It may sound like a remote province of Siberia, or a Central Asian republic. However, this self-declared, independent state lies on the unspoilt, northern coastline of Israel, with the Mediterranean Sea lapping at its shore. Welcome to Akhzivland, the personal fiefdom of Eli Avivi.
Just off the highway, a sign reading “Eli Avivi” points to a pair of blue, iron gates amid a mass of green vegetation. Avivi first set foot here in 1952. “I came to this area to visit my sister, who was living in a village a few miles inland. I walked to the coast and came across this place known as Akhziv. I fell in love with it and decided to make my home here,” Avivi says. “Apart from an old, abandoned Arab house there was nothing else for miles along this coast. It was empty.”
It’s still quiet today and the setting is certainly dramatic. The hills of Lebanon rise to the north, the mountains of the Galilee to the east and, 10 miles (16 km) to the south, the town of Acre, one of the oldest ports in the world. To the west, nothing but the clear, blue Mediterranean.
Regarded by many Israelis as a colorful, rather eccentric character, Avivi nevertheless embodies a non-conformist, free-spirited attitude to life. An attitude increasingly frowned upon in our modern world of rules, regulations and government diktat. But then little about Avivi’s life has been conventional.
Born in Iran in 1930 to Jewish parents, his family moved the following year to Tel Aviv in what was then part of British-ruled Palestine. “I was a bad boy and with some other children I used to try and sabotage the British trains by placing obstacles on the railway line,” he says. This was a time of upheaval in Palestine as various Jewish groups, seeking to establish a Jewish state, tried to force the British to give up their Mandate. “Many times we were caught by the British soldiers and brought before a court,” Avivi continues, “but my father knew the judge and we were only fined.”
In 1946, Avivi joined the “Jewish Underground Navy,” which illegally smuggled Jewish immigrants by sea from Europe to Palestine. When the British left the country in 1947 the resulting war between the Arabs and Jews led to the formation of the State of Israel. But Avivi wasn’t ready to give up the sea life just yet. “After the war I decided to see something more of the world and I worked on fishing boats in the
Mediterranean and then in the North Sea. Later I sailed on bigger ships to Iceland, Greenland and Norway. It was terribly cold up there and the conditions were very hard,” Avivi explains.
Polite, softly spoken and dressed in a flowing, white robe, Avivi’s quiet demeanor is at odds with his notorious, adventurous past. He looks younger than his 74 years and there is little evidence of the rather gruff, hard-edged manner of the stereotypical Israeli. Seated in his shady courtyard with a cooling breeze wafting in off the sea he continues, “On one fishing trip in Northern Europe we were hit by a tremendous storm and our ship was badly damaged. We managed to sail to a repair yard near London, which gave me the chance to spend some time in that great city while the ship was being fixed.”
After further sailing trips to Africa, Avivi returned to Israel, still in his early twenties. Since his first encounter with Akhziv he hasn’t wanted to live anywhere else. He studied the history of the area (habitation goes back, at least, to the Phoenician era, 1,000 years BC) and he began collecting all kinds of interesting artifacts. His huge collection of pottery, stone tablets, weapons and implements are housed in his own museum. Many were found on underwater dives.
Avivi built his own house a stone’s throw from the sea. “I could fish from the window,” he recalls. In the early 1960s he met and married his wife Rina. Although Avivi had lived at Akhziv for 10 years by then, he had no conventional legal claim to the land. He was essentially a squatter. He feels that because of his efforts in creating a museum and a home he had a right to stay. And in this remote, ‘frontier’ part of the country the authorities turned a blind eye.
The situation changed in 1970, though. The government obtained an order against him. “One day the authorities came with two bulldozers and flattened my home,” Avivi explains calmly. But at the time he was so angry he convened a huge press conference to plead his case. He became a media celebrity. “I told anyone who would listen that I had fought for Israel, that I loved Israel but I had no time for the government. I just wanted to be allowed to live in my own place, in my own way.”
So in the same year Avivi declared the creation of the State of Akhzivland with himself as president. “This way I can stay in Israel, but in my own country,” Avivi says. The government wasn’t done with him, though, and he found himself, once again, before a court of law. And as in his childhood days, the judge was lenient. “He threw out the action against me and said there was no case to answer,” Avivi explains. This legal ambiguity over the status of Akhzivland continues to this day.
Back in the 1970s Avivi’s plight seemed to strike a chord with many Israelis who are, by nature, fond of questioning authority while remaining fiercely loyal to their country. People visited Akhzivland to camp or stay in the hostel that Avivi had built. With peace and quiet and a gorgeous beach a two-minute walk away, it became very popular. Israeli rock bands played concerts and young people from abroad would arrive and help around the place in return for their food and lodging. “Many came to stay from England, Germany, all over, maybe 15 or 20 at a time,” Avivi says.
Akhzivland is still very popular with Israelis and as tourism to the country begins to recover, Avivi is hoping for more overseas visitors in the future. His home is also used as a model shoot. Arab couples, dressed in full wedding dress, often have their photos taken against the many romantic backdrops available on the 2.5-acre (10,117 m²) site.
All are welcome to visit Eli Avivi’s kingdom — no visa required.
If You Go
Akhzivland is located on Route 4, 2.5 miles (4 km) north of Nahariya on Israel’s northern coastline. Rooms are available at US$ 34 a night with camping space at US$ 18 a night.
Israel Ministry of Tourism