Student Pioneers in the Negev, Galilee Point Way for Resettlement

Kfar Adiel, a village plush with fruit trees, lawns and neatly manicured gardens that arose in three years from the Negev’s ancient desert sands, may help solve a 21st century dilemma: where to resettle tens of thousands of Jews. Israeli officials and pro-Israel lobbyists in Washington believe the 40-home village built by the Ayalim Association, an organization of university students, could point to an answer for up to 70,000 settlers to be evacuated from the West Bank as well as the 8,000 settlers still awaiting resettlement from last year’s Gaza Strip withdrawal.

Efrat Duvdevani, director of Israel’s Ministry for the Development of the Negev and the Galilee, said Ayalim development projects could soften the blow for evacuees by presenting them with thriving communities instead of the poverty now dogging the Galilee and Negev regions.

“Ayalim’s founders, participants and supporters are building young, dynamic, socially involved communities that constitute an anchor for helping develop the full potential of the region,” she told JTA.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s plan to redraw Israel’s borders by as early as 2008 has become the centerpiece of the U.S.-Israel dialogue. The question skirting the grand plan is what to do with the evacuees.

A future for the settlers drove a session at the recent policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The lobbying powerhouse is working behind the scenes to raise U.S. money to help Israel absorb the massive resettlement. Ayalim and its Kfar Adiel success were showcased at the session.

“Basically, 75 percent of Israel’s population on 25 percent of the land; that makes no sense in a country where land is so precious and so valuable,” Ester Kurz, AIPAC director for legislative strategy and policy, said at the group’s policy conference in March.

Israel last summer requested a reported $2.2 billion from the United States in post-Gaza pullout aid to be invested in the Negev and Galilee. President Bush and other lawmakers initially warmed to the idea, but Israel scrapped the request after Hurricane Katrina exacerbated an already bleak U.S. deficit situation.

A diplomatic source inside the Israeli government told JTA that the request remains “put to the side due to special sensitivities.”

Olmert told reporters he raised the issue in only the most general terms when he met with Bush last month, but it is clearly uppermost in his mind: He made Shimon Peres, deputy prime minister, responsible for developing the regions.

U.S. Jewish officials say Israel is planning to eventually up the request by another $10 billion to accommodate the West Bank withdrawal.

Given the government’s renewed attention to the region, Ayalim’s young pioneers are seizing the opportunity to fulfill an age-old Zionist dream. Israel’s government, Ayalim’s largest donor, last year agreed to match any donation the organization receives, whether from individuals or Jewish organizations in Israel or the United States

Without relying on professional companies or outside workers, Ayalim’s students are completing Kfar Adiel — where about 70 of them live year-round — about 22 miles south of Beersheba.

“When you build by yourself and work with other people, you feel more strongly about your environment,” said Yuval Moses, 23, a first-year Ayalim participant who attends Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba. “It builds the connection.”

He also believes that given Israel’s geopolitical realities, developing the Negev is a no-brainer.

“There is so much unused space in the Negev, and it’s not a controversial area,” he said. “It’s such a pity that we are not using enough of the space we have and don’t need to fight over.”

Comprising 60 percent of Israel’s overall landmass, the Negev is home to just 9 percent of the population. The bulk of the country’s population and resources are concentrated on a narrow strip along the Mediterranean coast.

Four years ago, Dany Glicksberg, 27, and four other young army veterans established the non-profit. They enlisted students to revive the zeal of their forebears in developing the Negev Desert of southern Israel and the Galilee in the north.

Building Kfar Adiel involves a grueling 10-week stretch during summer break, with students logging 16-hour days in the desert heat.

“We simply took what we heard from our grandparents, and tried to revive that,” Glicksberg said. “Ayalim is a formula that guarantees our most basic values: Zionism, pioneering, settling the land and caring for one another.”

The development is not limited to building homes. In return for college scholarships and subsidized housing, participants contribute 10 hours of weekly community service during the school year to improve quality of life in the region. Students perform renovation projects and build gardens in surrounding Negev communities, and assist in caring for the elderly.

But the students’ greatest contribution is the service they provide to thousands of area children, according to Shmuel Rifman, head of the Ramat Hanegev Regional Council, which governs Kfar Adiel’s locality. Ayalim leads educational programs and coordinates extracurricular activities for the children, many of whom are deemed at high risk to engage in crime and substance abuse.

Ayalim recently broke ground on a new village near the Negev town of Dimona, beginning work over the Passover holiday which will be continued this summer. Two additional villages — one in the Negev and another in the Upper Galilee — are slated to begin this summer. With limited resources, today the organization comprises only 260 students, culled from a total of 5,000 applicants, said Glicksberg.

“You can imagine what we could do with 5,000 students actually taking an active role in the project,” he told Israel supporters at a Washington conference in March. With the appropriate funds, Glicksberg hopes to have built five student villages in the Negev and five more in the Galilee within three years.

Shaul Amir, director of the Israel Center at the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado, three years ago encountered a fledgling Ayalim outfit while passing through the area. He said that although there were only about 10 of them, “they were idealistic, motivated and incredible guys.”

The Colorado federation has been one of Ayalim’s main donors ever since.

If he were 35 years younger, Amir said, he would have been there with them. “You want to join them, you want to be one of them. They represent the pure words of Zionism and pioneerism.”

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