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Israel's largest desert region, the Negev, has built some impressive credentials over the past 3,000 years. Moses's successor Joshua traversed its sandy hills; the ancient tribe of Judah settled under its vast sky; Israel's first prime minister David Ben-Gurion attached to it an inspiring vision; scientists created one of Israel's legendary achievements by irrigating its arid soil and the military houses the state's not-so-secret nuclear weaponry in one of its cities.
In terms of prestige, the Negev has everything going for it, except the one thing that would truly integrate it into established Israel - a thriving population. Bordered by the Judean Hills in the north, the Sinai Peninsula in the southwest, and parts of the Mediterranean coast in the west, the 13,310 sq. km. land mass that comprises more than 66 percent of Israel's borders has never housed more than 10 percent of its population.
Enter the Or Movement. This highly motivated and effective grass roots non-profit organization has accumulated some impressive credentials of its own and attracted the attention of major investors and establishments as it seeks to bring 400,000 people to settle the land by 2015.
Such a lofty goal is also backed by the Israeli government, which inaugurated 2006 as the "Year of the Negev," complete with a NIS 17 billion development package. Operating on a much smaller NIS 3 million annual budget, Or has already established a name for itself as an innovator and clearing house for development projects that are distributed to larger organizations.
Or has also set up a highly regarded information center near Beersheba in the industrial town of Omer that reaches out to every person who passes through its doors to bring them - sometimes one by one - to settle in the Negev and Galilee. According to people who have partnered with the organization, Or's greatest strength is its ability to sell a vision of the Negev to prospective customers and find a way to make that vision a reality.
"They are a real estate company without selling actual real estate. They are selling a quality of life and whatever your objections are, they will overcome them," says Jewish National Fund (JNF) CEO Russell Robinson. The JNF is one of Or's major partners and currently funds 20% of its Negev development projects through the organization.
THE OR Movement's vision dates back to its founding in 1999. Back then, Or's CEO Roni Flamer was 22 and fresh out of the army when he and three other friends decided to fulfill a commitment they had made before joining the army "to make Israel a better place to live."
Three months later (during which time Roni married), on Israel's Independence Day, the four friends moved into caravans 20 km. away from Beersheba and called their new home Sansana, from the biblical account of Joshua's travels through the desert. Soon afterward they met with then-infrastructure minister Ariel Sharon and agreed to establish a real community. Today, Sansana boasts a modest 52 families with plans to double the population by 2007 and build 50 permanent houses for the original families.
In the last year alone, Or has helped 800 families move into the Negev and Galilee and Flamer claims there are another 5,000 families on a waiting list. They are waiting for suitable housing, jobs and communities to become available.
"If you say you want to move this summer, I am going to have to tell you that I need another two or three years and 20 or 30 more people like you," Flamer explains.
He describes the essential conditions that must be in place before a family can live in a settlement as the golden triangle, in which the three points consist of an educational system, employment and housing. It is the job of the 30 employees, who work at Or's information center and maintain its Web site with hundreds of job opportunities, to guide and often create these three points, enabling families to move into the Negev.
Or offers prospective residents the choice to live in religious, mixed or secular communities varying in size and social structure. The five largest cities (Beersheba, Dimona, Yeroham, Mitzpe Ramon and Ofakim) range in population between 20,000 and 200,000 people, but most of the rural communities which make up the bulk of the Negev's estimated 117 Jewish settlements average around 250 people.
To match the existing statistics (and therefore availability of options), Or's target population are married couples in their early 30s with one or two children of whom 70% are secular and 30% are religious.
"This profile fits the demand for what is already there," says Flamer, who describes himself as openly Modern Orthodox.
In line with this makeup, 30-year-olds Eran and Tal Sade moved to the Negev from Rehovot three months ago with the help of Or to build a flower business in Moshav Yuvil. They live with 40 other families 10 km. from the border with Egypt. The Sades have been married for three years and decided to wait until they settled into their new home before having children.
"It took two years to move, because the bureaucracy is very difficult and we are lucky that we have the Or Movement," says Eran. "They helped me connect with all the people whom we needed to talk to that we didn't even know about."
Recognizing the need to have resources in place before prospective residents can even think of moving into the Negev permanently, Or has established a private equity venture capital fund through KPMG Consulting that it hopes will eventually reach $70 million. Private donors have already pledged the first $5 million for the fund and advisers expect it to reach $20 million within a year. More specifically, the independently managed fund will seek out for profit projects in the Negev from which any proceeds earned will be returned to the fund itself and reinvested in Negev development.
This method of funding will allow Or to create incentives for people interested in the Negev by helping companies with their infrastructure which will later yield a return or by building model homes for prospective buyers to be sold.
Already impressed with Or's ability to focus a broad vision of development into specific projects, major organizations have utilized Or's resources to launch new endeavors. Beginning this summer, the North American aliya organization Nefesh B'Nefesh is promoting 300 lots in the community of Meitar, an expansion of the Karmit settlement which currently houses 1,700 families. If the project is successful, it will be one of the first times a large group of new immigrants has chosen to settle in the Negev upon arrival in Israel.
Low housing prices such as the $200,000 villas being built in Meitar offer just one incentive for families to choose the desert over the much pricier areas in the center of the country.
Despite such benefits, however, there is still a feeling among new residents to the rural communities that they are very much pioneers who are not all convinced they will stay in the Negev for the long term.
Eran and Tal, who left their jobs in computers and accounting, respectively, acknowledged that friends and family did not completely understand their decision to move to a moshav in the desert.
"Our family thinks we are crazy. Our friends think we are crazy. We left everything," Eran says. For the Sades, the quiet that comes from being at least 50 minutes away from Beersheba, the nearest big city, is an attraction in itself.
"The distance from everything is a disadvantage, but in reality we love the distance," he adds.
GIL AND DAFNA Florman are not as sure whether their future will be in the small religious community of Merchav Am they moved to last summer. Their community, 50 km. south of Beersheba, has just 36 families and is without even a basic convenience store.
Gil continues to work as a documentary film instructor to high school students in Israel's center and admits that adjusting from their life in a big city to the dynamics of a small community has been the most difficult part of the move for them.
"In the first few months, we were in a state of euphoria, and we loved every moment. Now we have to come back to the groundâ€¦ living in a community is beautiful, but it takes time," he says.
Their first son was born a few months after they arrived in the community and they marvel at the fact that six other babies were born within the same time span. As a result of the number of children in the community, the settlement has both a kindergarten and nursery school in place.
In addition to these prototypical communities, Flamer believes there is a large untapped market of young people already living in the Negev, either attending Beersheba's Ben-Gurion University or stationed in the army. He offers that many of these people move on after their studies or service ends because nobody has asked them to stay or offers them a complete package.
Even more potent candidates might be found, however, as the political realities of last summer's disengagement and the proposed consolidation plans take effect.
Just a few months ago, 60 Gaza evacuee families from Atzmona moved into the floundering Negev Kibbutz Shomriya in a deal brokered with the help of Or and Ilan Cohen, former prime minister Ariel Sharon's director general.
Atzmona evacuee David Reisch, who is father to 11 children, has thrown himself into his new life in the Negev with the same passion he put into building his home in Gaza.
"The climate is different and everything is different, but one thing is the same - it is all the same land of Israel," Reisch says. "We are trying to make people aware that settlement is still a main target of Zionism."
It is possible that even after 58 years, this sentiment might finally start to take root in the Negev. Cohen calls Or's work the "embodiment of Zionism" and the Formans, who are still sitting on the fence about their future, acknowledge their role in fulfilling an ideology.
"We became pioneers," says Gil. "There is not much left in Israel for people to pioneer, but it seems like now, this is what we are doing."
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