Having spent a short vacation “down south” in the Negev, vividly brings home the amazing and under reported transformation which is taking place in this strategically important region of the country.
In 1947 when the United Nations tried to solve the “Palestinian” problem by creating two States for two people they proposed partition of the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. The British had already betrayed the Jews by taking territory east of the River Jordan and creating an artificial country as a prize to their Arab friends. The San Remo legally binding agreement which guaranteed Jewish settlement in all of mandated Palestine was unceremoniously ignored in an effort to appease Arabs who were rioting and carrying out pogroms against the Jewish settlers of Palestine.
The fact that the proposed partition would result in indefensible borders and a totally untenable situation in sustaining a viable Jewish State was very clear. By allocating the Negev as 60% of the proposed partitioned land for Jewish settlement the international community showed its inherent bias and blatant intentions. It was generally accepted by them that this relatively vast piece of real estate was totally unsuited for either cultivation or habitation and that the extremely harsh conditions would soon doom any attempt to establish viable communities. Despite these ominous omens the Jewish authorities lead by David Ben Gurion accepted the fatally flawed partition plan as something better than nothing. What followed of course is part of history but as historical facts are being rewritten these days it is important to restate them. The Arab leaders of the time, who incidentally refused to be identified as Palestinians, flatly rejected the partition plan and set in motion violence designed to strangle and eliminate any attempt at establishing a Jewish State.
No thanks to the international community but as a result of Jewish grit, determination and sacrifice on the part of Palestinian Jews and volunteers from overseas, the attempt to snuff out Jewish independence was thwarted. Having failed in 1948 to throw the Jews into the sea and deliberately sabotaging the notion of two States for two peoples the lunatic notion that those dedicated even today to the destruction of Jewish sovereignty should still be rewarded by partitioning an already truncated territory is beyond belief.
After 1948 the Negev indeed did become part of Israel and this is when the miracle of rejuvenating a desert lunar landscape started to become a reality. Small isolated settlements including the future cities of Beersheba and Eilat were destined to grow and become thriving communities transformed beyond all recognition.
Seeing is believing and our short vacation in the Negev was certainly an eye opener.
Traveling is definitely much easier. Instead of the dirt tracks which existed in 1948 today’s highways and roads provide comfortable and swift means of transport. It is no longer necessary to make one’s way through Beersheba, now a large city with traffic jams, but rather a bypass highway ensures a smooth journey south of the city. A combination of air-conditioned trains and buses make any trip a pleasant experience rather than the tortuous exercise it once was.
Signs on the way warning of camels at the side of the road remind us that this part of the country is uniquely different from the center and north.
The biggest development of course is the number of settlements. Where once they were far and few between Beersheba and Eilat and their presence was marked by a few crude huts and primitive infrastructure, today there are many more and they stand like oases of green in a dusty brown desert landscape.
Nothing epitomises the settling of the Negev more than Kibbutz Sde Boker, the original “one horse town” where Israel’s first Prime Minister made his home after retirement. This is near where we rented a “tzimmer” as it is called in colloquial language here. There are a multitude of these motel type accommodations available and in one of those not infrequent “only in Israel” experiences it turned out that the woman who owned the property had a New Zealand connection. In fact we knew her father and uncle and her grandparents had been close friends of both our parents back in Wellington.
Sde Boker, the Kibbutz and the adjacent town, today are rapidly expanding centers of population with modern amenities which benefit residents.
The construction of a field school began in 1962, inspired by David Ben-Gurion‘s vision of developing a thriving Jewish culture in the arid Negev. The Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research, affiliated with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the Ben Gurion Heritage Institute, and a high school emphasizing environmental studies, are now located there. Ben-Gurion and his wife Paula Ben-Gurion are buried on the cliff overlooking the Zin valley.
A combination of first class educational facilities plus tourism has wrought a miraculous change. One can see how the barren desert landscape has given way to thriving green areas. Where once there were only goats and sheep roaming a desolate wilderness, today there are cities, towns and kibbutzim utilizing solar energy and using drip feed irrigation to grow organic produce for use in local restaurants and for export. The stunning scenery is accessible to all and this has generated employment for many as tourists, local and foreign, flock to the Negev.
Ben Gurion’s vision based on prophetic writings of turning the desert into flourishing and cultivated land is well on the way to complete fulfillment. All this of course has been achieved thanks to the work and dedication of countless pioneers and settlers who braved indescribable hardships to turn visions into reality. They did this in the face of opposition, ridicule and in many cases terror.
In this respect nothing much has changed since 1948. The international community still endeavours to thwart developing and settling all parts of our homeland. The Arabs continue to employ terror and delegitimization and those who hate the Jewish State deploy the weapons of boycotts. They hate while we forge ahead.
Our answer, as always, must be to continue developing, building and settling.
Michael Kuttner is a Jewish New Zealander who for many years was actively involved with various communal organisations connected to Judaism and Israel. He now lives in Israel and is J-Wire’s correspondent in the region.