Wednesday, July 20, 2011


A More Than Peripheral Challenge

In a country where the sky is mostly blue and the sun mostly shines the southernmost city of Eilat has nonetheless laid claim – with justification – to being Israel's sun capital. Reliable good weather does not, however, solve all problems. Eilat has been inundated with illegal, mostly Eritrean and Sudanese, immigrants. Its airport is antiquated; there is no rail service, and many of its young people can't wait to move out.

In July, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened a high-powered committee charged with finding ways to rehabilitate Eilat's transportation, education, tourism and cultural infrastructure. This committee has all the right players: the premier's loyal cabinet secretary; ministers of Education and Finance, as well as the ministers of Negev & Galilee Development, Transportation, Tourism, Interior and Culture & Sports. They are joined by Eilat Mayor Meir Yitzhak Halevy and Prof. Eugene Kandel, chairman of the National Economic Council.

When in 1947 the UN voted to create an Arab and a Jewish state in Palestine it gave Eilat to nascent Israel. The Arabs rejected partition so Israeli forces had to capture, on March 10, 1949, the desolate though strategic spot. Settled out of Negev badlands, Eilat was incorporated as a municipality in 1952 for just several thousand souls. Commuter buses serving Eilat were murderously set upon by Fedayeen gangs from Gaza and Jordan. Water had to be piped in though by the 1960s revolutionary desalination plants began providing for the bulk of the city's water needs.
A less than picturesque port was developed which became crucial to Israel's trade with Africa and Asia and for oil imports from Iran. In 1956 and again in 1967 Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran (where the Gulf of Eilat opens into the Red Sea) to Israeli shipping. This unlawful blockade contributed to the outbreak of both the Sinai Campaign and the Six Day War.

Eilat's port now handles about six percent of Israel's maritime trade. By government fiat, cars produced in the Far East must enter Israel via Port Eilat making this commerce the facility's main source of income and providing jobs for 130 longshoremen. The Finance Ministry is in the process of privatizing the port while the Eilat committee is weighing a plan to relocate the docks in order to expand the hotel district. Meantime, pollution from the port has repeatedly closed area beaches. A not well maintained oil pipeline that connects Eilat to Haifa recently punctured causing substantial environmental damage north of the city.

Eilat's early bad rap as an "ill-planned honky-tonk" town notwithstanding, the city has blossomed over the decades. Branding itself as the place where the sun, desert and sea meet, Eilat has been thriving as an ideal vacation destination offering a wide range of hotels (12,000 rooms) and an assortment of recreational activities from diving and snorkeling to parasailing and duty-free shopping. Budget conscious Israelis may complain that it is cheaper to take a packaged vacation abroad but Europeans, especially, find the city a good value. Geographically, Eilat is only 170 miles (280 kilometers) from Tel Aviv. Looking out from the Gulf of Eilat and the Red Sea a visitor can glance simultaneously at the Egyptian Sinai, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Tel Aviv's humidity is replaced by Eilat's dry desert climate. The area is just far enough away from the country's center to be designated as a wartime evacuation point in the event of an all-out war. In the main, the city has been spared wartime violence even during the gruesome second intifada. That said three Israelis were murdered in 2007 in a suicide bombing of a bakery and the city has also been the occasional target of rocket attacks.

Eilat has a small modern pier terminal which accommodates about 10,000 passenger arrivals a year. It's the southern terminus of the 580-mile long Israel Trail, but most visitors come by land transportation. Tens of thousands of European tourists arrive on charter flights to Ovda Airport, part of a military airbase north of the city; others arrive on shuttle flights to Eilat Airport from Ben-Gurion Airport. The IDF is not thrilled to share its airspace with commercial planes and the downtown Eilat field has outgrown its location. So Netanyahu has approved building new airport – to be named after Ilan Ramon – just north of Eilat in the copper mining Timna Valley district, to accommodate both domestic and international arrivals.

Still, even a casual visitor will notice what permanent residents cannot escape. There are an estimated 8,000 illegal immigrants among Eilat's population of 56,000 (7,500 of whom are new immigrants). Hundreds more African workers have been legalized for employment in the hotel industry. One has just become South Sudan's consul in Israel.

To be clear: Most serious crimes in Eilat are committed by Israelis, but with 14 percent of the total population consisting of poverty-stricken Africans, and 80% of the citizenry employed by the tourist industry, Eilat can't afford losing its image as a carefree vacation destination. The municipality is now under criticism from leftwing campaigners for having set up special school for foreign pupils rather than absorbing them somehow in the municipal system. In this context, Eilat's citizens are hoping Netanyahu fulfils his pledge to accelerate construction of a fence along the Negev-Sinai border to block illegal immigration and terrorist infiltration.

Locals will be watching to see what tangible steps the government takes to upgrade roads leading to the city. What is most needed is the government's promised rail link to Eilat via Beersheba from Tel Aviv. Netanyahu has also spoken of a rail link to Ashdod which would mean that passengers (and freight) could move between Israel's Red Sea and Mediterranean ports. "That will change Israel forever," Netanyahu said.

The city has been fortunate to have the support of the organized North American Jewish community which has invested in its school system. Now, 72% of high school students have passed their higher education matriculation exams (up from 27%). In 2002, Ben-Gurion University of Beersheba began operating a local campus serving 700 students with dorm facilities funded by the UJA. Locals who have completed their IDF service are eligible for tuition-free study. Philanthropic support has also enabled Josephtal Hospital to provide state-of-the-art emergency services.

Of course, Eilat is no newcomer to Jewish history. It is mentioned in the Bible (Deut. 2:8) in connection with the wonderings of the Israelites out of Egypt and Solomon's creation of a "navy of ships" (I Kings 9:26;). Jews held on to a hardscrabble existence there possibly until Crusader times.

Netanyahu has pledged to "jump Eilat forward." Not only Eilat, but other development towns settled in the 1950s in border and rural areas up and down Israel are hoping this promise is not made to be broken. At stake is meeting the perennial Zionist challenge of linking, finally, the center to the periphery.

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