By Dave Schechter Ramon Crater in the Negev (by Marcy Levinson)

If David Ben-Gurion were to hike through the Negev Desert today, he would be disappointed but also find reason to be encouraged.

It was the dream of Israel’s first prime minister, himself a Polish emigre, that Jews settle in the Negev.

“By the Negev, the Jewish people will be tested,” said Ben-Gurion, whose home away from government life was Kibbutz Sde Boker.

More than 66 years after independence, rather than a failing mark on that test, Ben-Gurion generously might deliver a grade of incomplete. The lack of settlement in the Negev would disappoint him.

Timna Valley, legendary site of King Solomon’s copper mines (by Marcy Levinson)

The Negev covers roughly 60 percent of Israel’s land mass, stretching from Be’er Sheva south to Eilat and bordered by Jordan on the east and Egypt on the west, but is home to just 8 percent of Israel’s population. Three-quarters of Negev dwellers are Jewish, the remainder primarily Bedouin.

Ben-Gurion “would be turning inside his grave,” said Ezra Ravins, a former mayor of the Central Arava Regional Council who is working in Atlanta as the shaliach (emissary) for the Jewish National Fund.

JNF has a plan to help Ben-Gurion rest in peace: the $600 million Blueprint Negev project, which began in 2004 and was the focus of JNF fundraising in Atlanta and the Southeast by the fall of 2005. As recently as a December 2014 visit to Atlanta, JNF CEO Russell Robinson presented Blueprint Negev as part of the pitch for JNF donations the next decade.

One difficulty for any Negev settlement plan is the fate of the Bedouin. (by Marcy Levinson)

But Blueprint Negev was envisioned as a 10-year plan to move a half-million people to the southern desert. Ten years in, the number is closer to 100,000.

Blueprint Negev centers on doubling the population of Be’er Sheva and creating more than 20 new towns throughout the desert.

JNF President Ronald Lauder has compared Israel’s drive to settle the Negev to the “manifest destiny” that spurred America’s movement westward in the 19th century.

An article a couple of years ago in The Tower, published by The Israel Project, referred to Blueprint Negev as “a recognition of the failure of the past, that the reality of Jewish settlement in the Negev has up until now been far from rosy.”

An estimated 70 percent of Israelis live in a triangle formed by Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem. Infrastructure improvements and lifestyle amenities are the lures JNF hopes will make the Negev attractive, particularly to younger Israelis, who find housing prices in the major urban areas beyond their means.

Another target audience is North American olim (immigrants), who might be interested in life as 21st-century pioneers in a desert blooming with comfortable homes and recreational facilities. Think Scottsdale, Ariz., but in Hebrew. JNF partner Nefesh B’Nefesh’s Go South program offers North American and British olim such support as counseling and money to move to the Negev.

Nefesh B’Nefesh’s sample comparison of monthly living expenses for a family of five estimates a cost of 12,890 shekels ($3,223) for Be’er Sheva vs. 17,020 shekels ($4,255) in Jerusalem and 17,550 ($4,388) in Modi’in. Most of the savings come from housing.

One of the highlights of Be’er Sheva River Park is the new 12,000-seat amphitheater. (JNF photo)

Much of Blueprint Negev concentrates on Be’er Sheva, Israel’s seventh most populous city and second only to Jerusalem in land area. Its urban plan foresees a population twice the current 197,000 residents.

Be’er Sheva has suffered economically (and by lifestyle comparison with Tel Aviv and Jerusalem), but today boasts of high-tech companies setting up shop, with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev as a draw. If the Negev is to prosper, its largest city must be the engine.

If Be’er Sheva is the crown of Blueprint Negev, its crown jewel is Be’er Sheva River Park in the southern section of the city. When completed, the 1,700-acre site will be twice the size of Central Park in New York. It will include 6 miles of walking and biking trails along the Be’er Sheva River, inspired by the popular Riverwalk in San Antonio.

JNF donations from Atlanta and the Southeast have supported construction of a section of the promenade.

The River Park project includes improving the water quality of the river (a lake filled from recycled waste water is planned) and landscaping to create an attractive and usable urban space, even disguising water pipes to make them appear part of the park infrastructure.

Think of how the Beltline is transforming life in previously less-desirable sections of Atlanta and you get the idea of the hopes for the River Park.

David Ben-Gurion’s grave (by Marcy Levinson)

“The park was created in an area once described as the ‘armpit’ of the city — a dry riverbed near the southern entrance of Beersheba that was piled with wrecked cars and odiferous trash accumulated over the decades. Eventually, the new park will have Israel’s largest artificial lake,” the Jerusalem Report magazine says in its Jan. 26 issue in a profile of Be’er Sheva Mayor Ruvik Danilovich.

JNF touts new municipal infrastructure, renovated housing, cobblestone streets and even streetlamps as part of an effort to gussy up the old Turkish city.

One of the new public facilities is an outdoor amphitheater that seats 12,000 people. “Eat your heart out, Caesarea,” read a comment after a newspaper story.

At the dedication ceremony for the amphitheater, according to the Jerusalem Report, Danilovich said: “It sounds almost surreal that an organization based thousands of miles away managed to persuade the Israeli government to get involved in a project. The JNF saw the opportunity and the vision, and only then did the government come in.”

“I get very emotional about them. The JNF came here in a period when the city wasn’t very attractive, with a negative image. No one looked in our direction. They came here, not only with a vision but with money and power,” Danilovich said.

Seven of the new communities elsewhere in the Negev have been built, a mix of towns designed to appeal to secular Jews, observant Jews, North Americans, residents of kibbutzim and moshavim, and one with strategic value south of Gaza near the Egyptian border. Each has unique recreational and cultural facilities. One town has become home to some of the Jewish families evacuated from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

Aside from questions about how desirable desert life will ever be for the residents of high-tech, startup nation Israel, the Gaza Strip evacuation points to a major obstacle to Blueprint Negev: the distractions and challenges from outside the region.

Blueprint Negev is “optimistic and realistic,” Ravins said, “but it depends on what the country goes through.”

Since JNF launched Blueprint Negev, Israel has fought one war along the northern border with Lebanon and had two major military operations in Gaza. Not only do such crises redirect resources and attention from long-term dreams like Negev settlement, but they also compel JNF to shift its focus.

For example, JNF helped replant 10,000 acres of forests and agricultural land burned by Hezbollah rockets during the 2006 war, and one of the nonprofit organization’s signature successes the past decade was the construction, with significant Atlanta support, of an indoor recreation area that doubles as a bomb shelter in Sderot, the town most vulnerable to rockets from Gaza.

Blueprint Negev work continues, though. It is investing in the existing “development” towns of Ofakim, Dimona, Yerucham and Arad, some of which have been economically distressed and used by the government to settle waves of immigrants.

JNF hopes to double the population of the Central Arava region, which covers more than 370,000 acres, approximately 6 percent of Israel’s land, but is home to just 3,300 people.

JNF shaliach Ravins, who is 58, grew up in Jerusalem. After completing his army service at age 21, he moved to the Arava and began farming 35 years ago.

When 95 percent of Knesset members live in the metropolitan areas of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, it’s not hard to understand why the Negev has been overlooked, Ravins said. Harkening back to Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, who lived her final years at Kibbutz Revivim, Ravins said: “Once we had leaders. Today we have politicians.”

Ravins would like to see the government subsidize and promote housing in the Negev as it does in the West Bank settlements. He is certain people then would move to a revitalized Negev.

Echoing Danilovich, Ravins said JNF “a lot of the time is the trigger” to push the Israeli government and “has the vision and has the understanding” to make it a strong partner.

His own Central Arava is challenged by extremes in topography, water scarcity, distances between towns and an aging population. Ravins says the Arava needs better basic services, particularly in the areas of health care (a new clinic is being built), education and the needs of the elderly.

JNF notes that some 500 farming families (out of 830 families in the Central Arava) produce 60 percent of Israel’s vegetable exports, including 90 percent of the bell peppers, and 10 percent of its cut flower exports despite average yearly rainfall of 1 inch. Those conditions have helped make the Arava a hub for Israel’s solar power industry.

Blueprint Negev also supports the construction of dormitories and classrooms at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura. Its graduate-level student body is a mix of Jews, Muslims and Christians among Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, North Americans and others. They live, study, eat and work together under the slogan “Nature Knows No Borders.”

Regional work funded by Blueprint Negev includes security roads near the Gaza Strip, water management systems and the continued purchase of needed firefighting equipment.

In addition, an Israel Defense Forces plan to move several military bases from the center of the country to the Negev is expected to bring not only more than 30,000 military personnel, but also families and jobs. Meanwhile, Israel is eying housing development for the central Israel sites those bases will vacate.

Not everyone, however, welcomes Blueprint Negev. Critics accuse JNF of “greenwashing” and label its plans as the “Judaization” of land declared state property through false claims that lacked an owner.

(JNF’s Southeast office in Sandy Springs referred queries to the national JNF office in New York, which did not reply over a three-day period to written questions about Blueprint Negev, including the impact on the Negev Bedouin.)

“It’s essentially a long-term and escalated plan for forced resettlement of indigenous (or native) peoples who have lived and farmed and shepherded in these regions for centuries or more,” said Jesse Benjamin, an associate professor of sociology and coordinator of African and African diaspora studies at Kennesaw State University. Benjamin was born in Israel and raised in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States before returning to Israel as a teenager and college student. He traces his activism to his introduction to the Negev Bedouin when he was 16.

“Worse, it’s also on the basis of race (mixed with religion, ethnicity, nationality, etc.), as Bedouin are removed from areas that are then resettled with subsidized Jewish immigrants, arriving from anywhere in the world. Bedouin are being forced off their land, and away from their ways of live and culture, even though few Jewish Israelis wish to live in these areas, even with subsidies, preferring instead the greater Tel Aviv and Jerusalem areas,” Benjamin said.

Estimates vary, but the Bedouin population of the Negev is in the 200,000 range. More than half have relocated to seven government-recognized towns, the largest being Rahat with 54,000 inhabitants. Their advocates say that these officially recognized towns have only 2 percent as much land as the area where the Bedouin previously dwelled.

Meanwhile, an estimated 90,000 Negev Bedouin live in “unrecognized” villages — most in a triangle formed by Be’er Sheva, Arad and Dimona — that do not receive basic services from the government, such as water, sewage and electricity. A government plan to relocate these Bedouin was scrapped, and debate over their fate continues.

JNF has planted 240 million trees, covering some 250,000 acres, throughout the country in the past century, but critics say that thousands of trees have been uprooted to make room for Blueprint Negev development and that some JNF forests were located to displace Bedouin. In particular, they cite the Ambassador Forest, which would replace the Bedouin village of Al-Araqib. The government razed the village, only to see the Bedouin return dozens of times to rebuild after each demolition.

In the absence of a JNF response to questions submitted for this article, www.jnf.org offers this statement: “The needs of the Bedouin community and the changes that must come about are one of the original pillars of Blueprint Negev. … JNF is serious about addressing these challenges and is working with several Bedouin communities to effect change. Its leadership meets with regional councils to assess community needs and to develop solutions.”

Among several projects with the Bedouin, JNF notes its role in Project Wadi Attir, developing a cooperative and sustainable agriculture program with Bedouin in the town of Hura, in which sheep and goats are raised to provide organic meat and traditional plants that are used for medicine will be planted along indigenous vegetables. JNF also cites a project to clean the river and shoreline promenades in Rahat.

Ben-Gurion envisioned 5 million people living and working in the Negev. That figure may never be achieved, but JNF remains confident that through its investment and partnering with other private groups and the government, the Negev eventually will be regarded as much more than a desert.