With Gaza cease-fire, south Israel blossoms

AP News
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Posted: Dec 14, 2009 12:01 AM

Until less than a year ago, Nahal Oz was a place to stay away from or risk being hit by rockets from neighboring Gaza. Since then, 10 new families have moved in.

The village's sudden population spike to 320 inhabitants epitomizes a renaissance in southern Israel, driven largely by the cease-fire that followed Israel's war on the Palestinian rocket squads. Real estate prices are booming, shopping malls are being built and the population is growing.

The three-week Israeli campaign in Gaza launched on Dec. 27 drew harsh international condemnation and threats of war crimes prosecutions over the hundreds of Palestinian civilians killed.

But most Israelis see it as the only means they had of ending eight years of rocket attacks on Nahal Oz and other nearby towns and villages.

After Ronit Goldberg's husband lost his job in high-tech and life in central Israel became too expensive, the family of four looked for a new start. They found it last summer in Nahal Oz.

This used to be a place where few days passed without people having to dash to air-raid shelters. Now, it's a quiet village with open spaces, down-to-earth neighbors and affordable housing. The only thing Goldberg hears from Gaza these days is calls to prayer at the mosques in Gaza City.

"Central Israel has become a place for rich people; the south is a place you can grow, a place with potential," said Goldberg, 39, as she cradled her 2-month-old son Noam, born in Nahal Oz.

The quiet in the south comes as the Palestinians in the West Bank are also experiencing an economic improvement brought on in part by a relaxation of Israeli security measures. Although they are not related, the twin upticks are rare morale-boosters at a time when the U.S.-brokered peace effort is stalled, the Palestinians are furious over Israeli settlement-building, and Israelis fear a nuclear threat from Iran.

The improvements are a dramatic contrast to Gaza, where 1.4 million Palestinians are still recovering from the war. A tight Israeli embargo hampers reconstruction by preventing glass, concrete and other materials from entering. With Gaza ruled by the Islamic militants of Hamas and falling ever deeper into poverty, a new round of violence could explode at any time.

"There is an uplifting feeling now. But we are definitely aware that it might not last a long time," said Carolina Aram, a veteran of Nahal Oz.

"The security threat exists, but it is dangerous everywhere ... the whole country is one big border."

Since the Gaza war ended, 105 families have moved to 11 communities here, said Michal Shaban-Kotzer, spokeswoman for the regional council. Before the war, new arrivals were rare, she said.

Sarit Artzi, 34, who moved to the village of Kfar Aza with her husband and three children in July, said she knows many people who would like to join them but can't find homes because of the high demand.

"There are hardly any vacancies," she said. "We were drawn here because of the quality of life and that attracts a lot of young couples."

A year ago, the frequent fire from Gaza forced Oded Etinger to move his family from Kfar Aza to another village out of rocket range for six months. The tipping point had come when rockets fell and he couldn't find his 10-year-old son. The boy had found cover in a shelter, he discovered later.

"He managed just fine, but I didn't," he said.

Now the family is back and enjoying the quiet. "We appreciate what this place offers more now _ the comfort, the feeling of home," said Etinger, 46.

In nearby Sderot, the town that was the rockets' biggest target, shops and markets are filled, and children who were conditioned to stay close to home and shelters now roam the streets.

At Sapir College, where a student was killed last year by a rocket that hit the parking lot, enrollment has since grown by 11 percent.

Sderot spokeswoman Sima Gal said real estate prices have increased 20 to 30 percent. The town engineer, Yoav Lapidot, said the building of 1,400 new homes has been approved, after years of no construction.

Farther south lies the Negev Desert, where generations of idealistic Zionists dreamed of making the wilderness bloom, but which in reality has suffered from poverty, unemployment and government indifference.

Now a modern highway rolls into the heart of Beersheba, the Negev's capital, halving the drive from Tel Aviv to one hour.

New train tracks put the south in reach of larger centers of employment. An industrial park near Beersheba has added jobs, and Ben-Gurion University is drawing more intellectual talent to the Negev _ a region that covers more than half of Israel's territory.

The biggest boost will come with an ambitious program to move some major army bases from the north and center to the desert by 2013.

Cabinet Minister Avishai Braverman, a former president of Ben-Gurion University, said the military's move will draw a talented new generation to the desert.

"The military is the engine," he said. "People finally realize that the Negev's time has arrived."