The Negev and Galil make up 80 per cent of Israel, but house only 20 per cent of its people. Pioneers want this to change
For 60 years, Israel’s leaders have paid mainly lip service to the cause of settling the Galil and the Negev. David Ben-Gurion may have gone to live, and finally die, at Kibbutz Sde Boker, but none of his successors followed his example, and few ordinary Israelis have chosen to devote themselves to this pioneer endeavour. While both regions together represent 80 per cent of Israel’s territory, they house less than 20 per cent of its population. With the centre of the country becoming ever more crowded and polluted, a consensus is emerging that developing the Negev and Galil must be an integral part of Israel’s future — and one that has become a strategic focus of Diaspora charities, with JNF UK alone dedicating £10m to the campaign. For a generation of idealists wanting to revamp Zionism for the future, the Galil and Negev provide a largely apolitical focus. “Less than eight per cent of Israelis live here [the Negev],” says Ofir Fisher from the Beersheva offices of Or, an organisation he co-founded in 2000 dedicated to developing such sparsely populated areas. After army service, Fisher — the son of singer Dudu Fisher — and three friends moved from Petach Tikva to the Negev to build the new community of Sansana. Or has thus far established five new communities in the Negev and one in the Galil, and provides help with education, housing and employment. Fisher, a serious young man, is scathing about a generation of Israelis who seek adventure in India and Thailand rather than devoting their energies to the next stage of the Jewish project. But others have also chosen an ideological path. A short drive away in Kramim, built out of a kibbutz which went bankrupt, Lior Sterneld, a laid-back psychology graduate with dusty blue Crocs and two rings in his ear, says he moved here “for ideological and practical reasons. I believe the future of Israel is here, in the Negev.” The 28-year-old spent two years living in the Kfar Adiel student village set up by the Ayalim Association, also dedicated to strengthening the Galil and the Negev. Nearby, Avital Altman carries her young son Noam to the tiny grocery shop. A social-work student, she and her husband, from the West Bank settlements of Efrat and Kfar Etzion respectively, decided to move here as a great place to raise children. She is measured when asked whether the Negev and Galil could provide a practical solution for re-housing the hundreds of thousands of settlers who will need to leave the West Bank in any peace deal. The status of the territories is not clear, she explains, and the Negev “is more challenging. They need young people here more than in Etzion. Nowadays this place is more important.” Not all here agree with her assessment. In Sansana, on a plateau looking out over the West Bank, Shirli Atidgy, a 34-year-old mother-of-three, supervises her children splashing in an improvised paddling pool. “It’s as important to be here as it is there,” she says, gesturing to the spreading vista of the West Bank visible from her caravilla. Nearby is the settlement of Susia, where Sansana’s children travel every day to go to school. “It’s important to be everywhere. I don’t feel it’s any different.” Others disagree. The Arab residents of both areas have long complained that such developments are in fact a process of “Judaisation” to skew artificially the demographic balance. Israel’s Interior Minister, Meir Sheetrit, recently announced that he intended to build a new Arab city in the north of Israel — the first such enterprise since the founding of the state. But Arab communities have traditionally remained under-resourced. In the Negev, some 120,000 Bedouins, a community with one of the world’s highest birthrates, are divided between government-established towns and “unrecognised” villages lacking even basic infrastructure. “The government builds settlements and towns for the Jewish population without even recognising the existence of the Bedouin ones,” says Morad al-Sana, head of the Negev office of Adalah, the legal centre for Arab minority rights. “The government supplies no services, education, electricity or health services, the population is becoming poorer and the crime rate is going up. Traditional grazing and farming is being destroyed, leaving people with no income. If this situation does not change in the next few years, the future will be very black. And when it’s bad for the Bedouin population, it will be bad for the whole state and the entire population in the Negev.” The situation is further complicated by a possible peace dividend. The development of the Galil and Negev could provide a practical solution for the re-housing of hundreds of thousands of settlers in the event of any peace deal with the Palestinians. Some here would welcome them with open arms. Over surprisingly palatable goat-milk cappuccinos in the Neot Smadar farm shop, Anat Ganor explains why she moved here in 1989 to help create a new community. And if the settlers choose to become their new neighbours, they will be more than welcome. “We wanted to make something different, to create a community and learn about ourselves within a whole framework of raising children and cultivating the land,” she says. “You need to get away from what you know to find this frail voice inside of you.” As well as the shop, which boasts fat, fudgy dates, cheeses that would not shame a French farmhouse and nectarine ice-cream on sale alongside organic almonds, olive oil and herbal creams, Neot Smadar is home to numerous artists and craftspeople. Their pride and joy is the arts centre, a towering, surreal fantasy of peach and azure stucco, stained-glass peacocks and wrought-iron balconies held up by pillars in the form of owls and penguins. At the top of the building is a space intended to become a café. From there, the green of the fruit orchards makes a starkly delineated border against the baking desert. The aim to “make the desert bloom” seems just as strong a challenge as ever.