The roads to and from the south of the country will be packed next week as Israelis take off on Passover vacations. The Dead Sea resorts, Eilat and a multitude of other Negev and desert locations are fully booked, providing a welcome economic boost to places dependent on seasonal tourism for their livelihood.
The roads this year will be even more jammed than usual, but for a good reason. The trans-Israel highway (Highway 6) and the rail network are undergoing further development, particularly to the north of Beersheva, resulting in roadworks and extra delays. We dream of the day when we won’t return from a vacation experience inside Israel with memories of sitting for endless hours in a traffic holdup even Waze is unable to resolve for us.
Anyone traveling in the south today cannot but be impressed by the rapid infrastructural developments which are taking place. Highway 6 is being extended to the Shoket junction between Metar and Omer, from where it will continue to the Negev junction south of Beersheva.
The journey from the center of the country to the Negev will be quicker. Property values in the settlements along the way are likely to increase as potential home owners will be prepared to locate in areas which were previously less accessible.
This is all planned to be completed in time for the transfer south of some of the major army units and their families over the next few years. This probably explains the haste of the construction work during the past few months, the pace of which is rarely to be found when it comes to civilian development projects in the Negev.
The same is true for the continued investment in the rail network. Following the doubling of the line between Tel Aviv and Beersheva, enabling the journey to be accomplished in an hour, the parallel network from Tel Aviv via Ashkelon, Sderot (where the station came into operation just two months ago), Netivot, Ofakim and into Beersheva from the west will provide greater access for some of the region’s development towns, with daily commuter access to employment opportunities which were, until now, too distant (in traveling time) to be a reality.
It will also enable local residents who would otherwise have left the towns to remain in situ and contribute to the social and cultural development of their places of residence.
It may also encourage first-time home owners, especially young professional families for whom Tel Aviv is far too expensive, to look further afield for residential opportunities in places where land is available and cheaper, but without having to give up their jobs in the metropolitan center of the country.
The improved transportation links will strengthen the image of the country as being no more than a single small city state, with everything focused on Tel Aviv. Increasing numbers of people commute in and out of Gush Dan on a daily basis. But the improvement of transportation and access is a two-way process, and given the lack of available land in the center of the country, it may also bring about a relocation of factories and other workplaces to these areas.
A good example where this is finally beginning to happen is Beersheva itself. Thanks to the better road and rail facilities, the existence of a world-class university with international links and a dynamic city mayor who has almost single-handedly changed the city’s image from backwater to a city that’s going places, Beersheva is beginning to attract international interest in investment and growth which it has not experienced in the past.
The recent naming of Beersheva as the cyber capital of Israel, along with the construction of a hi-tech campus combining town and gown, is an image which was promoted by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on his recent visit to the US.
But it is not only Beersheva. To the south of the city, the army “town” (Ir Habahdim) is expected to have a major impact on the region as these families participate in, and strengthen, the civilian and educational infrastructure.
Ben-Gurion University is geared up to meeting this challenge during the next five years, as it prepares itself for a significant increase in numbers of students and faculty. In addition to the special programs aimed specifically at the military personnel, the university aims to absorb the spillover effect of increased numbers of local residents who will desire to study or work at the university.
The extension of the country’s rail network to Eilat is also back on the planning agenda. This is not the first time that such a plan has been discussed by the government, but it has never previously reached the advanced stage of planning it has at present. The active opposition of the environmentalist lobby would indicate that something is actually happening.
The investment in the rail link will be massive, but could bring about a substantial increase in tourism and trade revenue, benefiting many of the relatively isolated communities along the country’s southern Arava route.
Perhaps it sounds a bit of a dream, but just as with the Red-Dead Canal, which is now being constructed in a series of tunnels by Jordan on its side of the shared border and which could have potential benefits to Israel, so too the rail link, to be constructed entirely on the Israeli side of the border, could bring advantages to Jordan. And if we are dreaming, imagine a situation in which the road along the Arava would go south on one side of the border and north on the other side, putting an end to many of the traffic accidents which take place along this route. A stable cross-border regime along the length of the Israel-Jordan border, sharing water, road and rail infrastructures, would, in turn, bring about a degree of economic development and potential international investment which has been lacking from this region – despite the peace agreement – until now.
There is also the construction of the new international airport to the north of Eilat, at Timna. Vacating the existing airfield at the northern entrance to the city will enable further urban expansion and development to take place in this Red Sea resort and port city with all the expected social, economic and tourism benefits.
So if next week you find yourself sitting in one of those annoying traffic snarl-ups, with Israeli drivers honking their horns, impatient children demanding to know when they will arrive, a spring hamsin (heatwave) making the transportation conditions unbearable, and matza crumbs littering the floor in direct competition with the particles of sand coming through the window, close your eyes for a few moments and dream.
Dream of a year (or perhaps two) from now when the transportation infrastructure has been completed and the region has become even more accessible than at present.
Imagine the major social and economic development which, this time, may actually occur and which will help the Negev shed its self-denigrating “periphery” status.
There are problematic issues to be addressed in an equitable manner, notably the participation of the regions’ Beduin population in the development spin-off, and the need to maintain a balance between gung-ho development and environmental protection. These matters cannot be pushed aside, but given proper planning they too can be addressed for the benefit of all.
For my part, as a resident of the region and traversing these same roads on a daily basis, I’ll stick it out at home.
You are welcome to visit.
The writer is dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.