Israel on several occasions.
The maintenance of Achziland is becoming difficult for Rina, who recently tore a muscle in her knee. She has been, for the last three decades, the sole caretaker of the property, as her husband is older and has health problems. Rina sees to the bureaucracy, tourists, gardeners, tours and construction workers. During the summer, peak season for visitors, Achzivland can be packed with hikers, backpackers and other curious souls. But the ambiance of the 1960s and 1970s seems to have vanished.
“Most of them are coming with the car and only stay for one night. None of them take part long term,” said Rina.
Rina recalls the days when Brigitte Bardot, Bar Refaeli and Sophia Loren got their tans on her beach. “I met Sophia when I just moved to Achzivland. She taught me how to make real good spaghetti,” she laughed.
But the days when Achzivland was a haven for the strange, stranded and searching are over. A longer phase of reflection and internal inventory has begun, Rina declared. The next big project: writing memoirs and digitizing all the pictures Eli has taken over the years.
“I’ve had enough encounters and experiences in my life. Now, I am fine with the ocean,” Rina said.