In the Footsteps of the builders of a new desert airport in the Arava

The Arava Valley in southern Israel is experiencing unprecedented development. In the past decades, prominent Zionist figures, such as David Ben-Gurion and Theodor Herzl, dreamed about making life bloom and prosper in the desert. In their dreams, the settlements of desert, such as the kibbutzim, were green oases in the dry wilderness. They knew that it was not an easy task, but they knew that it was possible. Unlike in the early years of Zionism and pioneering settlements, where much of the work was done by hand and few machines, today in the twentieth first century we can use the modern technology to help to conquer the desert. Building a new airport in the Arava is a showcase of this; it enables much needed development in the region.
Earthworks for the airport runway near Timna. Photo: Samuel WilnerEarthworks for the airport runway near Timna. Photo: Samuel Wilner
The strategic plans – both regional and national – are helping the southern region of Israel to become economically independent. One of these strategic projects was launching the construction of a new airport in the Arava Valley, near the national park of Timna, located right by the border with Jordan. The new airport will be called the Ramon International Airport, named after the first Israeli NASA astronaut Ilan Ramon, who lost his life in a space shuttle accident in 2003. For more than one hundred years, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael – the Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF) has been contributing to the development of the southern Arava in many important ways, enabling the building of several critical infrastructure projects.
The construction site for the new airport is located on an area of river delta formed by two wadis (dry river beds), which occasionally flood. In desert regions, floods damage infrastructure, and, due to their massive force, they can also be life threatening. One never knows when the most intense floods take place, but statistically they have occurred a few times in the past century. Every year, floods cause damage to road systems; breaking the pavement, creating landslides, and even causing roads and bridges to collapse. This is the reason why KKL-JNF has invested around 20 million shekel (around 5 million dollars) to build flood control systems to protect the site for the airport and the nearby community of Beer Ora.
Diverting water is an important part of flood control in arid land areas, where rainfall is accumulated during the very few rainy days each year. In the past decades, KKL-JNF has contributed a considerable amount of financing, manpower and expertise for constructing flood control infrastructure, mainly levies, trenches and reservoirs to protect agricultural fields and settlements. For instance, n the 1970s, this was done in Kibbutz Ketura to divert the occasionally flooding streams. In addition, diverting water is an important way to harvest the water; the ancient Egyptians did this thousands of years ago as they cultivated the fertile fields by the Nile River. They knew that their national development, and thus their survival, depended on this.
Preparing the new runway for the Ramon Airport. Photo: Samuel WilnerPreparing the new runway for the Ramon Airport. Photo: Samuel Wilner
The Israel Airports Authority is in charge of the construction and operation of the airports in Israel. Mr. Shai Bar Ratzon is the leading engineer of the project. According to Bar Ratzon, the construction of the airport will enable immense development opportunities, especially in terms of increased tourism capacity. 
This new airport is critically needed. The current airport in Eilat is already too small to accommodate larger planes and additional flights. The new airport in Timna is designed for all manufactured airplanes, and will be state of the art in its design. 
In addition, the current Eilat Airport is located right in the center of the town, occupying an immense amount of land, which at a later stage, will be used for real estate development by building hotels, commercial buildings and residential housing units.
According to the Airports Authority, the first stage of the airport will accommodate around 1.5 million passengers annually, but at a later stage the airport will be able to accommodate up to 4.8 million passengers as the terminal is expanded. The new airport is scheduled to open at the end of 2016. When opened, the new airport is estimated to more than double tourism in the region.
Another possibility for the airport is using it for transporting agricultural produce to Europe. Currently it can take around two to three days for fresh fruits to reach the customers from the time they have been picked up. Therefore, the closeness of the new Ramon Airport can provide a new means to transport agricultural produce from the Arava producers to customers around the world.
At the end of the day, developing the southern region requires government support. “KKL-JNF has a major role, and it can contribute to all these future projects in the Arava region”, says Barbara Goldstein, the Deputy Director of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America office in Israel and a member of KKL-JNF Board of Directors. The Ramon Airport is only one project among many that will make the desert bloom.
Once this was a dream, now it is reality.