Ministers approve NIS 200m. for periphery

Funds slated for development programs in Israel's outlying regions.

The interministerial committee for the development of the Negev and the Galilee has approved a series of incentives, worth upwards of NIS 200 million, aimed at strengthening the periphery.
The Jerusalem Post met with Minister for Development of the Negev and Galilee Silvan Shalom and the ministry’s director-general Orna Hozman- Bechor on Wednesday, to hear about the activities of the small but dynamic institution.
Shalom, who is also vice premier, started the conversation by talking about the previous evening, when he was the guest of honor at the opening of the annual Karmiel Folk Dance Festival. There he spoke of the importance of developing local culture to draw people to live in the periphery.
The conversation quickly turned to the length of time it took for him to return from Karmiel, on the border between the Upper and Lower Galilee, to his home in Tel Aviv. Shalom said the drive took him an hour and a half and that the relatively short time it took him was due in large part to the construction of new highways in the North.
“Travel times have shortened substantially in recent years and will be much shorter still once the railroad to Karmiel that we got approved this year is up and running,” he said. “Shortening the distance between the periphery and the center is vital for the periphery.It in effect shrinks the country and creates opportunities for those who live, or want to live, outside the crowded Center.”
Shalom, who was born in 1958 and grew up in Beersheba, said that when he was a boy, Tel Aviv was like a different world. When asked how long it took him to get to Tel Aviv from Beersheba back then, Shalom responded, “Tel Aviv? Who ever went to Tel Aviv?” Today that trip takes slightly over an hour by car or train.
Shalom said that once the double track is completed next year, the train ride will last no more than 48 minutes. “That sounds fanciful, but it’s true,” he said.
The ministry leadership and staff know that shortening travel times is significant, but they also realize that it can be a double-edged sword and might delay the overall goal of populating both the Negev and the Galilee.
“In other countries it is completely natural to spend over an hour each day commuting to and from work. People who find jobs in the Negev, for instance, may decide to remain to live in the Center and put up with tolerable travel times. We don’t want that.
“We want people to work, live, raise a family and remain in the periphery for good. We know that to do that, we must provide potential residents with a complete basket of services that will enable them to pull up roots and relocate permanently, safe in the knowledge that all their needs will be met,” Shalom said.
The initiatives approved by the ministers this week are all in that vein, aiming to make life in the Negev and the Galilee both affordable and attractive.
“I’ve said it before: We want 300,000 people to move to the Negev and 300,000 more to move to the Galilee, by the end of the decade,” he said.
“This week’s decisions, chief among them the decision to allocate NIS 100m. for the creation of 20 new settlement nuclei and the strengthening of 10 existing ones with new residents, bring about dramatic change.”
The minister cited Acre as an example of a successful settlement project.“Acre was a dying city. All the Jews were leaving. Real estate prices hit rock bottom. There was nothing there. People fled to Nahariya and the nearby villages. But from the moment the settlement garin (core) arrived, beginning with seven families and now with over 200 families, things began looking up. Suddenly there are children. Suddenly there are nurseries and kindergartens and schools. Suddenly there are afterschool activities. Suddenly there are jobs in all of those institutions. People are coming back. Real estate prices are climbing. Companies are investing there. In short, it’s a game changer,” Shalom said.
Shalom said he saw outstanding potential in the settlement garins organized by religious groups. “These are people who will settle down for good. They get married at a young age and immediately start having children. They are a close community that will plant roots quickly and build a thriving community life wherever they go."
“The best example is a group of religious young men who settled in Sderot. They were the only ones who remained behind when the city was under fire. When I visited them, their rabbi told me that they have a wedding nearly every evening. The men will bring their wives to the city and before long it will be full of young ambitious families,” he said.
The second major initiative approved this week was the allocation of NIS 30m. for incentives for military families to buy and rent homes in the Negev.
The Ministry for Development of the Negev and Galilee was tasked with facilitating the civilian side of the relocation of much of the military’s activities from the Central region to the Negev. The move, which is scheduled to take place over the next decade. will see tens of thousands of positions moved to the South, and the ministry wants to make sure that the officers and career NCOs and their families put down roots there.
To sweeten the deal for the military families, the ministry, together with the Ministry of Construction and Housing and the Ministry of Defense, put together a package of subsidies to help them buy land or rent a house for two years.
“Military families who decide to make the brave and significant change need time to adjust so they can build their lives in the South in the best possible way,” Shalom said.
Yet another initiative that was approved by the ministers is a subsidy package aimed at strengthening towns and villages near the border with Lebanon.
“These places, for the most part small villages and kibbutzim, have aging populations and are in dire need of ‘fresh blood.’ What we decided was that we would invest NIS 80m.
in offering residents who wish to settle there assistance in the form of land development grants. While the land in the North itself is cheap, because of the mountainous terrain, the development costs tend to be high and can reach up to NIS 300,000 [per family]. Our research showed that the high prices were among the main deterrents stopping people from moving there, and we believe that demand will increase if we can reduce the expense enough,” said Shalom. “We are offering people grants of up to 65 percent of the development costs.”
Shalom said he insisted that Kiryat Shmona be included in the list of places where people would be entitled to the grants.
“It is important that the grants go to all types of settlements, urban as well as rural,” he said.
“These new initiatives, combined with the ongoing activities of the ministry are beginning to turn our vision into a reality. I estimate that these moves will draw roughly 60,000 new residents to the periphery, not including the soldiers,” Shalom said.
Orna Hozman-Bechor, the ministry’s director-general, said that the past year or so had seen a rush of activity by the ministry.
“We have a dynamic and driven staff, who sincerely believe in the work that we do.
People who meet me always say that they are surprised by the quick response times that we provide and that it is uncharacteristic of government agencies,” Hozman- Bechor said.
As an example, she cited the ministry’s flagship project, the establishment of the nation’s fifth medical school in Safed by Bar-Ilan University.
“This is a project that was stuck for five years because of lack of funding and lack of coordination. Now, according to our schedule, the first class of students will be able to start in the fall of 2011,” Hozman- Bechor said. “The significance is incredible. It will produce 5,000 jobs directly and indirectly and introduce new people into the social makeup of the region and improve the North’s medical services in an unprecedented way.”
The medical school is only the first step on the way to creating a new university in the Galilee.
“Our plan is to combine six of the leading colleges in the North under a single institution, add to it a world class research establishment and the new medical school, and see it turn into a fully functioning academic campus,” she said.
Hozman-Bechor said the Negev and Galilee Ministry specialty was filling in the gaps that other ministries don’t know how to handle.
“There are ministries responsible for housing and for jobs, but who makes sure that there are cultural or leisure activities? People always ask me, ‘What will I do if I move there?’ Once they have where to live and where to work, they need things to do. People want to know that there are cultural activities, sports facilities, community centers, a movie hall, all the things the fill up people’s lives,” Hozman- Bechor said. “We look into the details and do everything we can to change the ‘if’ into ‘when.’”