Israel is looking to populate the Negev and it’s doing it by means of the military, The Financial Times reports.
In that desert land an enormous military base is rising. The facility, a training base for the Israel Defense Force, will come replete with an auditorium, three synagogues, shooting ranges, six basketball courts and a visitors’ park for swearing-in and handing-out ceremonies. By the end of 2015, 10,000 army personnel and 2,500 civilian staff will call it home, making it the Negev’s third-largest city.
It’s all part of a plan to move much of the IDF’s operations from Tel Aviv and central Israel, and bring jobs and investment to the south. The plan is to build three more such megabases in the Negev by the end of the decade, and it’s expected to cost the country $9bn in all.
Populating the Negev, which accounts for two thirds of Israel’s land but only ten percent of its population, has long been a goal of the country. Now seems as good a time as ever. According to the Financial Times, “Israel’s government, which faces growing pressure from a middle class squeezed by high living costs, wants to free up more land for residential building.”
However, not everyone is pleased by the plans to populate the Negev. Human rights groups have been critical of a separate development plan, the Prawer-Begin plan, which they say will uproot up to 40,000 Bedouin Arabs from their homes.
“If we are talking about any [settlement] plans, whether it’s moving bases to the Negev or other plans, first the government should deal with the existing population,” says Rawia Aburabia, a lawyer based in Beer Sheva affiliated with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. “The policies towards these citizens discriminate against them and aim to evict them.”
But others argue this just isn’t the case. IDF and defense ministry officials say the project will benefit the Bedouin by bringing new jobs to the region. “A wide array of services will be outsourced, benefiting the whole region and its various communities, including of course the Bedouin community,” says Ilan Levin, a senior ministry of defense official.
According to the FT, Israeli officials are confident in the project citing David Ben Gurion, the country’s founding father, who moved to a desert kibbutz at Sde Boker after retiring, and dreamed of developing the Negev. “Ben Gurion wanted to make the Negev flower,” says Lieutenant Colonel Shalom Alfassy. “If you bring people who want to work and give them jobs and a reason to be here, the whole region will develop and flower.”