What, Exactly, Are the Periphery, the Frontier and the Center?

Batya Roded
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Batya Roded

Not a day goes by without a headline popping up about what is known in Israel as "the periphery" - the country's outlying areas: "Going down to the periphery," "Wipe out the periphery," "Periphery is waking up," "Attract a strong population to the periphery" and "Socioeconomic gap between periphery and center of the country widens." Last Saturday, a protest was held in the capital of the periphery - Be'er Sheva.

These phrases are somewhat patronizing toward areas outside the center of the country, which the center has exploited. So what and where is the periphery, and why is the term being used so much after years of being ignored and forgotten?

Protesters demonstrate in Be'er Sheva.Credit: Eli Hershkovitz

The concept assumes asymmetric power relations and a view from the center, the socioeconomic core, outward toward the circumference, a marginal area. The images it raises reflect marginality, neglect, inferiority and poverty. When the state was established, unpopulated areas or those populated by Arabs were known as the "frontier." They were to be settled by pioneers, an idea inspired by the conquering of the American West.

In the United States, the frontier meant freedom, new opportunities, equality and vibrancy, as well as danger, threats and the desire to take control of a region and its sovereignty, while eradicating the native peoples, the locals.

The frontier communities in Israel, where the Arab minority formed the majority, were transformed from small holdings and rural communities into planned cities housing a large influx of Mizrahi Jews - development towns. This strategy of small budgets and hasty planning did not yield the desired result; the frontier was weakened and marginalized. After 1967, the "frontier occupation" approach was recreated in the West Bank territories to achieve the same goals, this time beyond Israel's sovereign borders.

While the frontiers in the Negev and the Galilee were neglected and became peripheral, the territories became the preferred frontier. That is, not every frontier necessarily turns into a periphery. This was not a so-called natural process that could not be helped, but the fruit of persistent policy over many years.

Studies and reports on the gaps between different areas in Israel show the gaps are growing, and it's no wonder. While a special government office is being established to promote the Negev and Galilee, there are continuous budget cuts in all areas of life in these regions compared to the center of the country. According to the logic of inequality, the richer a city is, the higher the budget allotted by the Education Ministry; the number of doctors and hospitals per 1,000 population in the center is higher. So it goes in every field, from municipal budgets to the quality and size of apartments and roads.

When gaps between areas are examined, one discovers that the periphery is found not only on the geographic margins of Israel, but also in the heart of the country - the Hatikvah neighborhood and the central bus station area in Tel Aviv, Arab Jaffa, Ramle and Lod, Kiryat Malachi and even Jerusalem. That is, the periphery permeates every place that is neglected and discriminated against because the inhabitants do not belong to the dominant group.

Modi'in was built and the development of Ramle and Lod sacrificed. Suburbs and industrial areas were built and neighboring cities impoverished. The Andromeda project was built, displacing the Arab residents of Jaffa.

But each area is dependent on the other. Every place that is neglected and excluded weakens the centers of power, especially in a small country like Israel, where human capital is the country's main resource. Large portions of the Israeli population cannot be included in this category, and so the policy of looking only at the short term undermines the socioeconomic view of the long term - human capital is shrinking.

Is this why the term "periphery" is enjoying a revival, or is just the same old lip service in place of serious planning and affirmative action? The question contains the answer.

Why do we need a minister for the Negev and the Galilee? Stop the structural discrimination, both overt and covert, toward the periphery and all its citizens, and return to them all the budget taken in favor of the center and the settlements over the years, and that would be sufficient for it to prosper.

The writer, whose research focuses on the Negev, lives in Arad and teaches in the Geography and Environmental Planning Department of Achva College.