Boom time for the Negev as vast military complex rises from sand

By Nathan Jeffay, June 6, 2013
An artist’s impression of the completed  development and an IDF soldier on an exercise near Shomriya

An artist’s impression of the completed development and an IDF soldier on an exercise near Shomriya

By the end of this year, Israeli soldiers will start to move into the country's first megabase - starting a process that will change civilian as well as military life.

At a 500-acre plot, tractors and cement mixers are working at full speed to build living quarters, training facilities, sports areas and synagogues.

It lies in the Negev, the sparsely populated desert that Israel's first prime minister dreamed of developing.

"We are fulfilling David Ben Gurion's vision," said Lieutenant Colonel Shalom Alfassi, who is in charge of the project.

The project will create the Negev's third-largest city - after Dimona and Beersheva - according to Mr Alfassi.

Almost two years ago, Israel's social protest movement was born. It began with the pitching of tents in central areas of Tel Aviv, a symbol of anger about the lack of housing available in central Israel and the high price of what is available. The IDF said that this base - and several more like it that are in the pipeline - will help solve this problem.

"We are freeing up 4,000 dunams, where lots and lots of housing can be built," said Mr Alfassi, talking about an area equal to 1,000 acres in central Israel that will be vacated when facilities are moved to the new megabase. "It can bring down house prices and benefit the population."

Once at full capacity in 2015, the Ir Habahadim base will hold 10,000 army personnel and 2,500 civilian staff on a typical day. It is costing £1.5 billion to construct, but does not dent the military's pocket because it is moving off valuable land in the centre of the country. And, said Mr Alfassi, the army gains more modern facilities in the process.

If his projections are correct, it will not only make living in the centre of the country more affordable, but also bring some of the opportunities of the centre southwards, helping to redistribute jobs and opportunities.

The Negev is home to poor populations, including Jews from immigrant backgrounds and Bedouin, who tend to lack economic opportunities. But once the base is there, said Mr Alfassi confidently, "the economic level will increase". It will generate work, including jobs for "lots of Bedouin".

He added that it will also encourage highly-trained individuals who are career soldiers to move to Negev communities. The military has already moved a significant amount of airforce infrastructure to the Negev.

A little over a year ago, the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee announced that it aimed to double the population of the Negev by 2025, and said it saw military plans as key. "All the momentum that has grown in the Negev is thanks to the wonderful human capital that is found here, and the transfer of army families south," said the ministry's director-general, Orna Uzman Bachor.

Last updated: 1:45pm, June 6 2013