Water and Settlements
In 1937, the British Peel Commission, an entity formed to investigate unrest in Mandatory Palestine, announced a plan to partition the territory into three bodies to be governed independently by Jewish, Arab, and British leaders. As a result, the entirety of the Naqab/Negev region was placed under Arab rule, and Jewish individuals and organizations were later restricted from acquiring any land in the desert. In response, the nonprofit Jewish Agency for Palestine developed a strategic plan to purchase and settle the desert. Illegally establishing the first Jewish settlement, the group quickly set up a string of experimental settlements to acquire land, to test the response of British colonial institutions to Jewish expansion, and to conduct a scientific study on the climatological, water, soil, and agricultural potentialities of the Naqab/Negev.
While this settlement plan was being developed, in February 1937, a small company called Mekorot was listed in the corporate registry of the British Mandate government. The company’s primary goal was to “implement and perform all the works and deeds needed or suitable for finding, collecting, selling, delivering, measuring, distributing and producing water.”
From that moment on, the colonization of the Naqab/Negev grew more dependent on a series of increasingly complex technological feats to bring water to the desert. Inspired by the diversion of the Colorado River to water the arid land of California and Arizona, Simcha Blass, a founder of Mekorot and its chief engineer and the inventor of modern drip irrigation, drew up a plan for the first modern aqueduct to bring water from the Jordan River in the north deep into the Naqab/Negev.
The project’s first pipes were installed in 1947, and were inaugurated with public installations, exhibitions, and celebrations. The water project resulted not only in the expansion of settlements thereafter, but eventually helped to influence a change to the partition of Palestine. The 1947 UN partition plan—set out the same year—considered the Naqab/Negev a part of the Jewish state.
DESERT FUTURES SCENARIOS FOR
To the Negev
After retiring with his wife to a small wooden hut in Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Naqab/Negev, David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, noted in his memoir that “The Negev has given me time and perspective to look back on Israel’s modern redemption.” He continued:
The Negev’s very bareness is a blessing in disguise. What treasures do the sands conceal? We must focus attention on the systematic investigation of forces, known or latent, that can make the Negev thrive. For without the settlement of this region, we simply don’t have the “elbow room”—a term used by the American pioneer Daniel Boone to describe his own need to push ever westward into that continent’s unexplored wilderness—to make Israel economically independent and militarily secure [...] we can attain it, by moving a good segment of the population here and cultivating the land.
About Sde Boker Ben-Gurion wrote: “We have created this green spot in accordance with the Biblical injunction that man must comport himself in the spirit of his maker who created the Earth. The desert is a reproach to mankind. It is criminal waste in a world that cannot feed its population.” He then added, “I am against big cities. They bring out the worst in men.”
Succeeding national leaders and military generals, such as Moshe Dayan and Ariel Sharon, were also enchanted by the desert, and led the Israeli armed forces to annex large swaths of the desert from Egypt in the interest of Israeli settlement in the area. Like Ben-Gurion, who wrote that “anyone who believes you can’t change history has never tried to write his memoirs,” Dayan was obsessed with history. He spent his free time in archaeological digs, recovering, seizing, and reinterpreting antiquity and thus conquering both land and its history. Sharon, meanwhile, built himself a ranch in the Negev and conceived several master plans to colonize the landscape by introducing, among other of his ideas, a series of national parks, agricultural development strategies, and individual settlement schemes. With the Naqab/Negev situated between two seas, the Red and Mediterranean, that connect the country to Africa and Asia in the south and Europe in the North, the desert was also an important strategic conquest.
In Hebrew, “Negev” is the word for south
In its present isolation, it constitutes
a national weak point and danger zone.
But here also lies Israel greatest hope
for the future
This [settling the Negev] is a vital part
of our redemption in Israel
For in the end, as man gains mastery
over Nature he gains it also over
That is the sense, and mot a mystical
but practical one, in which I define
our redemption here.
It is one to be attained in the desert
David Ben-Gurion, Memoirs, 1970
The Unrecognized Villages
The Naqab/Negev region’s harsh desert climate, water scarcity, and barren landscapes have long made human and other species’ survival challenging. Dependent on their deep knowledge of the desert’s climate and ecologies, however, nomadic cultures have been nonetheless able to inhabit the area for millennia, surviving by way of frequent and rhythmic migration and by the operation of important trade routes between the various cultures that border the desert. The inhabitants of the Naqab/Negev, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Arabian and Sahara Deserts moved all sorts of resources from east to west and back, connecting the Maghreb with the Arabian Peninsula, linking Africa with Europe and Asia, and thereby co-pollinating the exchange of knowledge and culture across regions. To this day, some of these peoples’ migratory flows transcend the logic of the nation-state and its fixed borders.
Despite David Ben-Gurion’s evocation of “unexplored wilderness,” he, Dayan, and Sharon did not overlook the Naqab/Negev’s local indigenous population, the Bedouins, who had lived in this region for millennia, in attaching the desert to the core of the project of Zionism. Years before the Israeli state was established, in the 1930s, Ben-Gurion declared that “Negev land is reserved for Jewish citizens whenever and wherever they want. We must expel the Arabs and take their place.” Several decades later, Dayan changed tack:
We should transform the Bedouins into an urban proletariat—in industry, services, construction, and agriculture. Eighty-eight percent of the Israeli population are not farmers; let the Bedouins be like them…. Indeed, this will be a radical move which means that the Bedouin would not live on his land with his herds, but would become an urban person who comes home in the afternoon and puts his slippers on. His children would be accustomed to a father who wears trousers, does not carry a Shabaria [a traditional Bedouin knife], and does not search for vermin in public. This would be a revolution, but it may be fixed within two generations. Without coercion but with government direction, this phenomenon of the Bedouins will disappear.
To this day, more than eighty villages go unrecognized by the state, and the majority of them, including the twin villages of Atir and Umm al-Hiran, are located in the Naqab/Negev. Despite that many predate the establishment of Israel, they are considered informal; they have no presence on state maps. Inhabitants are denied access to grazing rights and basic services; their homes are under constant threat of demolition and frequently need to be rebuilt. As this aerial photograph reveals, Atir and Umm al-Hiran are also under threat due to the development of a new city to their north and to the expansion of a nearby national park. In the image, traces of past demolitions are visible around newly rebuilt homes.
The map above shows the distribution of the different Beduin localities in the Naqab/Negev area. Each color indicates another tribe. The seven hatched zones mark areas designated for constructing new towns aimed at displacing the Beduin localities from their current locations and concentrating them in semi-urban zones, which are easy to control and manage. Map by the Supervision Unit of Israel’s Ministry of Interior Affairs.
In the 1970s, while serving as Israel’s Minister of Agriculture, Sharon declared much of the Negev a nature reserve, thereby restricting the access of Bedouin herders to grazing fields. His newly established Green Patrol would police the reserves, going on to quickly displace ninety Bedouin localities and effectively cut Bedouin herds by a third, transforming the ecology of the desert. Around the same time, the government launched the construction of the first seven new Arab towns to be erected since 1948. These urban townships, or concentration sites, were designed to receive the populations of those many villages that the state aimed to entirely uproot from their land. Villagers who refused to move into these townships still struggle to keep their homes and to survive against continuous state violence. Those thousands of Bedouins that did move into the newly planned concentration townships complain about the quality of built space and regret their decisions as access to services such as water, electricity, roads, and sewage remains a struggle. Jewish settlements, meanwhile, have continued to be platted and built across the Naqab/Negev. Regardless of these settlements’ isolated locations, they are categorically well connected to state services such as water, sewage, and electricity grids.
Women’s Tents and
Located in the Naqab/Negev, the Women’s Tents and Care Gardens project was designed to create a typology for a commons infrastructure—a figurative oasis—that could bring together and create a support system for Bedouin women from unrecognized villages.
Given Bedouins’ desire to remain on their land and the lingering potential for their villages’ destruction, the proposed design is a semi-permanent structure consisting of a removable above-ground tent structure and a permanent in-ground base that hosts a gathering space, planters, and a loom. Inspired by a traditional Bedouin tent, the commons typology would facilitate ongoing Bedouin cultural practices including weaving, the cultivation of traditional plants, and the women-led construction of tents.
These structures would be located next to existing places of communal significance to the Bedouins, such as wells and cisterns, where they would be easily accessible from nearby unrecognized villages.
Women’s Tents and Care Gardens as commons infrastructure by Melissa Brady, Annette Chan, and Chloé Levesque was developed as part of the postgraduate studio Desert Futures. Scenarios for Decolonization taught by Malkit Shoshan in the spring of 2022 at Carleton School of Architecture.
The tent’s fabric would be made from a woven textile, encouraging the Bedouin women to continue practicing their tradition of weaving through fabricating and repairing the tent. Through integrated elements including energy collection, water harvesting, and gardening, the commons typology aims to foster self-sufficiency and a return to the nomadic lifestyle for Bedouin women.
While Bedouin livelihoods are being destroyed, Jewish settlements are being planned and built across the Naqab/Negev. Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon’s strategy to intensify the transformation and colonization of the desert included the construction of dozens of new Jewish individual farms or settlements to serve as land guards. Despite their isolated locations, these sites were quickly connected to state water, sewage, and electricity services upon approval of the plan. Nearby Bedouin villages continue to be kept off the grid.
The desert landscape is highly political and highly politicized. Its capture and exclusive domination by the nation-state stand in sharp contrast to those very natural and cultural connections that once formed and composed the active, living ecology of the desert.
The Individual Farm
Individual settlements, also known as individual or lone farms, were first proposed in 1997 by the Green Patrol and approved by then Infrastructure Minister Sharon. Considered land guards, these farms are distributed throughout Palestinian-populated areas, covering more than 8,000 hectares of land in total.Though they can be found across the country, the majority of them, about fifty-six, are located in the Naqab/Negev.
Rematriation: Commoning the Naqab/Negev represents an attempt to transform and decolonize Carmei Avdat, an individual farm along Road 40 that is situated next to the unrecognized village of Abdih. Following the values of rematriation and care through commoning, the proposed scenario focuses on indigenous ecological systems, on addressing desertification and increased agricultural growth, and on aims of endangered species’ flourishing. The scenario encourages a multispecies cohabitation and cooperation that nourishes care both of the land and of those who share it. It proposes strategies for commoning, regenerative reproduction, and spiritual growth for individuals, communities, and for more-than-human species alike.
Rematriation: Commoning the Naqab/Negev is a project by Connor Tamborro, Dana Manstrangelo and Robert Oleksiak developed as part of the postgraduate studio: Desert Futures. Scenarios for Decolonization taught by Malkit Shoshan in the spring of 2022 at Carleton School of Architecture.
Arbitrarily drawn national borders divide ecoregions and natural ecologies by many artificial means. The shape of Israel’s southern border with Egypt is a legacy of old colonial powers, currently reinforced by fences, ditches, control towers, and high-tech surveillance apparatuses. It demonstrates the frictions between the spatiality of political borders, single-purpose, large-scale infrastructure, and the environment. Along this border, Highway 10, a 113-mile long road that cuts through the desert region, presses the border between Israel and Egypt deep into the soil. Here, multiple layers of hard and soft security infrastructure converge, from fences, barbed wire, and cleared buffer zones some few hundred meters wide to human patrols, high-tech sensors, cameras, and other surveillance devices.
The border infrastructure includes a 245-kilometer barrier stretching from the Israeli city of Eilat in the south to the Gaza-Israel border in the north. Originally constructed to curb the large influx of illegal migrants from African countries into Israel, the steel barrier was upgraded to include cameras, radars, observation towers, motion detectors, barbed wire, and 24/7 monitoring by rapid-response teams following an increase in militant activity in the area. Further extensions of the border infrastructure take place on either side of its demarcation, in military buffer zones. On the Israeli side, Highway 10, extending nearly the entirety of the border, is under a military security advisory and is almost permanently off-limits to civilian traffic.
Regularly occurring outposts on the Egyptian side and even fewer outposts located on the Israel side animate the desert’s otherwise barren landscapes. The border infrastructure extends up to a kilometer laterally, but its effects extend far beyond that. An understanding of the flows the border unintentionally disrupts and the flows it could eventually affect—along with knowledge of that which has created a need for the invasive border infrastructure—outlines a problem an intervention could help to balance. The division of a continuous and unified landscape has left a visible scar along its borderline, arbitrarily dividing its connective elements, which can no longer function as part of an ecosystem. This division has created stresses on both sides of the border, resulting in overgrazing, scarce resources, and a loss of biodiversity. The situation will become critical in this high-risk border region as the climate crisis, the effects of which are already being seen in the region, continues to worsen.
Mapping of ecological and social flows at several scales reveals that movements of various degrees extend well beyond the boundaries of Israel, reaching into the Sinai Peninsula, the greater Arabian Peninsula, to the Sahara desert, and beyond.
The borderland currently comprises military buffer zones, with defense and surveillance infrastructure cutting through and further dividing the landscape. In this proposed scenario featuring ecological infrastructural interventions and retrofits, the buffer zone is flipped: maintaining its military requirements, the territory becomes an ecological buffer zone. Existing infrastructure is retrofitted and adapted to accommodate fauna and flora in the region. New interventions are added to the otherwise barren landscape to create opportunities to stabilize and foster the ecology of the region. The various scales of this intervention, ranging from the dune to the tower to the border wall, all include low-tech, low-impact processes and are intended to create opportunities for the biotic to transform the landscape over time, in phases. These interventions would be situated within nature reserves, with the Holot Agur nature reserve as the primary area of focus, but would expand in time across Highway 10 and into Egypt. With these interventions in place, the border region will be better equipped and more resilient to the effects of the worsening climate crisis.
The border wall, originally conceived to be an impermeable divide, is retrofitted to foster life on both sides of the border, while still maintaining its function. The existing rebar becomes a growing medium for climbing plants. A water catchment system is added within the structural framework of the wall, with a polypropylene mesh set within that framework capturing moisture from the air. The water is then delivered to water basins spread along the wall and soil beds, with biochar and mycelium added to the soil to increase its moisture content and nutrient retention. This living threshold creates opportunities for shading, drinking, and grazing through low-cost, low-tech intervention. This logic extends throughout the ecological buffer zone, creating opportunities for the biotic to flourish and take over the border region, where it had originally contributed to its destruction and division. The intervention marks a reversal in claim over the threshold landscape.
Thresholds Reimagined is a project by Natasha Lemire-Waite, Cameron Penney, and Sarah Fahmy developed as part of the postgraduate studio: Desert Futures. Scenarios for Decolonization taught by Malkit Shoshan in the spring of 2022 at Carleton School of Architecture.
In early 2000, a new large-scale infrastructure project was built in Ashalim, near Kibbutz Sde Boker, that spreads over ten square kilometers and includes an obelisk-like tower 260 meters tall. Bringing together three kinds of energy production—solar thermal, photovoltaic, and natural gas—the impressively bright salt tower, surrounded by a field of mirrors and powered by the sun, can be seen from across the desert. This out-of-scale installation, producing enough energy to support 120,000 households, represents the future of energy infrastructure in the desert.