Israel looks to fulfil desert dream with Negev military base

By John Reed in the Negev, FINANCIAL TIMES

Israel’s Negev desert south east of the city of Beer Sheva, where signs warn drivers of camels on the road, an enormous military base is rising.

The facility, a training base for the Israel Defence Force, will also have an auditorium, three synagogues, shooting ranges, six basketball courts and a visitors’ park for swearing-in and handing-out ceremonies. When it is fully populated by the end of 2015, it will be home to 10,000 army personnel and 2,500 civilian staff.

“We will be the third-largest city in the Negev, after Beer Sheva and Dimona,” says Lieutenant Colonel Shalom Alfassy, who takes a visitor to the roof of an air-conditioned administration building to survey the huge site, ringed by a concrete fence. Newly planted palm trees mark the site of the visitor’s park and construction trucks throw up dust.

Israel intends to build three more such megabases in the Negev by 2020, part of a plan to vacate land and buildings the IDF occupies in expensive Tel Aviv and central Israel, and bring jobs and investment to the poorer south. The Israeli air force base has already moved from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport to Nevatim in the Negev. An intelligence centre, technology campus and teleprocessing division will also be moved south.

The project, which will cost $9bn in all and be funded largely by the private sector, is one of the biggest infrastructure projects in Israel’s 65-year history. The Negev accounts for nearly two-thirds of Israel’s land, but less than 10 per cent of its population and developing it has long been a goal of successive governments.

The move to the south will allow the IDF to rejuvenate its ageing infrastructure. The Kirya (“campus” in Hebrew) in central Tel Aviv, where Israel’s army has its headquarters, dates from the British Mandate and today sits on some of the country’s most expensive real estate.

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. The Bank of Israel, concerned by rising property prices, has urged it to ease a national shortage of affordable housing.

If Israel were to ever agree on a two-state solution that saw an independentPalestine created in the West Bank – a notion about which most Israelis and Palestinians are sceptical – the Negev could gain a further geopolitical dimension for a country with a growing population and limited space and resources.

However, with all big projects involving land and settlement in Israel, government’s push to populate the Negev is stirring up controversy. Human rights groups have been sharply critical of a separate development blueprint for the region, 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.”

Ben Gurion wanted to make the Negev flower. If you bring people who want to work and give them jobs and a reason to be here, the whole region will develop andflower– Lieutenant Colonel Shalom Alfassy

IDF and defence 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 defence official who is leading the tender committee for the bases.

Israeli officials adopt an almost missionary tone when talking about the move to the Negev, describing it as a “national project”. After retiring as prime minister, David Ben Gurion, the country’s founding father, moved to a desert kibbutz at Sde Boker, where he is buried. “Ben Gurion wanted to make the Negev flower,” says Lt Col 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.”

Benjamin Netanyahu’s rightwing government, which needs to cut spending to tame a growing budget deficit, wants private investors to shoulder most of the cost of the move. The bases are being built as public-private partnerships. “We have a pipeline of projects,” says the defence ministry’s Mr Levin. “We think these projects need to be accomplished through joint ventures with local and international companies.”

The training base is being built by Mabat LeNegev (“Gaze to the Negev”), a consortium of Israeli companies, with financing provided by Bank Hapoalim, Israel’s second-largest by assets.

However, Israel is also touting the project to prospective international investors. Its government has done road shows with infrastructure, construction, information technology and logistics companies and financial institutions.

In other infrastructure projects, France’s Veolia and Alstom faced criticism by pro-Palestinian activists and a lawsuit in France led by the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which a court this year dismissed, for helping to build the Jerusalem light rail, which runs through occupied east Jerusalem. Defence officials have also taken donations from overseas benefactors in some cases. The sports centre at the training base, for example, was funded by wealthy Jewish-American donors.

May 31, 2013 | Comments »

Subscribe to Israpundit Daily Digest

Leave a Reply