As anyone who has ever tried it knows, moving house is a hassle – and it’s done only when there is a very good reason for it. The IDF has a good reason – and it is in the midst of moving many of its bases to the Negev, with tens of thousands of soldiers to be relocated to the wide open spaces down south.
It’s “a massive national undertaking,” according to the man responsible for the move, IDF Brigadier General (res) Hezi Meshita. “Any transition of this size will have various logistical challenges. We are confident in our ability to successfully handle any of these challenges.”
The IDF decided in 2011 to move many of its bases from the center of the country to land down south, consolidating operations to save money and opening up land for development in the center of the country. According to real estate experts, the land the IDF is vacating in the center of the country is worth tens of billions of dollars; when sold to private developers, it will provide housing options for tens of thousands of people, as well as new commercial and industrial centers.
Under the plan, most of the IDF training bases will be relocated to one large, central base near Beersheba, and new bases to handle communications, intelligence, and administration will be constructed. According to Meshita, “the relocation to the Negev is the best business plan for Israel as it frees up valuable real-estate in the population center, where housing problems are plentiful.”
Meshita, a seasoned IDF veteran, was chosen for the job in part because of his wide experience inside and outside of the army. Meshita formerly served in the Israeli navy in command, training and senior staff positions, rising eventually to Head of Naval Intelligence. After his army service, he was appointed CEO of road safety organization Or Yarok, and in 2008 he took the reins of the campaign to bring Gilad Shalit home.
A big part of making the move work is convincing the career army officers who will be running the bases to uproot their lives and move down south. “At the end of the day, we hope that the career officers will make the right choice and make the move to the Negev, to live there and to continue to serve there” said Meshita. “For those who choose to continue to commute, it won’t be too strenuous. In fact, with public transportation, it will probably be easier than their commute into the center of the country,” he added.
Development and jobs for the Negev
Israel’s Negev, once a backwater and deemed suitable as living space only for off-the-boat new immigrants and as a trash dump for the center of the country (Israel’s biggest landfill was until recently located there), is now a hot area, from a business and real estate point of view. The IDF’s move has helped increase the costs of housing in the region, as officers prepare to move their families to new homes, and with new residents come new shopping, culture, and work options. In that latter category is the new Beersheba Advanced Technologies Park (ATP), where dozens of high-tech companies, especially cyber-security firms, have opened operations.
“The benefits from the move will not only be felt by the Negev’s residents and IDF servicemen, but by Israel as a whole,” said Meshita. “On the local level, the move will bring the Negev’s residents better educational and employment opportunities, improved municipal infrastructure, and an overall improved quality of life. The relocation will bring IDF servicemen and women enhanced tools and top of the line technology, leading to better operational efficiency.”
In addition, he said, “the move will create thousands of new jobs. Over 2,000 new civilian jobs will be added inside the bases (in addition to the all of the career officers) with thousands more outside of them. Currently, the Negev accounts for 60% of Israel’s land mass but only holds 9% of the population. By 2020, it is expected that the Negev will be home to some one million residents.”
A total of four new, state of the art military bases will be constructed as part of the move said Mashita said; the bases include the Netavim Air Force Base, a centralized Training Center, an Intelligence base and Technology base. The total area of the new bases will be 10 million square feet, and the project will cost seven billion dollars, he added.
When the bases are completed, some 35,000 additional soldiers – double the current number – will be serving in the Negev. Of those, 15,000 will be part of the Intelligence corps, in addition to 7,000 career officers (Keva), (3,500 of them with families. The entire moving project should be completed by 2022, with milestones for the transfer of various units and groups between now and then.
One of the army’s worries is that career officers may decide that retiring would be a better option than moving, considering the difficulty in packing up and starting over, especially for kids who will have to make a new set of friends and get used to a different school. “We hope that the career officers will make the right choice and make the move to the Negev, to live there and to continue to serve there,” said Meshita, stressing that the army would do what it could to make it worth their while.
Among those things, Mashita said, was the construction of state of the art work, education, and leisure facilities. “On the local level, the move will bring the Negev’s residents better educational and employment opportunities, improved municipal infrastructure, and an overall improved quality of life,” Mashita said. “The relocation will bring IDF servicemen and women enhanced tools and top of the line technology, leading to better operational efficiency.We anticipate that these changes, along with several others, will entice these career officers; they will think very seriously about relocating their families to the Negev – and with them, many more Israelis who want to take advantage of a higher quality of life.”