Making the Israeli Desert Bloom One More Time

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The community of Tzukim in the Arava, April 2019.
The community of Tzukim in the Arava, April 2019.Credit: Eyal Toueg

“In 2017 I was about to relocate to be the agricultural attaché in a developing country, and then came an offer that changed everything,” Shmulik Friedman recounts. “This was after I’d held a string of positions in the Agriculture Ministry, been an adviser to the minister and led agricultural technology projects in the private sector. I felt like I was ready for the next challenge, and my wife and I were debating where to take the children – to Africa or India. The phone call from Eyal got us to switch direction.”

Friedman is referring to Eyal Blum, head of the Central Arava Regional Council, who suggested that Friedman apply for the position of research-and-development manager at Central & Northern Arava-Tamar R&D.

“We moved with our three children from the green Jezreel Valley to the wide-open desert spaces of the Arava,” Friedman says, referring to the southeastern region along the Jordanian border. “It may only be an hour and a quarter from Be’er Sheva, but sometimes it’s like a whole other country.”

The flight to the Central Arava leaves twice a week from north Tel Aviv and lands on an isolated landing strip amid the yellow hills of the tiny community of Sapir. One of the plane’s eight seats is nearly always reserved for the teacher of advanced high school math who teaches 10 gifted students from the seven Central Arava communities. Asked why he does it, he replies: “Idealism or foolishness. A combination of the two. The same probably goes for everyone who’s been bitten by the Arava bug.”

Blum knows that the council must invest in education and job opportunities to attract new families and meet the goal of doubling the Central Arava’s population to 8,000 within a decade, after years in which new construction was stalled by a lack of funding for planning. This is the goal Blum committed to after obtaining planning and development budgets from sources including government ministries and wealthy Jewish donors.

For years, it was only the next generation of the Arava communities’ founders and people who yearned to work in agriculture who lived in these places, but now families simply seeking a different lifestyle can buy one dunam (a quarter acre) to build a house on, and an adjacent dunam for mixed use, whether for tourism or some other business.

But Blum also knows that getting plans approved isn’t enough to double the population. So the focus today is twofold: improving water, electricity and internet access, and increasing the range of job opportunities. Because no matter how fed up folks in Tel Aviv may be with city life, Blum knows that a cliff-top villa for just 1 million shekels ($280,000) won’t be enough to make them come to this area and compromise on basic infrastructure, jobs or their kids’ education.

New jobs will be created in the area’s new industrial zone, already home to companies like Gilboa Tooling Industries. The aim is to attract more companies, as well as researchers to the Central Arava Research & Development Center.

“I admit that, unfortunately, the level of education and the schools here don’t compare to what we had before,” says someone who gave his name as Segev, a new resident to the area. “But here there’s a very strong community and cultural activities. Also I have time to spend with my daughters. I can eat lunch with them and go back to work.”

The Central Arava Regional Council was founded in 1976 and covers a million and a half dunams (1,500 square kilometers), or 6% of Israel’s land, more than half of that designated as nature reserves. The council’s jurisdiction stretches from south of the Dead Sea to the community of Paran farther south along Route 90.

Date plants at Ein Yahav in the Arava, April 2019. Credit: Eyal Toueg

The council is home to 4,000 people who live in seven communities: five agricultural moshavim – Ein Yahav, Hatzeva, Paran, Tzofar and Idan – and two community settlements: Sapir (the hub for community services) and Tzukim. Over the past three years, 20 to 30 million shekels have been invested in planning and developing each of these communities to prepare them for absorbing new families.

Construction at a desert’s pace

So why, despite the charms of the desert and the attractive prices, isn’t the waiting list to move in longer? Besides the distance from the center of the country, residents of the Central Arava face other challenges.

First, despite the low cost of land, the cost of building is higher compared to the center of the country, thus building starts get delayed. The design and marketing plans for expansions in Ein Yahav, Sapir and Hatzeva have been around for two years, and the approval processes have been partially completed. But construction has begun on just 10 houses.

Haya Kisos, the academic director of the Arava International Center for Agricultural Training, recently finished building a house in Sapir and knows why construction there is so pricey. “Cement here is 25% more expensive than it would be in central Israel,” she says. “Contractors tell us: ‘I’m bringing a truck here and opening a production plant just for you.’ And it’s not just the cement – bringing all the materials and the workers here is expensive.”

Despite the bus lines in the area, a family living in the Arava needs two cars (at least) to drive the kids to their activities, most of which take place at the community center in Sapir, or just to get together with a friend from another community. Everyone around there agrees that Route 90 desperately needs improvement, in terms of cellphone reception as well.

In June 2017, the Knesset Special Committee for Distributive Justice and Social Equality held a hearing on cellphone reception in the Arava. The meeting followed an accident in which a man was killed when his car overturned and his wife couldn’t call for help because of a lack of reception. The committee members called for and more antennas.

But there are still places without reception in the agricultural areas along Route 90, and there’s just one cellular antenna in the overall area, Cellcom’s, after one belonging to Pelephone was removed.

This and other challenges have apparently inspired an entrepreneurial spirit among locals. Dana and Shlomi Moyal, who live in Ein Yahav and are waiting for building to start on the lot they bought, developed a business for cellular service as well as computer and security systems. They overcome the communications problems by installing their own systems.

“You have to know how to create meaning here for yourself and turn the disadvantages into values that you can make a living from,” Dana Moyal says. “Granted, for us, work and career aren’t the main thing. For us what’s most important is our family and community. We’ve both lived in cities and decided that for us, work is a means and not an end.”

Date palms at Ein Yahav in the Arava, April 2019.Credit: Eyal Toueg

Agriculture is still a dominant industry in the Arava, with peppers and dates the dominant crops. Many landowners let the big growers work the land for them and provide accommodations for the Thai workers who make up part of the Central Arava population. Signs in the supermarket and at fields are written in Thai as well.

But many independent growers suffered a decline about a decade ago as water prices rose and agricultural exports fell. Among the factors threatening Israeli agriculture are the weakening of the euro against the shekel, distribution and marketing increasingly in the hands of the large retail and wholesale chains, agricultural input costs rising faster than the return, increased competition in the target markets, and geopolitical uncertainties.

Another challenge for Arava farmers sounds like it comes from an earlier century – a shortage of reservoirs for agriculture. Gil Slevin, director of the Arava Drainage Authority and head of the council’s water division, has been working on water infrastructure projects and is counting on desalinated water reaching the area.

“In 2014, a master plan for the Central Arava was approved with the aim of connecting the Mekorot Water Company’s lines from Ashkelon via Tzofit, or by a route from Dimona to the Central Arava,” Slevin says. “When desalinated water is transported here and is mixed with the drilled water – which is highly salinated – we’ll be able to lower the salination and use the water, which will let us grow other crops and improve the quality of the existing crops.”

Slevin is pinning his hopes on the Shalom desalination plant, which is slated to be built near Aqaba, Jordan, as part of a bold Israeli government project. The goal is to increase the water supply to Jordan and Israel and make desalinated water available for irrigating Israeli agriculture.

Marijuana is the future

Central & Northern Arava-Tamar R&D is an anchor of the agricultural and economic activity in the Arava. It aims to create an advanced agricultural zone where crop yields can be maximized in desert conditions.

Friedman, the one who took over as R&D manager less than two years ago, has set two key goals; the first is to free the Arava R&D center from reliance on government funding and donations and develop it as a financially independent commercial entity. The second is to make the center a leading research center for the medical marijuana industry.

“For years, the thinking at the Arava R&D center was that if we can bring visitors here who are interested in what we’re doing, that’s quite an achievement,” Friedman says. “When I first got here, every week we’d get delegations from China and other places. The researchers would present their latest developments and give tours, and everyone was very proud that these people had come to the Arava to learn from our research. I couldn’t understand why my researchers were wasting a precious half-workday on a tour.”

There was a provincial attitude of being grateful that anyone visited.

“Yes, we were established to develop agriculture in the Arava, but to do that we need to be relevant and competitive in the agriculture business around the world, and stand on our own two feet,” Friedman says. “My biggest achievement will be to make us as little reliant as possible on government funding and bring in as much collaboration as possible with the business world outside the Arava.”

The center’s annual budget is 10 million shekels, which comes from various government agencies and philanthropic foundations like the Baron de Hirsch Fund. In 2017, the center’s commercial activity brought in just 10%  of its revenues. Friedman says this figure rose last year to nearly 20%.

The marijuana initiative is one of the main growth engines for the Arava that Friedman is betting on; others include pharmaceutical and cosmetic products made from desert plants. The center is working on a small experiment, approved by the Agriculture Ministry, involving hemp oil, which is produced from the cannabis plant but doesn’t contain the active ingredient. Friedman hopes to recruit five more researchers to conduct further studies of cannabis.

In recent years, the Arava Research & Development Center has been basing its income not only on agriculture but also on tourism. Derekh Habesamim, the “Spice Route” that passes through the Central Arava, was recently recognized as a World Heritage Site. The community of Tzukim has become a leading attraction for luxury rural tourism, where reservations for accommodations must often be made months in advance. An artists’ village there is currently undergoing renovation, with hopes of making it a special desert tourist attraction.

Still, many of the tourist attractions that already exist in the area, like Orit Kurtz and Ofer Kobi’s Crocoloco crocodile farm, often have trouble drawing enough visitors. “There’s a lack of suitable infrastructure. The main issue is building sewage infrastructure,” Kobi says.

“I came here in 1994 after I built a tourist farm attraction in Mombasa, Kenya, and in Sun City in Orlando. When I came here, I was promised everything – ‘Just come,’ they said, promising to help and push things along. But as soon as I set up shop here, I became the enemy of the bureaucracy. I have to make requests of the authority, I have no choice. You sent us on our way here? Then support us until the end.”

Kobi has been fighting red tape for years in his attempt to build a restaurant and hospitality center at the site. “I have no sewage infrastructure here so the Health Ministry won’t let me advance the project, and the Israel Land Authority won’t let me complete a leasing agreement for the land because I haven’t fulfilled all the development requirements,” Kobi says.

“I put in more than a million and a half shekels here on plans alone, beyond the investment in the hundreds of crocodiles that live here. Right now I have no way to raise money to complete the work because no funding institution will give me money for land that isn’t registered in my name. I’ve seen dozens of consultants who came through here, came up with plans and tried to reinvent the wheel – and I found myself exhausted by all the promises. Every attempt I’ve made to obtain help has resulted in accusations hurled back and forth.”