The Negev, a desert fron­tier • By MIRIAM KRESH

Go South to find a pi­o­neer life

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • MIRIAM KRESH

If your spirit re­sponds to desert peace and beauty, a sense of free­dom and a chance to leave your mark on Is­rael’s great­est fron­tier, then the Negev is the place for you. It’s a re­gion of ex­cit­ing con­trasts, where road signs warn driv­ers to watch out for camels cross­ing and fields of mir­rors har­vest­ing so­lar en­ergy ro­tate with the sun. The parched land­scape yields sil­ver-green salt bushes, where af­ter win­ter rains, rare and wild red tulips dot the sandy hills. Salty wa­ter is an agri­cul­tural ad­van­tage in the Negev, not a set­back. The pop­u­la­tion is sparse, but com­mu­nity spirit is strong.

The Negev is di­vided into six re­gional coun­cils, al­to­gether com­pris­ing a whop­ping 60% of Is­rael’s land mass. Ear­lier this year, I vis­ited the Ra­mat Ha­negev Re­gional Coun­cil, which con­trols some 4,300 sq.km., about 22% of the Negev.

“Our goals were born of [Is­rael’s first prime min­is­ter David] Ben-Gu­rion’s vi­sion,” says Eran Doron, head of the re­gional coun­cil.

“He was ahead of his time, en­vi­sion­ing a re­pop­u­lated Negev where peo­ple live by our free nat­u­ral re­sources. He fore­saw de­sali­na­tion and the de­vel­op­ment of so­lar power. Our chal­lenge is to build homes and com­mu­ni­ties for to­day and for Is­rael’s fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. At the same time, we need to pre­serve the char­ac­ter of the desert. We call this en­vi­ron­men­tal Zion­ism. This is my mis­sion.”

Ac­cord­ing to the Cen­tral Bureau of Sta­tis­tics, as of 2016 there were 6,511 res­i­dents in the Ra­mat Ha­negev Re­gional Coun­cil, in­clud­ing Be­duin. With those sta­tis­tics – lots of land and a small pop­u­la­tion – there’s a huge po­ten­tial for those seek­ing to break away from the crowded cen­ter of the coun­try, plenty of room for peo­ple of all stripes.

“We’re very proud of our di­ver­sity,” says Doron. “Ra­mat Ha­negev has 15 com­mu­ni­ties al­to­gether, in­clud­ing three kib­butzim and two off-the-grid vil­lages. We have moshavim; we have sec­u­lar, re­li­gious, and mixed com­mu­ni­ties. Dozens of fam­i­lies are wait­ing to join us. It’s only a mat­ter of al­lot­ting more land plots. Our pop­u­la­tion grows by 6% to 7% yearly; that is, 70 to 100 fam­i­lies join us ev­ery year. The de­mand for hous­ing is greater than what we can sup­ply right now.

“It takes an in­no­va­tive, in­de­pen­dent cast of mind to set­tle hap­pily in the Negev,” he con­cedes.

“There are hard chal­lenges, like the long dis­tances be­tween com­mu­ni­ties and from the near­est city, Beer­sheba. The clos­est hos­pi­tal is Soroka, in Beer­sheba. The iso­la­tion is a fac­tor that fil­ters some peo­ple out. And mak­ing a liv­ing in the desert re­quires more strength of char­ac­ter than go­ing to work in ur­ban cen­ters. But ev­ery in­di­vid­ual who comes to live here feels like he’s work­ing side by side with Ben-Gu­rion him­self.

“We’re do­ing ad­vanced things here,” Doron con­tin­ues.

“We’ve built stu­dent vil­lages. Nitzana, a youth vil­lage close to the Egyp­tian bor­der, is an ed­u­ca­tional lab­o­ra­tory, with nine on­go­ing projects, in­clud­ing a school for the Be­duin, and Mir, a project for young Rus­sian im­mi­grants. We de­vel­oped the use of salt wa­ter in agri­cul­ture – 90% of our agri­cul­tural prod­ucts are ir­ri­gated with salt wa­ter. We pro­mote al­ter­na­tive con­struc­tion, such as build­ing homes from mud. And our mas­sive so­lar project is unique in the world.”

Af­ford­able hous­ing is a strong in­cen­tive for mov­ing to the Negev.

“You can build a coun­try home for NIS 1 mil­lion to NIS 1.5m. That’s a house with five rooms and land around it. You couldn’t buy that in the cen­ter of the coun­try for that price.”

If you’re will­ing to build your own home from the ground up us­ing straw bales or mud or join an in­de­pen­dent car­a­van com­mu­nity in hopes of build­ing a per­ma­nent house, hous­ing is cheaper still.

FARM­ING IS the main busi­ness of the Negev. Some 24 agri­cul­tural farms grow pro­duce to sup­ply Is­raeli mar­kets and ex­port to Europe; cherry toma­toes for ex­am­ple. It takes NIS 1.5m. to build a cherry tomato farm on two hectares, said Doron. Farm­ers also grow olive trees, vine­yards, a va­ri­ety of fruit and veg­eta­bles, spices and herbs. There are an­i­mal farms for dairy and meat.

Where does all the farm wa­ter come from? Doron ex­plains that an im­mense aquifer ex­ists un­der the Negev, Si­nai and Jor­dan. The wa­ter is salty, not potable, but ex­cel­lent fruit and veg­eta­bles grow on a mix of that wa­ter with sweet, or un­salted, wa­ter. The aquifer holds enough wa­ter to last a cen­tury, ac­cord­ing to Doron. In the mean­time, al­ter­na­tive projects such as de­sali­na­tion will re­place de­pen­dence on it. Drink­ing wa­ter is sup­plied by Meko­rot, Is­rael’s wa­ter author­ity.

Ed­u­ca­tion is key, with a strong em­pha­sis on science and en­vi­ron­men­tal re­search in ad­vanced schools such as Midreshet Ben-Gu­rion. There are ele­men­tary schools and ju­nior high schools, in­clud­ing a gov­ern­ment re­li­gious school that goes through ju­nior high and will be start­ing high school classes in the next year. It’s one of Doron’s projects from the years he worked as di­rec­tor of the coun­cil’s ed­u­ca­tion depart­ment. Spe­cial-needs chil­dren re­ceive trans­porta­tion to cen­ters in other towns.

“Ev­ery year, we build more and more kinder­gartens and day-care cen­ters,” notes Doron.

All chil­dren re­ceive trans­porta­tion to and from school, Ofir Tsimer­ing, di­rec­tor of the pop­u­la­tion growth depart­ment, said.

“We know ex­actly where ev­ery child goes to school, his ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties sched­ule, and how he gets back and forth. Our kids travel a lot. We’re al­ways on the road.”

That’s easy to un­der­stand, given the dis­tances be­tween com­mu­ni­ties and the schools, in­clud­ing the sports, se­niors’ and com­mu­nity cen­ters, which are lo­cated on the coun­cil grounds com­plex.

In­no­va­tive think­ing is Is­rael’s great­est re­source, and in­no­va­tive minds fully ex­ploit the Negev’s most ob­vi­ous ad­van­tage: the sun. Driv­ing with Tsimer­ing over high­ways headed south, we passed a thermo-so­lar project on the edge of Ashalim vil­lage. My im­me­di­ate im­pres­sion was that of a science-fic­tion magazine cover il­lus­tra­tion: a lone tower 285 me­ters high stand­ing in a field of 55,000 mir­rors. Each 3x3-me­ter mir­ror col­lects so­lar en­ergy that is chan­neled to the tower, where it heats wa­ter, cre­at­ing steam used to power a tur­bine to pro­duce elec­tric­ity. The Ashalim tower is one of Ra­mat Ha­negev’s four thermo-so­lar projects, each one of which uses a dif­fer­ent tech­nol­ogy. The com­bined so­lar fields pro­duce 250 megawatts daily; about 2.5% of Is­raeli’s elec­tric­ity needs. It’s ex­pected that the com­bined fields will sup­ply about 300 MW daily by 2020.

IT WAS a late-win­ter day, and the hilly land­scape was swathed in a veil of green sprin­kled with yel­low wild­flow­ers. We drove past olive groves and hot­houses and up a bumpy road to the tiny, 15-fam­ily, mixed sec­u­lar/re­li­gious com­mu­nity of Sheizaf. Young fam­i­lies who chose to leave cities live in car­a­vans there. It’s so off-the-grid that it’s not even on the map. Not a speck of as­phalt can be seen; all the paths are sim­ply ground that has been cleared away and bor­dered with stones. Each car­a­van has wa­ter, elec­tric­ity and, nat­u­rally, a so­lar wa­ter heater. A ham­mock swings be­neath one porch, as if to em­pha­size free­dom from the ur­ban pres­sures the res­i­dents left be­hind.

“If we cleared an­other 15 plots here, they would fill up in a week,” Tsimer­ing says. The com­mu­nity ex­pects to build per­ma­nent homes over time.

Tak­ing a few min­utes to walk on the hill­side, I nib­bled on leaves from salt bushes and watched in­sects pol­li­nat­ing the white flow­ers of wild chives. Rare wild tulips dot­ted the ground here and there.

“This land will be cleared for new hous­ing,” says Tsimer­ing. “See the holes in the ground around here? It’s where wild tulips grew. The res­i­dents trans­planted them, to save them.”

The hill it­self is a toy for the kids. A plas­tic lad­der sus­pended by ropes is set into the sand. Kids slide down the hill on their bot­toms and climb back up the lad­der for an­other great slide down. Down the hill is a rus­tic sun shel­ter and ground cleared away for pic­nics and ac­tiv­i­ties.

By way of con­trast, we vis­ited Kadesh Barnea, a sec­u­lar moshav of 42 fam­i­lies near the Egyp­tian bor­der. We drove on paved roads past am­ple houses sur­rounded by land­scaped gar­dens. A friendly golden re­triever came to sniff at the car as we ad­mired whim­si­cal yard sculp­tures at the honey store. Most res­i­dents work lo­cally in agri­cul­ture, but some com­mute. Kadesh Barnea is like a tiny kib­butz, with a day-care cen­ter, a kinder­garten, a pool, a play­ground, a syn­a­gogue and a small con­ve­nience store.

Be’er Milka, an agri­cul­tural moshav, sits al­most on top of the bor­der with Egypt. We passed the bor­der fence, with its rolls of barbed wire, and en­tered the moshav to look for cherry toma­toes. Shaul Eshet, farmer, led us to his tomato hot­houses.

“Life here is harder,” he said, “es­pe­cially for those who don’t farm, be­cause of the dis­tances. Even so, there are mar­velous things. For one, the com­mu­nity spirit. I didn’t need to at­tend classes on rais­ing toma­toes; my neigh­bors taught me ev­ery­thing I need to know. All the neigh­bor­ing com­mu­ni­ties share an in­for­mal ex­tra ed­u­ca­tional pro­gram. Our kids have or­ga­nized trans­porta­tion to high-level schools at the re­gional coun­cil. We en­joy close con­tact with na­ture. And de­spite the threat of ter­ror­ism from across the bor­der, the army is a strong per­ma­nent pres­ence, so we’re not afraid to open our doors and take walks in na­ture, or to travel the roads and high­way. We feel se­cure.”

The sweet­ness of cherry toma­toes raised partly on salt wa­ter was ex­quis­ite. It seemed to re­flect the very spirit of Ra­mat Ha­negev, where by hu­man ef­fort and ide­al­ism, salt turns sweet, the sun be­comes elec­tric­ity, and Is­rael, the young na­tion, ma­tures. It’s a coun­try for young, en­er­getic peo­ple with ide­al­ism and a strong drive.

The po­ten­tial is im­mense.

‘EV­ERY YEAR we build more and more kinder­gartens and day-care cen­ters’: Reut Peretz has a head-turn­ing good time. (Zvika Tuchter­man)

(CLOCK­WISE FROM top left) The Nitzana Youth Vil­lage torch run gets into gear along the Is­raeli-Egyp­tian bor­der ev­ery year at Hanukka time. (Courtesy Ra­mat Ha­negev Re­gional Coun­cil) CHERRY TOMA­TOES grow in a hot­house at Moshav Be’er Milka. (Courtesy)EN­VI­RON­MEN­TAL ZION­IST: Ra­mat Ha­negev Re­gional Coun­cil head Eran Doron. (Dafna Co­hen)‘WE’RE DO­ING ad­vanced things here’: A a thermo-so­lar project on the edge of Ashalim vil­lage. (Courtesy Ra­mat Ha­negev Re­gional Coun­cil)CY­CLING IS an in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar way for Is­raelis and tourists alike to ex­plore the Negev. (Tal Glick)

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