The ESRA Hiking Club ventured south to the hills of the northern Negev recently for one of the most beautiful hikes that I’ve done in Israel. We were heading towards the Yeruham Park and Lake, where there are green groves and a manmade lake in the middle of the desert.  After years of neglect, a sewage recycling plant was finally constructed on the outskirts of Yeruham by KKL/JNF (Jewish National Fund), helping to revive the lake and make this park an unexpected pleasure.

The Negev Desert accounts for more than half of Israel’s land mass. It was included in the territory allotted to a Jewish State in the 1947 UN Partition Plan and was hotly contested in Israel’s War of Independence. The Negev extends all the way to Eilat on the shores of the Red Sea. Developing the sparsely populated Negev was the dream of David Ben-Gurion, the monumental Zionist figure and the first prime minister of Israel.

On the way south, we passed close to Beersheba, the “capital” of the Negev. Our excellent guide Reuven pointed out the possible origins of the city’s name: either 7 wells, or the well of the oath. The Biblical reference relates that Abraham and King Abimelech (the king of Gerar) entered into a covenant there (Genesis 21:31).

The skyline of Beersheba has grown dramatically over the last few years, and with a current population of more than 200,000, Beersheba is Israel’s 7th largest city. Several years ago the government, perhaps with Ben-Gurion’s dream in mind, decided to move the bulk of the military establishment to the Negev, near Beersheba. This has driven growth by defense industries which are building factories close by and consequently, residential housing for soldiers and workers.

The Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba has greatly expanded its campus; its student population numbers 20,000, with more than a third in graduate studies. Close by is Soroka Medical Center, Israel’s 4th largest, which is the teaching hospital of Ben-Gurion’s School of Medicine.

The $1 billion Gav-Yam Negev Advanced Technologies Park (ATP) is a massive project to revitalize the Negev Desert by making it a major player of the “Startup Nation.” The project is a joint effort by the State of Israel, the Beersheba municipality, Ben-Gurion University and KUD International, a consortium of US and Japanese investors. It specializes in top-tier cyber-security and communication companies. Upon completion it will be one of the largest startup ecosystems in the country. (nocamels.com)

As we passed “unrecognized” Beduin encampments with no infrastructure, Reuven explained that the Beduin problem has not yet been resolved. He believes the Beduin are winning, because many of their primitive encampments have been legalized, despite the State of Israel policy of building large towns with modern amenities for the Beduin to inhabit. The organization regavim.org leads the fight against the Beduin land grabs in the Negev. The Beduin are supported by the EU, individual European states, and numerous anti-Zionist non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The weather was perfect for hiking. As we progressed through the relatively barren desert landscape, we were on the lookout for winter flowers, signs of animal life, and beautiful views. Eventually we reached a viewpoint from where we could see the lake, with the desert town of Yeruham beyond it. On the far side of the town is located the Great Machtesh (crater), one of the Negev’s major attractions. We could just make out the location of the crater’s edge.

Yeruham is the site of Tel Rahma, dating back to the 10th century BCE. On the outskirts of Yeruham is an ancient well, Be’er Rahma, which some archeologists believe is the well where Hagar drew water for her son Ishmael. In 1951, the town was founded as a “development town,” where new immigrants from Romania, North Africa, Iran, India and other non-Western countries were placed. A sea-change for Yeruham occurred when the former mayor of Haifa, Amram Mitzna, a reserve IDF general, served a 5-year term as mayor. Since then, the town has experienced revitalization and now has a population of 10,000. It is benefiting from the general growth in the Negev and its location just a half-hour’s drive from Beersheba.

At this point in our hike we circled to the right of the park, first descending and then beginning a series of long climbs up to another summit, from which we could see a second desert town, Dimona. The 360 degree panorama from the summit was fabulous. We were rewarded on the trail with several viewings of nearly-hidden yellow crocuses, one of four varieties of the flower, which only grow in several, choice spots in the region. This particular variety is called the Helmonit crocus, deriving from the Hebrew for egg yolk. These varieties were thought to be extinct, but are now recognized as endangered.

Soon we began our decline towards the park. When we eventually reached it, Reuven pointed out the tamarisk trees which had encroached on the perimeter of the lake, similar to what one sees at Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). He explained that since the lake ws revived by a new sewage plant, it became suitable for introducing fish and recreational fishing.

We soon returned to our bus for the ride north. Of course, we made the obligatory stop for coffee at a cafe along the road. Besides enjoying the exercise and the magnificent views, we had learned that the Negev is becoming something more than a large training area for the IDF. Now it is a significant factor in modern Israel, with the government, the IDF, the local communities, the KKL/JNF and the environmental NGOs driving its growth.