As the Israeli army gears up for the relocation of some of its personnel and bases to the Negev desert, a move that it is calling an “Israeli social happening,” researchers at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev are playing down the impact the move will have on the region’s social texture.
Many hope that the move of IDF bases to the south will significantly improve the quality of life in the southern periphery, the researchers, led by Prof. Nurit Alfasi of the Department of Geography and Environmental Development at Ben-Gurion University, said in the study, which was commissioned by the Ministry of Science and Technology. But in truth, as opposed to expectations, the relocation will have only a marginal impact on the region’s residents, both socially and economically, the researchers found.
Israel’s army is preparing for a massive move of many of its units to the southern city of Beersheba as part of a multi-year plan to streamline and digitalize the giant institution. The move is also seen as a way to upgrade the image of the IDF into a tech-led organization and as a way to bring renewal to a region perceived as peppered with failed development towns.
The starting point of the new study is based on the fact that in all areas — transportation, health, education, housing — there are persistent gaps between the Negev region and the center of the country. And even if the situation is improving in many sectors, the gap persists, as advances are being made in the center of the country as well. In addition, the whole of the Negev region suffers from a poor image within the Israeli population, the researchers said.
The study found that changes that have already been made to improve the region’s infrastructure for the incoming soldiers have had very little impact on the local residents. For example, changes to the local public transportation system to serve the IDF training center set up in Beersheba, have had a positive impact only on the users of the center and not the civilians living in the area; in addition, for security reasons, soldiers will largely receive services on base, limiting their interaction with the surrounding cities.
This “isolation” of the bases from the local environment “will reduce their economic, social and image” impact and halt any actual spillover effect of the lively activities happening within the closed bases into the existing urban space, the researchers said.
Because of the area’s poor image, soldiers will agree to move to the south only if they are relocated to designated neighborhoods and purpose-built new settlements, the researchers said.
Indeed, the IDF and the Defense Ministry and the municipality of Beersheba are already studying what incentives and housing plans should be in place — such as kindergartens and schools — when the officers and their families arrive, Lt. Col. Itai Sagi told The Times of Israel (see separate story).
“IDF’s transition south is a drop in the sea,” said Alfasi, as “for years the state has neglected” the Negev. Touting the IDF’s move to the Negev as helping boost education, science, services and branding locally “has no foundation.”
The initiatives that are underway locally are great for the IDF, she said, but “do not necessarily change the situation of the residents of the Negev.”
The findings of the researchers are in sharp contrast to the IDF’s vision for the impact the move of thousands of soldiers to the Negev region will have on existing social infrastructure. The army hopes that both the region — specifically the city of Beersheba — and the IDF will reap benefits from each other, leading to interactions with local residents and drawing companies to set up shop in Beersheba to provide services for old and new residents alike.
The findings of the Ben-Gurion research will be presented at a conference on Thursday entitled “Need two for tango? Urban Challenges in the Transition of IDF Units to the Negev,” in cooperation with Ben-Gurion University and the Mandel Leadership Institute.