The Israeli military has begun construction of its largest training base ever, moving operations from some of the country's priciest real estate to the barren sands of southern Israel in a new attempt to realize the longtime dream of making the desert bloom.
The $650 million construction project is the military's biggest in three decades: Beginning in late 2014, 10,000 soldiers will be moved into the new base 20 miles south of the city of Beersheba from their current quarters in the country's Tel Aviv-area heartland.
The program is designed to streamline combat support training, now carried out at multiple facilities, by funneling it into a single site.
But critics question whether it will jumpstart the economy of the Negev region as officials promise. They also note the project doesn't even discuss benefits for Arab Bedouin who account for a third of the 500,000 Israelis living in the area.
Not since Israel pulled up its bases from Egypt's Sinai desert in the early 1980s under the two countries' landmark peace treaty has the military carried out a project of this scope, in terms of cost, number of soldiers involved and sheer physical size, said project director Lt. Col. Shalom Alfassy.
Today, only a few spare buildings stand on the 625 acres earmarked for the site. But within two years, 2.7 million square feet of construction is supposed to go up, including barracks, hundreds of computerized classrooms, simulation sites and firing ranges.
The base will not train combat soldiers, but drivers, paramedics and other troops who would support them at the front. It will not draw operations from the main military headquarters and Defense Ministry in the heart of Tel Aviv.
The project is part of a broader move to relocate military facilities to the Negev. Alfassy says about half of the bases in Israel's center will move to the region by the end of the decade.
The Negev accounts for over half of Israel's land mass but is home to just 8 percent of its 8 million people. Making it flourish was the vision of Israel's founding father, David Ben-Gurion. But poor services have kept the area languishing, despite a series of government programs and improved road and rail links designed to boost it.
Alfassy believes things will be different this time. He estimates the project will create 20,000 to 30,000 temporary construction jobs for Negev residents. Some 500 civilian workers will work at the base and 2,000 to 2,500 jobs will be created for outside vendors, he predicted.
The military expects 200 to 300 career soldiers will move their families to the south to be near the base, boosting the economy as well as educational and medical services, he said.
Erez Tzfadia, head of the department of public policy and administration at Sapir College in the Negev, scoffed at that notion.
"There are half a million people" in the area where the base is being built, he said. "Will 200 families of career soldiers really pull up the Negev?"
The project's champions also talk about bringing more buying power to the Negev through the 10,000 soldiers to be based there.
But "soldiers don't have any money," Tzfadia said. "At most they will buy felafel at the central bus station in Beersheba. You don't build an economy on that."
None of the tribal Arab Bedouin who have been living in the area for decades will have to move to make way for the base, reducing any opposition to the project. Past attempts to develop the south have been marred by forced evictions of unauthorized Bedouin villages.
At the same time, the relocation program does not specifically consider ways to involve the impoverished Bedouin community.
"They aren't even taken into consideration as a party that should be a beneficiary, even at the level of discourse," Tzfadia said.
Alfassy said Bedouin would be considered for projects but had no information on plans designed to benefit them.
A top benefit of the relocation is having the military vacate sought-after real estate in central Israel. The Ministry of Construction and Housing estimates 35,000 apartments, including about 9,000 classified as affordable housing, will be built on the emptied sites.
That could bring some relief to the masses of young families who cannot afford their own home in an area where even a modest apartment can cost $500,000.