HANEGEV, IsraeL // The Israeli military has begun construction of its largest-ever training base, moving operations from some of the country's priciest real estate to the barren sands in the south of the country.
The US$650 million (Dh2.4 billion) construction project is the military's biggest in three decades. Beginning in late 2014, 10,000 soldiers will be moved from their current quarters near Tel Aviv to the new base, which is located 30 kilometers south of the city of Beersheba.
The programme is designed to streamline combat support training in one place.
But critics question whether it will jumpstart the economy of the Negev region, as officials promise. They also note the project does not seem to offer any benefits to Arab Bedouin in the area.
Not since Israel pulled up its bases from Egypt's Sinai desert in the early 1980s has the military carried out a project of this scope in terms of the cost, the number of soldiers involved and the sheer physical size, said the project director Lt Col Shalom Alfassy.
Within two years, 250,800 square metres of construction is planned on the site, including barracks, hundreds of computerised classrooms, simulation sites and firing ranges.
The base will not train combat soldiers, but drivers, paramedics and other troops who would support them at the front. It will not draw operations from the main military headquarters in Tel Aviv.
The project is part of a broader move to relocate military facilities to the Negev. Alfassy said that about half of the bases in Israel's center will move to the region by the end of the decade.
The Negev accounts for over half of Israel's land mass but is home to just 8 percent of its 8 million people.
The military expects 200 to 300 career soldiers will move their families to the south to be near the base, boosting the economy as well as educational and medical services, said Lt Col Alfassy.
But Erez Tzfadia, the head of the department of public policy and administration at Sapir College in the Negev, scoffed at that notion.
"There are half a million people" in the area where the base is being built, he said. "Will 200 families of career soldiers really pull up the Negev?"