By Judy Lash Balint/JNS.org
A not-so-quiet demographic and geographic revolution is taking place in Israel these days. After years of planning, concrete efforts are underway to shift populations—particularly educated and younger sectors of Israeli society—away from the overcrowded and overpriced center of the country. The new destination is the southern Negev region and its wide-open spaces, ushering in the 21st century version of pioneering Zionism.
At the expansive new Israel Defense Forces (IDF) City of Training Bases that rises up out of the Negev sands on Route 40, base commander Col. Avi Motola, 46, explains how the region will be affected as the IDF closes old training bases scattered throughout Israel and centralizes the most advanced training for defense forces in the world at the ultra-modern facility under his command.
With 10,000 soldiers from every part of Israel’s armed forces, the base—known in Hebrew as Ir HaBahadim and named for late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon—functions like a small town.
“They call me Mayor Motola,” quips the commander as he encourages visitors to view the six dining halls, two synagogues, a convention center, sports facilities, extensive housing, schools of military medicine and military logistics, and a range of state-of-the-art simulator facilities that train combat medics and military drivers.
Training commander Major Kobi Assulin is responsible for what he calls “the most advanced training in the world to produce professional soldiers in the shortest time.” The base uses an array of the latest high-tech educational techniques, taught by proficient soldier-teachers in their mid-20s.
The transient young inductees who complete their ultra-sophisticated training at the base will move on to regular service in combat units on all of Israel’s battlefronts. It’s the more mature career officers and training staffers—set to be permanently stationed at the base and to reside in the surrounding towns—who will have a role in changing the face of Israel’s southern sector.
Motola points out that 65 percent of Israel’s population currently lives in the center of the country, between Tel Aviv and Hadera. The city of Be’er Sheva and the Negev region comprise around 60 percent of Israel’s total land area, and contain only 9 percent of the country’s population. Traditionally, many Negev towns were perceived as downtrodden “peripheral” areas.
“Encouraging high-level career personnel to come and populate the Negev is a great contribution to the country,” Motola asserts.
Over the next five years, two additional massive bases are expected to be completed in the Negev—one dedicated to intelligence, the other to communications and “the IDF ultimately sees itself relocating the majority of soldiers to the Negev,” Motola says.
The need for support staff for the 10,000 soldiers—mainly consisting of food and maintenance services workers—provides jobs for hundreds living in nearby towns like Yeruham. Building supplies and construction labor for the bases are also based in the Negev.
The ambitious initiative is based on the vision of Israeli founding father Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who stated in 1955, “Israel’s capacity for science and research will be tested in the Negev…and this effort will determine the fate of the state of Israel.”
There are two main anchors of the current Negev plan, which was adopted into law by several Israeli government resolutions—including Resolution 546, passed in 2013, which called for the transfer of IDF bases to the Negev, and Resolution 5154, adopted a year earlier, which designated Be’er Sheva as a “priority area in order to establish it as the Negev Regional Metropolis.”
With the implementation of the plan and the leadership of a dynamic mayor, 45-year-old Ruvik Danilovich, Be’er Sheva has undergone a swift transformation from a “dry, hot and neglected backwater”—as Ishay Avital, the city’s foreign press liaison, describes it—to “the rising star of Israel.”
The rise in Be’er Sheva’s fortunes is obvious to anyone visiting the city, with its hundreds of new high-rise apartment blocks, brand new River Park and amphitheater, new stadium, revitalized and restored Old City, new performance halls and 15 shopping malls.
But it’s the Advanced Technologies Park that’s the centerpiece of its economic revitalization. After the IDF moved its prestigious Computer Services Directorate to the Be’er Sheva-based Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) in 2013, the foundation was set for a joint initiative between the Be’er Sheva municipality and the university.
According to BGU spokesman Ehud Zion Waldoks, the three elements of academia, industry and the government/army led to a unique opportunity for a “collaborative research ecosystem.” BGU’s student body of 20,000 includes 8,000 engineering students, ultimately producing one-third of all engineers in Israel. As a result, several prominent international companies—including Dell, T-Mobile, IBM and Oracle—have opened operations in Be’er Sheva’s Advanced Technologies Park, which is connected by a walkway to the university and Soroka Hospital.
With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2013 designation of Be’er Sheva as “the cyber capital of the Eastern Hemisphere,” the plan to implement that vision is forging ahead. The National Cyber Center, which will integrate the cyber industry with cutting-edge research and development as well as a strong academic base, is expected to be operational in Be’er Sheva within the next few years.
Foreign press liaison Avital notes the substantial foreign interest in Be’er Sheva from countries like Taiwan and China, in addition to the significant outside investment pouring into the city.
“There are Israeli and foreign investors, and it’s not just out of Zionism—it’s very good business,” says Avital.
Both Avital and Waldoks believe that forward-thinking development will encourage college graduates to remain in Be’er Sheva. In fact, the city’s population is already one of the youngest in Israel, with more than 50 percent of residents under age 40.
“Bibi mentions Be’er Sheva all the time,” Avital says, using the prime minister’s nickname. “Like him, we believe the future of Israel is here.”