The Negev covers 60% of the territory of the State of Israel. The origin of the word negev is from the Hebrew root denoting ‘dry’. It is an area whose annual rainfall is less than 200 millimeters. The Negev is divided into subareas with different characteristics. Its northern border borders on the Arad Valley and Beer Sheva. Despite its large size, only a very small part of Israel’s population lives in the area. From the beginning of settlement, the Negev has posed a Zionist settlement challenge, mostly because the large area is barren and far from the center of the country – the Tel Aviv metropolis.
The first attempt to settle the Negev motivated by Zionism was the establishment of the settlement, Ruhama in 1911. The attempt did not succeed because of the desert conditions. The next Zionist attempt to settle the Negev was in 1943 when three settlements were established: Revivim, Beit Eshel and Gvulot. Then in 1946, “11 Points” (settlements) were established in the Negev. Because of the settlements in the Negev, it was included in the territory of Israel in the Partition Plan. After the birth of the State of Israel, David Ben Gurion supported the settlement and development of the Negev. He encouraged people to settle there, and he himself moved to a wooden cabin on Kibbutz Sde Boker.
The Arava, the endless desert
The Arava is a long narrow valley which extends from the southern part of the Dead Sea till the Eilat Bay. It divides between the Edom Mountains to the east and the Negev Mountain to the west. The length of the Arava is approximately 175 kilometers from north to south. Although the Arava is a large area, only 61,000 people live there of which most (48,000) live in Eilat. Most of the settlements are agricultural and the most common branch of farming is growing vegetables in greenhouses for export and for local markets. In the 1950s, when settlement was just beginning in the southern Arava, there was no knowledge about farming in desert conditions and it had to be developed. In the 1960s, an experimental farm (R &D center), The Yair Experimental Station, was established in order to advance agriculture in the area – developing new crops and strains, organic crops, water crops, biological pesticides, assistance to farms and financial evaluations of potential profitability.
The Arava is a desert area characterized by extreme climate conditions. Temperatures are very high and there is high solar radiation. The annual rainfall is very low, roughly 30 millimeters. The water in the southern Arava is characterized by a high level of salt, at least three times as high as the water used for farming in most other parts of the country. Drip irrigation is one of the main factors that enabled people to continue living in the Arava.
Zionism in the Arava
The agriculture for export in this area uses technology on the highest level. It employs systems of growing vegetables in a pest-free area without the use of pesticides. About 500 farming families produce 60% of all Israel’s fresh vegetables for export (excluding carrots and potatoes). The diary industry, which started to develop at the same time, quickly became the heart of a stable and profitable industry in all the kibbutzes of the southern Arava. In addition, the ornamental fish industry is developing. About 90% of the export of ornamental tropical fish from Israel comes from the Arava. The fam produce is exported to Europe. Israel has an advantage over the Far East because of its greater proximity to the market and because of its production methods, which are supervised and disease-free.
The date industry which developed in the Arava succeeded because it is suited to the difficult desert conditions. Moreover, a Drainage Authority was established in the Arava. Its job is to provide solutions to the problem of flooding and ground water in the central and northern Arava and in Eilat.
The Negev Mountains
The Negev Mountains, the heart of the Negev, is a mountainous region consisting of ridges. Settlement of the Negev took place in a number of waves. The first was before the establishment of the State of Israel. In the 1950s several kibbutzes were established, including Mashabei Sde and Sde Boker. In the 1960s, a field school and a college were founded at Sde Boker as part of David Ben Gurion’s vision to establish a university in the Negev. In the 1950s development towns were built. In the 1970s another wave of settlement started in the Negev, mostly in the Arava and Eilat area. This resulted from the peace treaty that had been signed between Israel and Egypt. The aliyah from the Soviet Union led to another wave of settlement in the 1990s. Many new immigrants settled in the Negev, mostly in development towns, such as Dimona and Yeruham. Today, most of the Jewish population of the Negev is centered in the big cities: Eilat, Mitzpe Ramon, Dimona and Beer Sheva (the largest city in the Negev) and also in development towns. There are also those who live in kibbutzes and moshavs. Israel tries to encourage people to move to the Negev by providing a variety of incentives. Today, the Bedouins make up a large part of the population in the Negev, more than 200,000.
The Western Negev and the Southern Coastal Plain
The border of the Western Negev is the Egyptian-Israeli border. This was the border that was fixed in the peace treaty that was signed with Egypt in 1979. Following the treaty, Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula and its settlements in the Yamit region were evacuated.
In the days prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, the Jewish Yishuv saw the area of the southern coastal plain as part of the Negev (even though climatically and geographically it belongs to the coastal plain). Great efforts to settle the area were made in order to change the country’s borders based on the belief that “settlements determine borders”. As a result of the settlement in 11 locations, this area of the Negev and the southern coastal plain were included in the territory of Israel in the Partition Plan. Today, the challenge facing the settlements of the western Negev in the area bordering Gaza is increasing the population and withstanding “the security threat from Gaza which is manifested in rockets and tunnels”.
The Pioneering Settlement of Gush Katif
The Jewish settlement in Gush Katif, which started after the Six Day War was supported by the State of Israel. In 1969 Nahal began to establish settlements, such as Kfar Darom, Netzer Hazani and Netzarim, which were the basis for settling the area. The settlement of Gush Katif got a push with the “five finger” plan – a plan which divided the Gush into five Jewish settlement blocs and prevents contiguous Arab settlement. The people behind the plan were Yigal Allon, the assistant prime minister and Ariel Sharon, commander of the Southern Command. On February 10, 1977, Netzer Hazani became the first civilian settlement in Gush Katif.
Gush Katif consisted of 21 community and agricultural settlements populated by more than 8000 people. The most modern and original methods of farming were employed. These high quality methods were developed on the sands of the Gush: farming above the ground, methods of trellising, growing wormless greens, etc. 10% of the agricultural produce of Israel came from the Gush. 65% of the greenhouse organic vegetables exported from Israel also came from the Gush as did 90% of the wormless greens.
The Disengagement Plan
In the summer of 2005, the “Disengagement Plan” – the evacuation of all the settlements in Gush Katif – was set in motion. Despite the strong opposition of residents of the Gush and the right wing to the plan, the Israel government evacuated all the settlements of Gush Katif (together with 4 additional settlements in Northern Samaria), as part of the decision made by Arik Sharon’s government.
The homes were destroyed, the communities broken up, thousands of dunams of agricultural land were orphaned, cemeteries were moved and only the synagogues remained in place. The evacuation plan was dramatic and painful, leaving a bleeding scar in the Israeli society. The evacuated settlers began to rehabilitate their destroyed communities and to build new homes in several areas, mostly in the southern part of Israel: Holot Halutza, east of Lachish and the Nizanim area.