Ben-Gurion’s Negev dream near reality

Part 3 of a series by Paul Harris on the rebirth of JNF UK and the diverse projects it is supporting in Israel

DAVID BEN-GURION’s vision to populate the Negev desert region continues apace with JNF UK a partner in many of the projects. The Ministry for Development of the Negev and Galilee was charged with bringing 300,000 new residents to the region in the decade to 2021.

Adva Eshel-Rabinowitz, head of the department of the Negev, told me: “We have to think about the Negev as a good area to live in. People in Israel think about the Negev as desert, a lot of Bedouin and crime.

“When we did a survey last year in central Israel about moving north or south, 77 per cent preferred the north and only 12 per cent favoured the Negev.”

They felt that nothing ever happened there, yet the area from Kiryat Gat to Eilat accounted for 60 per cent of Israel’s area — but only 12 per cent of the population.

And that includes such major centres as Beersheba, Dimona, Arad, Yeroham, Netivot and Sderot.

Now, however, a new £3.5m army training centre is being built near the Yeroham junction. It is being relocated from Ramat Hasharon, south of Herzlia. Ten thousand soldiers will be based there for between two weeks and three months. Five hundred career servicemen will also live there.

The facility will open between 2014 and 2015 with the aim that the Negev will prove sufficiently attractive for the military personnel to live their permanently.

At the same time, an intelligence camp near Beersheba and a technology unit in the city itself unit are being established. The personnel based there will be “of a high quality, with good salaries”.

Entirely new districts, each of 100 homes, are bring constructed in Yeroham. All will be heavily subsidised.

All the major ministries, including education and housing, are working together to ensure the success of the project. New clubs, bars and schools are being built to make the region sufficiently attractive.

Ten new settlements are being built in the Negev, five of which are around Kiryat Gat.

The average size of building plots will be half a dunam (about 500 sq metres).

A further 10 developments are being planned for Arad.

New industry, including start-ups, has to be attracted to the Negev to prevent existing workforce facing competition for employment. Three new industrial areas are also being developed.

At Rehavim Junction a new industrial park will create 4,000 jobs in the low and middle sectors. Sodastream have already taken space there.

Mrs Eshel-Rabinowitz advises investing now, pointing out that all the areas need new shops, laundrettes and other small enterprises to service the new influx.

Netivot will cater for “low and middle manufacture of technology”, while Sderot will be the base for Amdox, a high-tec company offering employment for 2,000 to 3,000. At Ramat Horav, specialising in the chemical industry, an eco-industrial plant is being built, with poisons generated by one factory being processed by others.

Beersheba will benefit from a new high-tec park. The Negev will be the first area to be developed in this way, with 40,000 jobs on offer.

The government is investing 45bn shekels (£7.5bn) and Mrs Eshel-Rabinowitz says: “We want people to come and invest in the Negev. They are planting the seeds now in many areas.

“Those who come from outside Israel are being offered even bigger incentives than Israelis.

“We are populating the Negev and creating a better quality of life.

“We are encouraging businesses in the Negev to become part of this.”

A similar scheme was successful in Maryland, America with the municipality co-operating with local businesses.

Mrs Eshel-Rabinowitz observed that the Sirocca Hospital in Beersheba had been sending its laundry to the north of Israel because the one it used locally had closed.

The opportunity existed for a new laundry. “There is a need to create a local economy that supports itself,” she said. New roads are being built and it takes just 55 minutes by train from Tel Aviv to Beersheba .

A new rail link from Tel Aviv to Ashkelon, Sderot, Netivot, Ofakim and Beersheba will be completed by 2017 but will reach Sderot by 2014.

Route 6, which currently ends at Beersheba, is being extended to the new army base.

One of the most exciting innovations would be the plan to build a new international airport at Nevatim.

Ben Gurion Airport is currently the country’s only one.

“In the next decade the Negev is probably the place to be,” said Mrs Eshel-Rabinowitz.

“There are an unlimited amount of opportunities that can be unlocked.

“Take the opportunity now, or it will be too late.”

She revealed that Ofakim, 15 minutes from Beersheba, would be the next area to be developed.

“If you buy a house now, it will be a very good investment,” she predicted

A four bedroom apartment will cost 600,000 shekels (about £100,000).

JNF UK is currently investigating how it can assist in fulfilling Ben-Gurion’s vision.

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