Latest update: September 11th, 2012
When contemplating the Negev, one must set aside any preconcieved notion of what a desert is. In Eretz Yisrael there are no rolling yellow sand dunes in softly rising and falling landscapes as unbroken as the sea. Far from being a simple expanse of sand, the Negev is marked by a mélange of cliffs, crags, boulders and dry river vadies. Where the Judean Desert ends, the Negev begins, an impressive region of low sandstone hills, rocky peaks (for example the high plateau area of Ramat HaNegev– The Negev Heights – stands between 370 meters and 520 meters), and plains rutted with narrow canyons. The Negev Desert is mesmerizing, beautiful and rich in geological history.
The Negev is mentioned a number of times in Parshas Lech Lecha showing us how Avraham Avinu paced the land, making it the property of Am Yisroel forever.
The essence of Avraham was chesed; a need to give permeated his whole being. After the cities of the Plain were overturned, the wayfarers who visited his home in Chevron were few and far between. Since business was slow for hachnassas orchim, he moved to a spot along a trade route in the Negev. The places he chose to live were dry – physically and spiritually. People living there were hesitant to do good deeds or to help others. (Literally, the word “Negev” means dry). He deliberately chose such a place because he wanted to teach the inhabitants to be charitable, and he saw there was a lot of potential in that area.
Negbah is also used for the direction “south.” Avraham Avinu moved south because he was worried that the embarrassing episode of Lot and his two daughters would reflect badly upon himself. Lot was the spitting image of Avraham, and he feared that people might mistake him for his nephew Lot.
When Moshe sent the spies to tour the land, he told them to head from the Negev towards Chevron (Bamidbar 13:17). He intended for them to see the worst part of the land first so they would be able to appreciate the greatness of what they were being given. Yehoshua conquered the whole of the Negev (Yehoshua 11:16). The northern Negev belongs to Yehuda and the south to Shimon. Dovid HaMelech firmly established Israelite rule over the desert. His son Shlomo subsequently built a string of fortresses along its roads.
The rise of the Nabateans began around the fourth century B.C.E. The Negev became the heart of the Nabatean Empire and Spice Route.
After the Roman takeover, Nabatean control gradually weakened. Fewer camel caravans passed through the area and other roads supplanted the Spice Route.
Unlike most areas in the country, the Romans neglected the Negev not doing much to develop it. During the Byzantine Era, Christians began to build churches and study centers in the area. Agricultural-based cities were established and the population grew. After the Muslim conquest in the seventh century settlement of the Negev came to an end. As the new rulers had little interest in the area, the residents were expelled.
For centuries after, only Bedouins lived in the Negev. An Arabic history of tribes around Beersheba, published in 1934, records 23 different tribal groups. In 1918 the English mandate period began and the region enjoyed rapid growth and was called “Beersheba sub-district.” The British built a number of highways; firstly from Beersheba to Um Rash-Rash (Eilat), then from Beersheba to the large Machtesh and also the “Petroleum Road” that goes from Yerucham to Avdat and to Machtesh Ramon.
The British White Paper of 1939 and the 1940 Land Transfer Regulations placed a number of restrictions on Jewish settlement and land purchase in Palestine. The Negev was one of the areas where both were forbidden. With the onset of World War II, the Yishuv looked to expand its areas of settlement in order to house Jewish refugees from Europe. Land was purchased in the Negev by the JNF, though Arabs agents to circumvent the British ban. Three lookouts, Revivim, Gvulot and Beit Eshel were settled in 1943. These later served as a springboard for further Jewish population of the Negev.
The publication of the Morrison-Grady partition proposal of Palestine (1946), intended the exclusion of the Negev from the Jewish state and the prohibition of Jewish settlement there. A plan to establish eleven “points” of Jewish settlement in the Negev was devised by the Jewish Agency in order to assure a Jewish presence in the area prior to the partition plan and hopefully retain it as part of a Jewish state. After the Yom Kippur fast on the night of October 5,1946 settlers set up camp at eleven pre-determined locations in the Negev: Be’eri, Gal On, Hatezrim, Kedma, Kfar Darom, Mishmar HaNegev, Nevatim, Nirim, Shova, Tkuma and Urim.
As of 2010, the Negev was home to some 630,000 people (or 8.2% of the total population in the country). After withdrawing from the Sinai, the Negev also became the site of numerous military bases. Much of the Negev is used by the Israel Defense Forces for training purposes.
Beersheba is the region’s largest city and administrative capital (pop. 185,000). At its southern end are the Gulf of Aqaba/Eilat and the resort city of Eilat. There are several development towns in the Negev, including Dimona, Arad, Mitzpe Ramon, as well as a number of small Bebouin cities, including Rahat and Tel as-Sabi. There are also several kibbutzim, including Revivim and Sde Boker; the latter became the home of Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, after his retirement from politics.
The arid desert regions and the scarcity of water have provided a challenge. Since 1948, dedicated Israeli scientists have been hard at work to find ways to conserve water and to utilize the vast Negev region for agricultural developments.
We have witnessed much bracha in the sparsely populated desert area between Beersheba and Eilat which has played an important role in agricultural production. More than 40 percent of the country’s vegetables and field crops are grown in the Arava and Negev.
The Negev Desert and the surrounding area, including the Arava, are the sunniest parts the land. Its average temperature is 97.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer.This is also why the Negev has become the center of the Israeli solar industry. Experts on solar energy propose that the energy needs of Israel’s future should be met by building solar energy plants in the Negev.
The new wave of “greening the desert” is heartening, especially since the supply of farmland in the country’s densely populated central region is shrinking as more and more farmland is being used for housing.
In the Negev, cultivation of new citrus varieties have resulted in yields 50 to 100 percent higher than those in the north. Giant citrus groves (10,000 acres) have been planted in the Negev. Olive plantations irrigated by brackish water have achieved per-acre oil yields that are six times higher than in traditional rain-fed groves elsewhere in the county.
The further south one goes, the earlier crops ripen. There are newly developed technologies for vegetables being grown in greenhouses. This makes it possible to grow crops for export to Europe during the winter months – October through March – when prices are highest, with less expenditure of energy than required elsewhere in the country.
Over the last few years, varieties of some crops, notably tomatoes and melons, have been adapted for growth in the desert with saline water irrigation. It is claimed that Negev saline-grown tomatoes are the sweetest and highest quality tomatoes to be found anywhere. Eggplant, yellow melons, potatoes, pears, and table grapes are also watered with this salty water and harvested in the Negev Desert.
Attempts to expand the growing of flowers and grapes for wine have taken off. There are 6 wineries on the Negev Heights. Despite the inferior and partially salty soil, Israeli farmers are successfully growing olives, pomegranates, pistachios and grapes for wine in Ramat Hanegev.
Once a distant second to citrus, the export of flowers and ornamental plants from Israel, now holds first place. A wide variety of flowers for export (over 100) are grown all over the country. Who would have thought that flowers could thrive in the Negev? Imagine beautiful first class roses, some of these roses are sold at the famous Dutch flower auctions, and Lisianthus in various shades of purple, pink, white, and combinations thereof, growing in the Negev.
Yet the Negev desert is particularly advantageous for flower growing. The nearly all year sunny days and relatively warm winter temperatures of the Negev are excellent for growing Europe’s summer flowers. When that continent is experiencing cold weather, the Negev grows “off-season” summer flowers and then exports them to Europe, especially during the winter months which brings in lucrative profits.
The export sales price for one flower stem grown in Israel’s Negev wilderness earns five times the cost of growing it. The beauty of Israel never stops traveling to the international market.
When the Geula comes Dovid HaMelech informs us (Tehillim 126; 4) that it will be as surprising as the afikim (streams) that gush in the Negev.
As you travel along the Negev roads everything around seems parched and dry. The wadies are totally empty. All of a sudden, great roaring watercourses stream out of nowhere and overtake the area. These streams originate from the rains that fall in the mountainous regions and roll down in great speed to the Negev.
In the same way, the final yeshua will arrive seemingly from nowhere, startling us with its swiftness and overflowing with all the goodness and blessing we could wish for.
At the present point in time, it may seem that nothing is taking place, but we can be assured that “rain” is falling (events are taking place) in preparation for that Great Day. Just look around and see that all the signs are clearly visible. For instance, the blooming of the Negev we see today may be in anticipation of the rejuvenation of the wilderness and wasteland that is prophesied in Yeshayahu, Perek 35. Here the Navi says that the desert will bloom like a chavazelet (lily?) at the time of the Redemption. In the Messianic era, this area will become as lush and beautiful as the most beautiful part of the Land. May we all be privileged very, very soon to see the return of Hashem to Zion, in mercy.Vardah Littmann
About the Author: Originally from south Africa, Vardah has been living in Eretz Yisrael since 1974 and the more she learns about our glorious Holy Land the more she gets to love this prime property that Hashem has given to the Jewish People. She is studying to be a tour guide and hopes with the help of Hashem, through this column to give readers a small taste of the land.
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