I won’t keep you in suspense; let me explain this article’s rather curious title. Red or Blue are the colors of Israel Railways trains. They are an environmentally friendly way to travel through our beautiful countryside. Green is the color of Egged buses, a lot better than they used to be, but still polluting behemoths.
Yesterday four of us, senior citizens with time on our hands, took the train from Rehovot to Dimona, had a pleasant lunch and returned to Rehovot. It was an interesting experience, starting at the station ticket office. We were greeted by a smiling clerk – Four Senior Citizens to Dimona, please. Her face changed to a look of astonishment and suspicion – You want to go where! Sadly, she was not at all surprised to find that we were senior citizens.
We persuaded her that we really did want to go to Dimona and each handed over 16 Shekels for the 125 kilometer journey. (We recently travelled a similar distance by train in Switzerland; it was more than ten times that price.)
At Ramle, talk turned to the much-discussed high-speed railway to Eilat. We recalled that, in late 1916, at the height of WWI, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force of British and British Empire units was formed. The EEF began building the standard gauge Sinai Military Railway across the Sinai desert from El Kantara on the Suez Canal. They reached Ramle in early 1918. That’s one and a half years, more or less, working by hand without any heavy equipment.
The line to Eilat is taking a little longer. The first plans were made after the 1948 war, but were cancelled in 1952 over security concerns. In 1955, Ben-Gurion agreed to build the line, but the plans were put on hold by the Suez Crisis. Plans were again discussed in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. In the 1990s and 2000s, most transportation ministers promised to build the railway. In 2010 the government approved construction of the railway to Eilat. I suspect that when my four-year old grandson eventually gets to take the first train to Eilat he will be able to use his Senior Citizen card.
However, on the lines that do exist, the trains were on-time, clean and comfortable. A table between the seats allowed us to spread our newspapers, and even enjoy a hand of bridge. The electronic destination boards at the ends of each carriage all showed the correct destinations. I still remember that for several weeks after Israel Railways first received the IC3 train sets from Denmark, in the early nineties, the displays read “Merry Christmas”. Back then, nobody knew how to re-program the display’s computer. Now, as we made a brief stop at Kiryat Gat, home of Intel’s multi-billion-dollar chip production plant, we wondered how many Intel Israel chips are used to run our train.
We changed trains again at Beer Sheva. As we took the underground passage between the platforms, we were reminded that we were in Israel and not our train’s Danish homeland; each entrance to the passage is fitted with massive, bomb-proof doors making a shelter large enough for hundreds of passengers.
For the last leg of our journey, from Beer Sheva to Dimona, we had our own personal train. In the single unit, half passenger carriage, half locomotive, we were alone except for the security guard who also served as the ticket inspector and Dimona restaurant consultant!
However, this 25-minute journey to Dimona was a worrying revelation. From time to time, there are news articles or television reports on the unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev. These unrecognized villages have been built without permission and are, therefore, not recognized by the state. They receive no municipal services, such as garbage collection, and are not connected to the national electricity grid or water supply. They have no municipalities and do not take part in local government.
There are various estimates as to the number of such communities. The actual figures are unknown; as of July 2013, there are no updated official statistics for the number of Bedouin living outside officially recognized communities. Some sources claim that the Bedouin, who make up about 2% of Israeli’s population, now occupy more than 10 percent of the country. This huge area, mainly to the north and east of Beer Sheva, has started to spread towards Mount Hebron and south to Dimona.
But the dry facts and figures had not prepared us for the reality as we looked from our train window. As far as the eye can see, nothing but ramshackle huts, small animal pens, and rubbish dumps. An almost biblical scene with, as the only concession to modernity, an occasional array of photoelectric panels generating electricity. The loss of the Negev was there for all to see.
Finally, two hours and twenty minutes after leaving Rehovot, we pulled into Dimona exactly on time. We exited the station and stared in amazement; the Egged bus to Dimona town center had just left and was already a couple of hundred meters down the road and accelerating fast. We could have called for a taxi but, fortunately, it was a beautiful spring day and we spent a pleasant half-hour walking into town; as senior citizens, we were not in a hurry.
Dimona town center was a surprise; a mix of modern squares and ancient market streets. We easily found the restaurant recommended by our ticket inspector and were soon enjoying an excellent all-in lunch-time special for 50 Shekels. The restaurant owner, hearing our accents, asked if we were tourists from chutz la’aretz, from abroad. From Rehovot, we replied. She laughed – as I thought, she said, chutz la’aretz! When we explained that we had come down just for the ride, and lunch, she brought us an extra helping of fried eggplant.
After lunch it was time to return. There was no convenient train back to Beer Sheva so we were forced to take an air polluting, road-destroying, green monster to Beer Sheva station (five shekels). We had been through Beer Sheva bus station many times over the years but had not been there for a long time. We were quite unprepared for the modern terminal mixed into a vast shopping mall. A quick stroll around before walking across a fountain-filled square to the railway station, and our train back to Rehovot, was a pleasant reminder of just how far our country has come since we arrived way back in 1970.