The Israeli Defense Forces base of Ir Habahadim is at the heart of the government’s vision to settle and develop the Negev desert – but it’s a plan that’s also controversial.
Outside the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) mega-base of Ir Habahadim, sand dunes stretch as far as the eye can see. The feeling of emptiness that surrounds the vast training base in the midst of the Negev is broken only by the cooing of pigeons and the desert wind. Ir Habahadim (which means “the City of Training Bases”) is key to one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects in Israel’s 70-year history, part of a ils23bn (€5.7bn) masterplan to move Israel’s military down to the long-neglected Negev.
“This base is not only a military but also a national achievement,” says Ir Habahadim’s commander Avi Motola from his office overlooking the 250-hectare base, roughly twice the size of London’s Hyde Park. “We’re fulfilling the vision of [Israel’s founding father David] Ben-Gurion to settle the Negev desert and make it flourish.”
The country’s centre is expensively crowded and the West Bank is viewed as occupied Palestinian territory by the international community. As such, the IDF development in the Negev – about two thirds of Israel’s territory but home to barely 10 per cent of its population – is intended to bring infrastructure, transport and new jobs. The Israeli Air Force (IAF) has already made the move from a base by Ben Gurion Airport to Nevatim in the Negev, while state-owned weapons manufacturer IMI Systems is relocating a massive testing facility. A cyber-defence centre near Beersheva and an intelligence mega-base are next in line.
Moving operations will also raise money, a constant headache for Israel’s conscription army. Selling off centrally located military bases, now on highly profitable real estate, will earn the state about ils6bn (€1.5bn). The 19 bases in central Israel earmarked for evacuation will also free up space for 60,000 residential units and 1.1 million sq m of office and commercial space.
The consolidation, and subsequent expansion of the force’s capabilities and size, is also testament to the permanence of the army in Israeli daily life. Some analysts and journalists have periodically floated questions on whether the IDF would continue to play such a prominent role. It will: in 2015, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Knesset, “I’m asked if we will forever live by the sword – yes.”
The IDF remains the country’s most-trusted public institution among Jewish Israelis (about 75 per cent of the population). This was eloquently illustrated by the results of April’s election: Netanyahu’s only real challenge came from the Kachol Lavan alliance. Despite being formed only months ahead of the vote, Kachol Lavan won just one seat fewer than Netanyahu’s Likud party. Three of its four leaders were former IDF chiefs of staff.
“In Jewish-Israeli culture, the IDF is the last, if not only, national institution most Israelis can put their faith in,” says veteran political analyst Rafi Barzilai. “There’s a real ethos of IDF service in Israeli culture and it will remain like that for the next few decades at least. The consensus over the IDF is beyond any political dispute.”
But despite the perception of the IDF as a people’s army, large parts of Israeli society (Arabs and ultra-orthodox haredi Jews) are barely represented. Circassians and Druze are drafted to the IDF on a mandatory basis but the numbers are small (although the Druze, who make up about 1.7 per cent of the population, serve at a disproportionately high level). Christian Arabs and Bedouins serve on a voluntary basis but there the numbers are even less significant.
As for the haredi population, estimated at about a million, army service remains anathema, with only about 3,000 enlisting in 2017. There are plans to host haredi recruits at Ir Habahadim too but they will need special facilities, from a ritual bath to assurance that they only meet male instructors.
Not that there aren’t already extensive facilities on offer. Seven idf units have moved here since it opened in 2016, including those concerned with medical training, logistics, human resources, education and the military police. Everything from shooting ranges to convention halls are in-house; even a specially built extension of Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem museum for mandatory Holocaust education. Seven dining halls feed up to 10,000 trainees every day and there are three synagogues. “This is a totally new concept of instruction, with no barriers in sharing knowledge and integrating courses,” says Motola. “I think it’s unique to Israel and maybe the world. A trainee doesn’t need to leave the base at all.”
Experiential learning is key, involving everything from escape rooms to virtual and augmented reality. Driving courses, for instance, are held in three classrooms, each fitted with four simulators at a cost of ils10m (€2.4m). “This is the only place in Israel with simulators,” says Sergeant Dror Malal who, having taught soldiers how to drive for 20 years, is clearly delighted by his hi-tech toys. He’s also pleased by the international cachet the base has already garnered. “Officials come from everywhere – Germany, Poland, China, Singapore – to see them.” He switches the settings from Jeep to Hummer, urban to countryside, and calls up weather conditions from heavy rain to blinding sunlight. The set-up is disturbingly effective. After just a few minutes, trainees emerge feeling dizzy and disorientated.
“This is like a testing place for the rest of the army on how to make everything more efficient,” says Chaim Chana, the information systems commander. He’s particularly proud that their innovative RFID (radio frequency ID) cards, which control access to everything from classrooms to dining halls, have been rolled out at central command.
As well as offering extensive training, the base is also designed to make life as easy as possible for soldiers. Civilian contractors deliver most services so that recruits no longer undertake tedious rites of passage such as scrubbing floors or guarding barracks. Across the base, trance music blares in a games room fitted out with foosball, billiards and a shoot-em-up arcade game.
At the heart of the complex is a shopping centre complete with a heavily subsidised juice bar, high-end burger takeaway, hairdresser and beauty salon, although posters around the base instruct the mostly teenage soldiers on the limits of their fashion choices (only pastel nail colours allowed, for some arcane military reason).
“Many people say, ‘you’re creating chocolate soldiers,’” says Motola, referring to the term for a good-looking but useless recruit. “But in order to be a good soldier, you don’t have to live in a tent and suffer,” he adds, pulling out plans to transform the rather dreary library into something “with a fun zone, a music stage, bean bags, a chillout zone. Like Google HQ – why not?” The facilities make Ir Habahadim look less like a military installation than a business park or university campus, albeit a rather dull one surrounded by sand dunes.
But not everyone is happy about the IDF expanding into the desert. There are nearly 200,000 Bedouin Arabs who live here. They are full citizens of Israel; several hundred even volunteer for the army every year. “Yet they’re invisible during these planning processes,” says Suhad Bishara, director of the land and planning unit at Arab minority-rights centre Adalah. “The assumption is that Bedouin will be moved and that developers can do whatever they want with the areas they used to inhabit.”
Officials want to move unrecognised Bedouin villages to townships built for them 40 years ago, which are all among the most deprived areas in the country. Yet many prefer to fight to maintain ties to the land and their way of life. Although no communities were affected by the construction of Ir Habahadim, Bishara estimates that tens of thousands of Bedouin will be displaced by imminent construction. The extension of Highway Six, for instance – allowing easier access to the south – will uproot at least 1,000 families.
The Israeli argument is that development will bring benefits to all communities. So far that hasn’t been the case: there are only 10 Bedouin workers among the 500 civilian employees at the base, for example. “There will be better roads, infrastructure, transport – my dream is to have a train to the base,” says Motola, adding that 80 officers and ncos have relocated to the Negev since the base opened. (The rest commute – as does Motola, from near Tel Aviv).
So the transformation envisaged by the Zionist pioneers may yet take a while. As ever, the IDF appears to be the only institution with the consensus, organisation and vision to drive this level of social change. The Israeli government wants to double the number of people living in the Negev to 1.2 million by 2025. For the IDF, the government and, indeed, many Israelis, the new mega-base represents a win-win for the country. But for the citizens who aren’t represented by the IDF, the military’s expansion into new territory leaves them as excluded as ever.
The IDF-isation of Israel:
Since the days before Israel was a formal state, its fighting forces have played a pivotal role in shaping citizens’ lives and mindsets. We track how the IDF has come to play such a central role in the daily life of many Israelis.
On 31 May, the pre-state Haganah militia formally became the IDF, with other paramilitary groups absorbed over the following months.
The first hesder Yeshiva is established, combining Talmudic studies with military service. In what is usually a five-year programme, religious male Jews spend 16 months in the army and study Torah the rest of the time.
Former IDF chief of staff Moshe Dayan enters politics, going on to serve in roles heading the agriculture, defence and foreign ministries. A career in politics has become standard for many former chiefs of staff, including Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister assassinated in 1995 by a Jewish extremist.
In the Six Day war, fought between 5 and 10 June by Israel and Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, the IDF defeats the three Arab armies in a victory lauded as heroic by the Israeli public.
The IDF allows lesbian and gay soldiers to serve for the first time, although at first they’re excluded from some high-status roles.
Tal law is passed, allowing exemptions from army service for Yeshiva students. It was deeply resented by Israel’s secular majority and ruled unconstitutional in 2012.
Orna Barbivai becomes the first female major-general in the IDF. Many Orthodox rabbis still condemn women serving, however. The same year, a group of religious officer cadets refused to participate in an IDF event featuring female vocalists, due to the religious ban on men hearing women sing.
Of all Israelis who qualify for service, 65 per cent are drafted. Numbers have fallen steadily for years: in 1990, about 75 per cent of draft-age Israelis served in the IDF. It’s a trend attributed to religious or health exemptions, as well as a reduced stigma surrounding draft-dodging.
Jerusalem’s Hebrew university to host a prestigious military academic programme starting in October, which would allow the IDF to establish a de facto military base on campus for the first time.