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Behind the Headlines JNF Blazing New Settlements in Speeded-up Rafiah Program

Today, Ogda is a tract of churned up sandy loam, seen through the dust and haze kicked up by the huge bulldozers and earth movers that the Jewish National Fund uses to prepare the land for a new settlement.

In three months, however, says JNF area director Shimon Dotan, when the tractors have finished shifting nearly half a million cubic meters of soil to create a one thousand-dunam plateau, the Housing Ministry men, and the World Zionist Organization settlement department experts will move in–and very soon a new moshav will begin to take shape. By summer of next year, the first 50 families should be moving in–with their farms all equipped, each with its own greenhouse, its own turnkey coop, and a share in the moshav’s mango orchards.

Ogda will rise out of the sandy and barren plains that separate the densely populated Gaza Strip from the wastes of Sinai proper–just as neighboring Sadot did in 1971, to become the flourishing and wealthy moshav it is today. Sadot thrives on off-season flowers and vegetables, grown under the chilly but constant winter sunshine. The Ogda farmers–there will be 100 of them when the moshav is finally finished–will grow their vegetables under glass, selling them straight to Europe by plane.

Work on Ogda, on neighboring Sukkot which will be a kibbutz, and on Nahal Sinai 40 kilometers down the coast near El Arish, has speeded up in recent weeks, JNF officials told me. The order had come through from the highest government forums, they asserted, to push ahead rapidly with the development of this vitally strategic area–Pithat Rafiah (the Rafah salient). At Nahal Sinai, JNF giant earthmoving machinery is shifting some 600,000 cubic meters of sand dunes to prepare the ground for what will be a Herut-affiliated moshav on the seashore just east of El Arish “capital of Sinai.” Presently, a Nahal post called Nahal Sinai is situated just west of the town, but this is to be moved, say JNF men on the spot, to the new location east of the town.

FAR-REACHING POLITICAL INTENTIONS

They say the move indicates far-reaching political intentions: to be ready to return El Arish and withdraw to the new Nahal Sinai when and if real peace with Egypt comes. Nahal Sinai would then form Israel’s furthermost point of control along the Mediterranean coast, sealing off the Gaza Strip from Sinai proper.

In Jerusalem, government officials are reluctant to discuss details–but what is certain is that settlement in the Pithat Rafiah area is now proceeding at an accelerated pace. Ten settlements–moshavim or kibbutzim–are planned for the region. Some, like Sadot and Dikla, already exist and prosper. Others, like Ogda and Sukkot are being worked on. Others, like Dekel and Eshel, sited near Ogda and at present only army camps, are still in the blueprint stage.

The regional center that will service this new complex of rural Jewish settlements is “Merkaz Avshalom”–better known as Yamit, first dreamed of by former Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, and now rising slowly but steadily on the coastal sand dunes under the supervision of Housing Ministry planners.

Huge transport lorries bring the prefabricated homes in sections to the site, and massive cranes lower whole walls and floors into position. The workmen–mostly local Arabs and Bedouin–then put the finishing touches to the pretty two-story blocks, each with a sweeping view of the white, palm-fronded beaches and deep blue sea. Yamit, and the smaller settlements, too, are sure to be major tourist attractions when they are completed–and if their beaches can be preserved in their pristine and unspoiled state.

Pithat Rafiah was the scene of some political conflict before the Yom Kippur War, when the military authorities fenced off the large tracts on which Dikla, Ogda and the other settlements were to be built, and herded the local Bedouins into neo-reservations. “They ought to thank us,” Dotan said today. Their living standards have increased beyond recognition with the coming of the Israeli settlers, he said. But he did not deny that the Bedouins themselves do not always take this view of their situation or of the army’s action, and many still yearn for their free-roaming days across the sandy expanses of the area.

OTHER LINKS IN THE CHAIN

The army authorities have enclosed two areas near Dikla for the Bedouins to take over as farmers and small-holders. Those who wish can receive their compensation for the fencing-off of their grazing land in the form of a small farm, a new house, and help to get started in agriculture. The Bedouins can come and go as and when they please, officials told me. But they are under security scrutiny–represented by the fences and by army patrols that move about the area.

Further north, inland from the populated coastal strip, the new moshavim of Nahal Morag and Nahal Katif will be built–other links in the chain of Jewish settlement that will serve in a strategic containment role around the Strip itself.

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