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The Negev and the Galilee comprise 70 percent of the area of the State of Israel with 30% of its populace, but they guarantee 100% of the future of the state," says Ron Pelmer, the director of Or National Initiatives, a non-profit organization that helps to develop Israel's periphery.
Pelmer spoke at last week's Sderot Conference for Social and Economic Policy, at a session devoted to developing the Negev and the Galilee. The phrase "Gedera to Hadera" - referring to the metropolitan sprawl where most of Israel's populace lives - was oft heard in comparison with the Negev and the Galilee, considered Israel's peripheries. Attracting people to the peripheries will take an overall strategy, he noted.
Jewish Agency Chairman Ze'ev Bielski, who chaired the session, described the agency's role in bringing together Israeli philanthropists and their Diaspora counterparts to help the government implement its decision to develop the Negev. In June, the agency agreed to the multi-year funding of Daroma, a company comprising Israeli and Diaspora businesspeople and public officials who will devote time and resources to develop the Negev. Likewise, Tzafona will be established to help develop the Galilee.
"Real Zionism is to encourage all to move to the Negev and the Galilee," said Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit, adding that the key to developing the peripheries lies in improving transportation to the center of the country. Efficient transportation, he said, will change the periphery into suburbia.
Sheetrit would like every citizen to be able to reach a large urban center within half an hour. Train lines have expanded in recent years, and further expansion is planned. A new train line will shorten travel time from the Negev to Tel Aviv, and another line will bring the Galilee closer to Haifa. Highway Six (the Trans-Israel Highway) already connects Gedera to Hadera. By 2007, two new sections will extend the highway north and south.
Sheetrit rejected the government policy of offering tax incentives, since only 20% of the periphery's residents reach tax brackets entitling them to such incentives. "It would be better to take the money and invest in a long school day, thus providing equal opportunities for each child. Education is the real answer for social change," he said.
"The State of Israel will not advance without the Negev and the Galilee. We will have serious problems if we don't develop these areas," said General (res.) Yitzhak Brick of the Sacta-Rashi Foundation, a private family fund dedicated to assisting the underprivileged in Israel's geographic and social periphery. Although an interministerial government committee has been established, Brick stressed the role of non-government organizations, some voluntary, in filling the gap until the government becomes more involved.
The Or movement hopes to market homes in the Negev to 108,000 people by developing housing, services and employment opportunities. It has already helped establish six settlements - five in the Negev and one in the Galilee - and expand 25 moshavim and kibbutzim.
Pelmer moved with his family from Petah Tikva to Sansana in the northern Negev, providing an example for others. "In the Negev there are 200 professional job offers every month, and in the Galilee, 400," says Pelmer. He wants to prevent people from leaving these areas and attract more young and young-at-heart residents. Since army bases dot the Negev, families of military personnel will live there if services are sufficiently developed, he says. Or is also trying to attract large companies to the area.
The Strauss-Elite food concern is an example of a large firm reaping the financial benefits of operating in the periphery. "It's a win-win situation," insisted director-general Giora Bar Deah. "There are economic advantages in these areas, like tax breaks and benefits. There's no shame in benefiting from them."
Ofra Strauss, chairperson of the Strauss-Elite Group and a Jewish Agency board member, provides an example of industry's positive involvement by volunteering as a driving force behind the agency's Babayit Beyahad program that matches veteran Israelis with new immigrants.
Representing local government, Acre mayor Shimon Lankri placed the blame for his city's decline since 1982 on government policy, along with lack of local leadership and a master plan. At Acre's helm since 2003, Lankri has improved infrastructure, developed tourism and stemmed the tide of residents leaving the city. Acre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
"As a mayor, I have taken upon myself to improve a city with potential. We must not be alone in this. Without the government bringing strong populations and increasing grants, we are unable to do it alone."
Young people are seen as the key to development. Discharged IDF soldiers founded the Ayalim association with the aim of keeping students in the peripheries after they complete their studies. Today there are some 26,000 students at southern venues, including Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) and Sapir College, where the Sderot Conference took place. There are some 47,000 students in northern colleges and universities. Most will later return to the center of the country to find employment.
The main crop of Kibbutz Ashbal in the Galilee is education. Founded a few years ago, its 60 members - all graduates of the Hano'ar Ha'oved Vehalomed youth movement - are involved in educational projects, some unconventional. They work with 4,000 local children and youths from all social sectors, including Jews, Arabs and Beduin. The kibbutz has a dormitory for Ethiopian immigrant youths who might otherwise have dropped out of school, and has established five study centers in Arab villages.
Prof. Alean Al-Krenawi, head of BGU's Department of Social Work, feels that the Israeli Arab population is ignored. A Beduin whose brother is mayor of Rahat, Al-Krenawi believes that the programs and initiatives for the Negev serve to weaken the Beduin population and increase the gaps between them and their Jewish neighbors.
"One cannot ignore the 1.5 million Arabs in Israel. The Arab-Beduin population of the Negev is in a dire economic situation," he said.
Eitan Broshi, head of the Jezreel Valley regional council, bemoaned the lack of government involvement but also noted the dearth of leaders from the periphery. "Since the days of Ben-Gurion there has been no national leadership from these areas," he said.
Broshi argued that transportation options are not the solution for outlying areas. "Young people need a purpose and the means to live in these areas. Once people moved to these areas as a national mission. Today they look for self-fulfillment."
Although the challenge of developing Israel's peripheries is daunting, Bielski suggests to "look at what we've done in the past 57 years" and gain encouragement for the future.