“There are states that have an army and there are armies, like the IDF, that have a state.” Ordinarily, when I read an article that starts like that, I assume it is yet another tirade against the overt militarism of Israel and Israeli society and I don’t think much of it. This piece (in Hebrew) from this week’s The Marker, however, is not part of that trend. It is about the IDF’s near-monopoly on land in Israel and is actually filed under the real estate section of a financial publication.
Despite the fact that over the past two decades, Israel has been implementing a series of national and district plans, the IDF is somewhat of “a separate kingdom” within Israel, exempt from such progress. A recent study shows that the IDF controls nearly half of the land in Israel, adding up to a lot more than half of uninhabited land. The study, titled “A Land in Khaki: Land and Security in Israel,” by geographers Amiram Oren and Rafi Regev, sheds some light on the relationship between the security establishment and land use in Israel.
According to the study, during the early years of the state the IDF used primarily old British bases. With time, more and more areas were turned over to the IDF for training purposes, and at the same time more army bases were established. The IDF is able to do so through a special planning process, in the small Knesset Military Facilities Planning Committee, whose minutes are all classified.
Nearly all of the land in use by the IDF is for training, not for bases and regular operations. The total area of these lands is over 2 million acres, taking up approximately a third of Israel’s total area, and covering nearly two-thirds of the Negev.
According to the study, due to the nature of approval process and the stature of the IDF within Israel, there is no civilian oversight with regards to the area and location of lands allocated to the security establishment. Approval tends to be granted without any real inquiry regarding actual necessity of additional land.
However unfortunate, all of this is standard operating procedure in many parts of the public sector. But that is not all. The study implies that not all of the areas allocated to the IDF are intended for present-day use, and that the IDF holds onto land for the future, specifically in places where future demand for residential development is expected. One example of this is large base in Tzrifin, where the IDF lobbied for a change in the status of the land from agricultural to urban, thereby increasing its financial leverage in preparation for the move of the base to the Negev. The security establishment is very easily able to obtain control of land in Israel, even when non-security interests are the motive, while throughout the rest of Israel there is a shortage of land.
The situation in the Negev is no better. With all the talk about developing the Negev (and the Galil) and not abandoning the periphery, anyone who’s driven through the south knows that, regardless of the political obstacles to such moves, things are not as simple than that. As the map below shows (darker areas are training, or firing, zones), the Negev is not really civilian region. The sides of many of the highways have signs warning you not venture off the road into Firing Zones.
The Ministry of Defense, in typical fashion, has responded that it abides by the law and it acting to replace IDF bases outside of the cities. That is all well and nice, but when the IDF lobbies on issues that are irrelevant to IDF interests, only in order to get more money, it makes things much more difficult, financially. Not to mention that any oversight is all classified and apparently either non-existent or wholly ineffective. Clearly something needs to change.
I am not a military expert and I’m not saying that IDF operational priorities need to change. However, as anyone who has served in the IDF will tell you, the army is incredibly wasteful. The amount of money budgeted for security that is simply thrown out of the window is simply mind-boggling. The security establishment in Israel, at the very least, needs to learn how to not waste water and electricity, to use less paper, and not to make 10 times the amount of food it actually needs. From a financial perspective, those should be the priorities, not how to maximize profit based on current possession of lands.
When it comes to the IDF, in many respects there really is a kingdom inside a state. As in many other parts of the public sector, oversight is sorely lacking. Lands need to be used to develop the Jewish State, and a solution, integrating this goal with the IDF’s real need for training areas, is long overdue.