The Negev, a desert frontier

Go south to find a pioneer life.

CHERRY TOMATOES grow in a hothouse at Moshav Be’er Milka (photo credit: Courtesy)
CHERRY TOMATOES grow in a hothouse at Moshav Be’er Milka
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If your spirit responds to desert peace and beauty, a sense of freedom and a chance to leave your mark on Israel’s greatest frontier, then the Negev is the place for you. It’s a region of exciting contrasts, where road signs warn drivers to watch out for camels crossing and fields of mirrors harvesting solar energy rotate with the sun. The parched landscape yields silver-green salt bushes, where after winter rains, rare and wild red tulips dot the sandy hills.
Salty water is an agricultural advantage in the Negev, not a setback. The population is sparse, but community spirit is strong.
The Negev is divided into six regional councils, altogether comprising a whopping 60% of Israel’s land mass. Earlier this year, I visited the Ramat Hanegev Regional Council, which controls some 4,300, about 22% of the Negev.
“Our goals were born of [Israel’s first prime minister David] Ben-Gurion’s vision,” says Eran Doron, head of the regional council.
“He was ahead of his time, envisioning a repopulated Negev where people live by our free natural resources.
He foresaw desalination and the development of solar power. Our challenge is to build homes and communities for today and for Israel’s future generations.
At the same time, we need to preserve the character of the desert. We call this environmental Zionism. This is my mission.”
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, as of 2016 there were 6,511 residents in the Ramat Hanegev Regional Council, including Beduin. With those statistics – lots of land and a small population – there’s a huge potential for those seeking to break away from the crowded center of the country, plenty of room for people of all stripes.
“We’re very proud of our diversity,” says Doron.
“Ramat Hanegev has 15 communities altogether, including three kibbutzim and two off-the-grid villages.
We have moshavim; we have secular, religious, and mixed communities. Dozens of families are waiting to join us. It’s only a matter of allotting more land plots.
Our population grows by 6% to 7% yearly; that is, 70 to 100 families join us every year. The demand for housing is greater than what we can supply right now.
“It takes an innovative, independent cast of mind to settle happily in the Negev,” he concedes.
“There are hard challenges, like the long distances between communities and from the nearest city, Beersheba. The closest hospital is Soroka, in Beersheba. The isolation is a factor that filters some people out. And making a living in the desert requires more strength of character than going to work in urban centers. But every individual who comes to live here feels like he’s working side by side with Ben-Gurion himself.
“We’re doing advanced things here,” Doron continues.
“We’ve built student villages. Nitzana, a youth village close to the Egyptian border, is an educational laboratory, with nine ongoing projects, including a school for the Beduin, and Mir, a project for young Russian immigrants. We developed the use of salt water in agriculture – 90% of our agricultural products are irrigated with salt water. We promote alternative construction, such as building homes from mud. And our massive solar project is unique in the world.”
Affordable housing is a strong incentive for moving to the Negev.
“You can build a country home for NIS 1 million to NIS 1.5m. That’s a house with five rooms and land around it. You couldn’t buy that in the center of the country for that price.”
If you’re willing to build your own home from the ground up using straw bales or mud or join an independent caravan community in hopes of building a permanent house, housing is cheaper still.
FARMING IS the main business of the Negev. Some 24 agricultural farms grow produce to supply Israeli markets and export to Europe; cherry tomatoes for example. It takes NIS 1.5m. to build a cherry tomato farm on two hectares, said Doron. Farmers also grow olive trees, vineyards, a variety of fruit and vegetables, spices and herbs. There are animal farms for dairy and meat.
Where does all the farm water come from? Doron explains that an immense aquifer exists under the Negev, Sinai and Jordan. The water is salty, not potable, but excellent fruit and vegetables grow on a mix of that water with sweet, or unsalted, water. The aquifer holds enough water to last a century, according to Doron. In the meantime, alternative projects such as desalination will replace dependence on it. Drinking water is supplied by Mekorot, Israel’s water authority. Education is key, with a strong emphasis on science and environmental research in advanced schools such as Midreshet Ben-Gurion. There are elementary schools and junior high schools, including a government religious school that goes through junior high and will be starting high school classes in the next year. It’s one of Doron’s projects from the years he worked as director of the council’s education department.
Special-needs children receive transportation to centers in other towns.
“Every year, we build more and more kindergartens and day-care centers,” notes Doron.
All children receive transportation to and from school, Ofir Tsimering, director of the population growth department, said.
“We know exactly where every child goes to school, his extracurricular activities schedule, and how he gets back and forth. Our kids travel a lot. We’re always on the road.”
That’s easy to understand, given the distances between communities and the schools, including the sports, seniors’ and community centers, which are located on the council grounds complex.
Innovative thinking is Israel’s greatest resource, and innovative minds fully exploit the Negev’s most obvious advantage: the sun. Driving with Tsimering over highways headed south, we passed a thermo-solar project on the edge of Ashalim village. My immediate impression was that of a science-fiction magazine cover illustration: a lone tower 285 meters high standing in a field of 55,000 mirrors. Each 3x3-meter mirror collects solar energy that is channeled to the tower, where it heats water, creating steam used to power a turbine to produce electricity. The Ashalim tower is one of Ramat Hanegev’s four thermo-solar projects, each one of which uses a different technology.
The combined solar fields produce 250 megawatts daily; about 2.5% of Israeli’s electricity needs. It’s expected that the combined fields will supply about 300 MW daily by 2020.
IT WAS a late-winter day, and the hilly landscape was swathed in a veil of green sprinkled with yellow wildflowers. We drove past olive groves and hothouses and up a bumpy road to the tiny, 15-family, mixed secular/religious community of Sheizaf. Young families who chose to leave cities live in caravans there.
It’s so off-the-grid that it’s not even on the map. Not a speck of asphalt can be seen; all the paths are simply ground that has been cleared away and bordered with stones. Each caravan has water, electricity and, naturally, a solar water heater. A hammock swings beneath one porch, as if to emphasize freedom from the urban pressures the residents left behind.
“If we cleared another 15 plots here, they would fill up in a week,” Tsimering says. The community expects to build permanent homes over time.
Taking a few minutes to walk on the hillside, I nibbled on leaves from salt bushes and watched insects pollinating the white flowers of wild chives.
Rare wild tulips dotted the ground here and there.
“This land will be cleared for new housing,” says Tsimering. “See the holes in the ground around here? It’s where wild tulips grew. The residents transplanted them, to save them.”
The hill itself is a toy for the kids. A plastic ladder suspended by ropes is set into the sand. Kids slide down the hill on their bottoms and climb back up the ladder for another great slide down. Down the hill is a rustic sun shelter and ground cleared away for picnics and activities.
By way of contrast, we visited Kadesh Barnea, a secular moshav of 42 families near the Egyptian border. We drove on paved roads past ample houses surrounded by landscaped gardens. A friendly golden retriever came to sniff at the car as we admired whimsical yard sculptures at the honey store.
Most residents work locally in agriculture, but some commute. Kadesh Barnea is like a tiny kibbutz, with a day-care center, a kindergarten, a pool, a playground, a synagogue and a small convenience store.
Be’er Milka, an agricultural moshav, sits almost on top of the border with Egypt. We passed the border fence, with its rolls of barbed wire, and entered the moshav to look for cherry tomatoes. Shaul Eshet, farmer, led us to his tomato hothouses.
“Life here is harder,” he said, “especially for those who don’t farm, because of the distances. Even so, there are marvelous things. For one, the community spirit. I didn’t need to attend classes on raising tomatoes; my neighbors taught me everything I need to know. All the neighboring communities share an informal extra educational program. Our kids have organized transportation to high-level schools at the regional council. We enjoy close contact with nature. And despite the threat of terrorism from across the border, the army is a strong permanent presence, so we’re not afraid to open our doors and take walks in nature, or to travel the roads and highway. We feel secure.”
The sweetness of cherry tomatoes raised partly on salt water was exquisite. It seemed to reflect the very spirit of Ramat Hanegev, where by human effort and idealism, salt turns sweet, the sun becomes electricity, and Israel, the young nation, matures.
It’s a country for young, energetic people with idealism and a strong drive.
The potential is immense.