Feature: Sowing seeds deep in the South

For residents of development towns, there might just be reason to believe change is on the way.

Holland Park’s forest, north of Eilat. (photo credit: KKL-JNF)
Holland Park’s forest, north of Eilat.
(photo credit: KKL-JNF)
The Negev is booming. The desert is blooming. Green landscapes, parks, lakes and world-leading agriculture.
As a matter of fact, the best thing a young Israeli couple can do is buy a house in Beersheba or Dimona, two growing cities of the future.
Okay, so we’ve heard these kinds of slogans before. David Ben-Gurion’s vision of a flourishing desert has been a mantra for politicians for years, yet residents of developing cities such as Yeroham, Ofakim and Sderot haven’t seen that vision come to fruition in their real, everyday lives.
However, perhaps this time it’s really different.
Newly elected Dimona Mayor Benny Biton believes the future is bright. With the proposed new railway station closer to the center of Dimona and the huge infrastructure being invested in the South under Israel Katz’s Transportation Ministry, there might finally be change for the citizens of the Negev.
“A young family can buy a relatively cheap house in Dimona, and with the train will be able to get to work in Tel Aviv in 40 minutes,” says Biton.
Furthermore, if you were to ask Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, they’d say the government is already behind schedule in recognizing the booming nature of the Negev.
For 2014, the KKL-JNF has authorized a whopping budget of NIS 1.29 billion, with NIS 586 million to be directed towards a variety of development projects.
The budget is an increase of 7 percent from the previous year and is the biggest to date in the organization’s 113 years of existence, with funds being raised by the organization’s domestic income and by private donors from all over the world.
“We do not get one dime from the Israeli government,” boasts KKL-JNF world chairman Efi Stenzler.
KKL-JNF’s vision is different than what it was in its first days – before the foundation of the State of Israel. Instead of buying land for the sake of the Jewish people, today it focuses on developing land, building parks, making the land greener and investing in agriculture and water technologies.
“We do not enlist patents or charge any fees in any of our sites across Israel,” says Stenzler.
“We are Zionists and therefore wish the public to walk freely in land that belongs to the public.”
Those public lands include parks and manmade forests across the Negev desert.
In the northern part of the Negev, just four kilometers east of Kiryat Gat, you can find Hamalachim- Shahariya (Angels) forest. Named after Jewish donors from Los Angeles and the 1956 Shahariya transit camp whose residents helped plant the trees, this forest stretches over an area of 700 hectares (1,730 acres).
The forest has hiking paths, three biking trails, picnic tables, eight parking lots, an excavation site with remnants of a public building – which is believed to have been a synagogue – and an observation post.
These types of forests (and much larger) can be found all across the Negev and serve as attractions for the public, also benefiting the ecosystem. Surprisingly, while visiting Eilat – one of the driest places in Israel (with an annual precipitation average of 44 mm.) – of the many tourist attractions, one can also find a growing forest.
Holland Park, named after Friends of KKLJNF of the Netherlands, is located just north of Eilat and extends over 35 hectares. A forest cannot grow naturally in that part of the country since it doesn’t receive enough water from the nearby (mostly dry) streams.
In 1996, KKL-JNF planted trees with the help of the Eilat Municipality, fostered by KKL-JNF, which waters the park using brackish water. The view today is not of a dense forest; however, the site of green trees and bushes rooted above the brown landscape with a horizon of the red Sinai Mountains disappearing into the blue skies is a surreal view a visitor could not see just two decades ago.
If a tourist doesn’t mind waking up early, the park offers a 2.5- km. walking path, which at sunrise can lead to a view of dozens of local foxes. The thriving of animals in Holland Park also benefits the thousands of birds making their way north from Africa, who stop by to capture food.
Yet mostly, the park is for the use of the residents of Eilat, to enjoy a green habitat of baobab, jujube and tamarisk trees, acacia plants, Grewia villosa (round leaf grewia), flowers and more, because eventually these parks are meant to help increase the standard of living of the residents of the South, and make their numbers grow.
GETTING BACK to the Negev and Dimona, Mayor Biton is happy with developments in the city. One of the biggest projects of the city is the building of Lake Dimona, located in Ben-Gurion Park. When completed, it will spread out over one hectare, and will include natural thickets, restaurants and tourist activities of kayaks and pedal boats. The project is driven by the Dimona Municipality, the Construction and Housing Ministry and the Drainage Authority, with NIS 30m. courtesy of the KKL-JNF. The French KKL-JNF is also investing NIS 11m. into building a cricket field in the city.
Another major factor Biton recognizes as a game changer for the future of Dimona is employment. An increase of job opportunities can help convince students and young families to stay in town, instead of heading north to Tel Aviv. With plans of moving a big chunk of the IDF’s presence to the Negev in the near future, and without wishing to disclose which hi-tech company is making its way towards Dimona, Biton believes those job opportunities can become real.
Beersheba is already enjoying the fruits of development.
The Beersheba River Park is a strong example. The river stretches 8 km., covering 520 hectares from both banks of the riverbed. For over half a century the river was used as a site for garbage dumps and junkyards, which resulted in a stench from the sewage pools. Homes nearby were built with porches facing the opposite direction, and the land’s value was low.
A major restoration project, conducted by the KKL-JNF, the Beersheba Municipality, the Shikma Besor Drainage Authority and the Environmental Protection Ministry, which cost hundreds of millions of shekels, has cleaned up the area completely and transformed the river into a large park with green lawns, walking and bicycle paths, scores of trees, historical sites, picturesque bridges, a sports area and a botanical garden based on desert flora.
New homes are already being built on the borders of the park with porches facing the new view, and the land’s value is increasing.
Another facet of the blossoming South comes from its research and development stations.
The Southern Arava R&D Station works under extreme desert weather conditions: very high temperatures in the summer, low precipitation levels and relatively low humidity. These harsh conditions make it difficult to develop agriculture, yet are excellent for research and technological advances. The limits make every success twice as useful.
The Arava R&D station specializes in the effective use of brackish water for irrigation, maximizing profitability of local crops, developing new crop strains and technological advancements for reducing manpower. The station also participates in educating local schools, and conducts research with Israeli and international academic colleagues.
Will these technological advancements, continuous foresting, development of green parks and the government’s investment in transportation infrastructure help make Ben-Gurion’s vision come true? Only time will tell. The citizens of the South are waiting.