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Trading spaces

Israel | Kicked from Gaza, where do settlers go? To the Negev, where Israel will add billions and subtract Bedouins to make it livable

Issue: "Into the light," Dec. 3, 2005

Sultan Abu Obiad is still waiting for the plot of land he bought 45 years ago in Israel's southern Negev desert. He lives in a temporary home with his wife and their seven children-the same home he's lived in since 1975. The dream he had as an 18-year-old of owning his own home diminishes each year as he witnesses the demolition of Bedouin homes in surrounding villages-a fate he knows could one day be his: "The government can come at any time and demolish our home. You feel that you are living in the air."

Arab Bedouins aren't the only people in Israel to be forced from their homes. In August, Israeli Defense Forces removed approximately 8,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip in an effort by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to jumpstart stagnant peace negotiations that center on future Palestinian statehood. Removing the Jewish presence from the Gaza Strip was one step toward that process.

The Gaza disengagement, however, left thousands of evacuees without homes or jobs. Most of them are now living in temporary housing in the Negev desert, waiting for their settlement packages and a permanent home. Thus, a new push toward developing the Negev desert has emerged, with both Jewish and Arab "nomads" waiting to see what promises this new era of pioneering may bring.

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On Nov. 15, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon unveiled a 17-billion-shekel ($3.6 billion) 10-year development plan for the Negev region with the goal of increasing the population from 500,000 to 900,000 by 2015. Driven by daunting population growth coupled with steady immigration from diaspora Jews, Mr. Sharon's government is attempting to alleviate some of the congestion in the Jerusalem--Tel Aviv--Haifa triangle by promoting growth in the northern Galilee and southern Negev regions where large numbers of Arabs currently reside. Some residents accuse the country of trying to "Judaize" these regions.

Numbers are important in Israel. This tiny country is one of the most crowded nations in the West and has the highest population growth in the world. About 6.3 million people currently live in Israel, and analysts predict a jump to 8.8 million by 2020. In a nation that is no bigger than the state of New Jersey, regional planners are taking these numbers seriously and putting measures in place to make room for this expansion.

One solution is to go south. The Negev region comprises 60 percent of Israel's land and only 10 percent of the nation's population. Turning the desert into flourishing communities isn't an easy task, but Israel is anticipating over a billion dollars in aid from the U.S. government as part of a "disengagement aid package" to be earmarked for developing the Negev and Galilee regions. Talks between the United States and Israel regarding the aid package were temporarily put on hold in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but recently resumed. In addition to funding development, U.S. aid will be used also to relocate Israel Defense Force bases from the Gaza Strip into the Negev.

Strong ties to diaspora Jews also are a source of support, both money and manpower. One group in particular, the Jewish National Fund (JNF), has been instrumental in providing Jewish American donors to both fund and spearhead many of the Negev projects.

Ilana Bernstein works for the New York branch of JNF and recently returned from a Negev trip with 21 Jewish women donors who funded the creation of an entire town. In an area that was once cliffs and desert is now the growing town of Zukim, a thriving community and cultural center that includes everything from musicians and artists to a goat cheese museum. "You drive up the hill and see where there will be a bed and breakfast," Mrs. Bernstein said. "On the other side of the hill, there are plots for a new development, and there's a law that says no one will be able to build within two dunes of your plot."

Other parts of the desert are also springing forth with new life-bird atriums, solar energy research centers, and talk of wine routes are among this desert renaissance. As if trying to fulfill its "milk and honey" destiny, this dusty region could become not only self-sustaining but profitable.

It can't be done without water, though, and piping water into the desert is controversial at best in light of Israel's water deficit and its priority with Israel's neighbors in peace talks.

Water scarcity inspired a team of developers to build the world's largest and most technologically advanced water desalination plant just north of the Gaza Strip. The plant draws in water from the Mediterranean Sea and through a complex process purifies it for consumption. One desalination plant is complete, and a second is expected to reach completion by the end of the year. The bulk of this water will be shipped to the Negev, but some may be shared with Gaza residents, and Israelis are hopeful that these water projects will help ease tensions in the troubled region.

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