Arava Settlers Hope Voa Transmitter Will Bring Better Times

The several hundred families of this moshav in the Arava region of the Negev and others in the surrounding area are waiting in tense anticipation for work to begin on the Voice of America Radio transmitters to be located here.

The $380-million project, agreed to by Israel and the U.S. last year, will bring cash, jobs and an infusion of new settlers to this economically hard-pressed, underpopulated region of Israel. According to Illan Oren, head of the Mid-Arava Regional Council, it is an opportunity that comes “only once in a generation, or perhaps only once every 100 years.”

“It is important that such an opportunity does not slip away,” Oren said. But he and the other residents of the region are keeping their fingers crossed.

PAST DISAPPOINTMENTS

They have been disappointed in the past. When the Israel Defense Force pulled out of Sinai in 1982 under terms of the peace treaty with Egypt, there was much talk of how the Negev and the Arava region in particular would develop with the army and its infrastructure deployed there.

A bright future was forecast for settlements such as Yeroham and Dimona. But the development towns in the Negev are worse off economically now. They are the main victims of Israel’s economic crisis.

The decision to build the VOA transmitters in the Arava region is seen as a chance for recovery. Of the $380-million budget, $300 million will be invested in equipment and the rest in labor. Construction is expected to take from three to five years.

The local residents want to be certain that the investment will be used to improve the region. About 300 workers will be employed to build the transmitters. Once in operation, they will provide about 130 jobs and, by agreement with the Americans, all but seven will go to Israelis.

“An addition of 130 families to an area which now numbers 380 families is a real revolution,” Oren told the co-chairmen of the Jewish Agency’s Settlement Department, Nissim Zvilli and Matityahu Drobless, who visited Idan recently with a group of experts.

Zvilli said the workers must live here. “If we allow them not to, much of the advantage of the project will be lost.” Oren suggested using the existing infrastructure for construction crews rather than building a new work camp. The money saved, he said, could build a new field school and other institutions. The Jewish Agency meanwhile is trying to persuade Jewish construction workers in the U.S. to settle in Israel and join the VOA project.

PROBLEM WITH U.S.

A problem has arisen between Israel and the U.S. over the contractors. The Americans have rejected an Israeli demand that only Israeli contractors be employed, Amnon Neubach, economic advisor to Premier Shimon Peres, informed leaders of Israel’s construction industry. He said the Americans will allow Israeli firms to bid for the job which is estimated at $50-$70 million. But there is concern that the Israelis may not be able to compete with tenders by American firms.

Drobless reviewed the problems of the area which make the VOA project so vital to it. Only 4,000 people live on a 150-kilometer-long strip. Living costs are higher than in the rest of Israel because of the region’s isolation. In Arava, a family needs an annual income of 25,000 Shekels compared to a 15,000-Shekel average in other parts of the country.

Because of these needs, the Negev section of the Settlement Department allocates 40 percent of its budget to Arava.

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