A hit song from the very first days of the Jewish State and made popular by the late singer Yaffa Yarkoni, says that "just a bit south of Be'er Sheva, a dry breeze blows and a path leads to the Arava,"
In those days, not much else was to be found between the biblical city of Be'er Sheva and the beginning of the Arava, the Negev desert that continues south to the city of Eilat.
Be'er Sheva, called the "Capital of the Negev", was a dusty town whose main source of excitement was the Bedouin bazaar on Thursdays where camels were bartered, a marketplace that seemed to have changed little since the time of the Patriarch Abraham's stay in the city.
Then, in the 1950's, as waves of North African and Middle Eastern Jews fled their homes and immigrated en masse to the Jewish state, the Negev's population multiplied. Israel absorbed an immigration wave equivalent to its existing population of 600,000. It was forced to ration food, and one of the ways it dealt with the masses of immigrants was by moving as many as possible to empty areas like the Negev.
Sent to live in primitive transit camps called maabarot in the middle of nowhere, these refugees became the first families to populate the new Negev towns of Sderot, Netivot, Ofakim, Yerucham and Dimona, all founded in the 1950's. Arad was established a decade later.
Kibbutzim and farms dot the central Arava today, but the vast majority of the Negev's population lives in those urban concentrations, optimistically named "development towns" and later known as "the other Israel" or "the second Israel" – not to be taken as a compliment.
Today's less charged collective name for these towns is the "periphery," investment in which is always a hotly debated topic in Israeli election campaigns. Voters in the "periphery" want to hear about housing, jobs, banks and healthcare as much as they want to hear about Iran and Syria.
Although many of the 1950's immigrants had been well-to-do in their former homes, they came with almost nothing except their families and brought skills that were worth less than nothing in the barren Negev. The new cities and towns lacked sources of employment until various factories were established, offering a partial solution. Schools and other facilities were substandard, and the towns became poverty stricken enclaves whose youth couldn't wait to leave.
A third generation of sabras and an influx of new residents, some ideologically motivated, along with the founding of Ben Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), colleges, yeshivas and Torah nucleus groups began to turn the tide some years ago.
Employment, however, continues to be a major problem in southern Israel, where farming has to deal with the dual challenges of water shortages and suitable soil. The IDF's planned move from the crowded coastal plain and the Israeli railroad's extension southwards will effect major changes, but southern residents are still at the mercy of the success or failure of the factories and heavy industry that employ them and the very real possibility that it can become economically more feasible to move overseas, in line with what happened to Israel's textile industry.
A case in point is Dimona, where 40% of the residents work in one industry, the Dead Sea Works, a subdivision of Israel Chemicals Ltd, whose financial straits led to layoffs resulting in mass demonstrations. The end of this labor dispute brought much needed quiet to the region, but has not allayed residents' fears regarding employment. Israel Chemical subsidiaries are the direct employers of 5000 workers in the Negev, while its various investments add another 20,000 jobs in construction, engineering, architecture, computers, and more, some 9% of jobs in the region.
These statistics point to an unhealthy situation where every crisis in Israel Chemicals makes the entire Negev tremble. If Israel wants to continue to develop the Negev, it must offer financial incentives to investors, invest in a broader economic base and create new jobs. It cannot transfer the responsibility for employment to the narrow shoulders of local government and residents, hoping that the jobs will spring up on their own.
There is, however, room for optimism.
Recent initiatives are expected to provide thousands of jobs for the local population. One is "The Negev Era" industrial park just north of Be'er Sheva, a few hundred meters from a planned railroad station and an extension of Road 6. This will make it a one-hour ride from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, allowing those who still wish to live in the coastal region – expensive and crowded as it is – to arrive on time for work.
The Park is the brainchild of Moshe Paul, who created it while heading the Bnai Shimon Regional Authority. Its entire northern section has been sold, two-thirds of it to Bedouin entrepreneurs, and the first building, owned by Soda Stream (in the midst of erecting another three and planning to offer up to 1000 jobs), opened its doors six months ago and already employs 350 workers. Many of them are Bedouin women from nearby Rahat, the third largest city in the Negev with a population of 55,000.
Another new park, the joint project of three regional authorities (Netivot, Azata and Merchavim), has managed to attract significant companies such as Tara Milk Products. Other employment centers such as Neot Hovav, Sapirim in Sderot and Park Omer are expanding. In Neot Hovav alone, at least 2000 jobs will be available for the 20 new factories planned over the next five years.
While these more traditional industries are developing, there is a veritable revolution in the Negev regarding hi-tech. Be'er Sheva dedicated the Gav Yam Tech Park barely two years ago and it now boasts 20 firms and over 1000 workers, while its goal is 12,000.
Ben Gurion University of the Negev, which has always "exported" hundreds of its hi-tech graduates for lack of employment opportunities, is now expecting a change. In 2011, there were only five hi-tech companies in the entire Negev and now the 20 mentioned above refer only to those in Be'er Sheva.
The IDF's move to the Negev will complete the picture. Within a decade there are going to be 15,000 soldiers serving in technological units at an IDF communications center and another intelligence center to be built nearby, who can be a source of high level and experienced employees for the Park's firms.
Some of the changes can already be felt today. The last two years have shown a rise of 20% in the number of BGU college graduates who remain in the area after completing their studies.
Of the 130 EMC employees, 82% live south of Kiryat Gat, many of them in Be'er Sheva. The Or Movement, which has been encouraging the development of the Negev and the Galilee for the past 13 years, helps EMC find local employees.
JVP, the Israeli hedge savings fund that invests in start-ups, has its offices two floors below EMC. Two years ago JVP opened a technological greenhouse in the Gav Yam Tech Park that deals with investments in cyber projects.
The combination of BGU – the source of the largest number of engineers in Israel – the IDF's move to the south and the construction of the Tech Park, paves the way for the "Capital of the Negev" to turn into "the cyber capital of the eastern hemisphere," as Netanyahu put it. In the 1950's, being the capital of anything at all would have been "the impossible dream."
The crisis at Israel Chemicals showed the need for varied sources of employment in the Negev. Developing hi-tech without giving up on traditional industry seems the way to go. This will ensure secure employment for Israel's rapidly moving "second" sector. Want to go "just a bit south of Be'er Sheva", anyone?
Elyashev Reichner, muckraking Israeli journalist, lives in the Negev, and is author of The Orange Campaign: The Fight for Gush Katif and By Faith Alone: The Story of Rabbi Yehuda Amital.