BEERSHEBA, Israel — This city in the heart of the Negev desert was once a melting pot of Jewish immigration, teeming first with new arrivals from Arab lands, and then with Russian speakers. Today, it is fast becoming a high-tech hub. Soon, it will be populated by the military, drawing in career soldiers and their families.
The trend is part of a larger effort by the Israeli government to redress a population imbalance in which most of Israel’s highly trained, affluent young people prefer to live in Tel Aviv and its environs, while less-educated and poorer communities struggle to survive in the periphery.
The plan just might work in Beersheba, whose population of 246,000 people is expected to swell by 100,000 more in the coming years. The government’s hope is that the creation of an advanced tech park, aligned with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev — the fastest-growing university in Israel — and the relocation of the military’s elite tech units here will draw top talent and boost the nation’s economy.
The signs, some say, are promising.
On a recent day, Yoav Tzruya was in his office at JVP Cyber Labs, a venture-capital firm, on the first floor of a shiny building in the new technology park, Gav-Yam Negev. Here, JVP has nestled five fledgling firms, each picked for its potential to play defense against hackers. Each was given a cubicle with space for about four developers and several million dollars in seed money so that they can polish their products for the global cybersecurity market.
Tzruya, a partner in JVP, gestured toward the construction beyond his window. The military is building a new headquarters for its cyberdefense unit, replacing desert dunes with cement and steel. Ben-Gurion University, now the country’s leading cybersecurity university, is building new wings for biotech engineering, chemistry and archaeology.
The tech park already houses 45 firms, from global giants, such as Lockheed Martin, EMC, PayPal and Deutsche Telekom, to tech start-ups.
“We have a unique perfect storm opportunity — it all comes together here in Beersheba,” Tzruya said.
JVP has invested in 120 companies and a growing number are cyber-players, many located in Beersheba. They include Secret Double Octopus, which has come up with a way to protect emails, text messages and other digital communications without using traditional encryption; Morphisec, which aims to prevent attacks by turning the computer into a moving target; and CyActive, which uses bio-inspired algorithms to predict how malware will evolve and in 2015 was sold to PayPal.
The park is run by Gav-Yam Negev, a partnership that includes the university and the city. It all began 13 years ago when Deutsche Telekom was looking for a research and development center outside Germany. They chose Ben-Gurion University. Then the military decided to move its high-tech units to the Negev. And now the Israeli government has launched a cyber-emergency-response team that will soon be housed in the research park. The team will help protect the private sector against cyber threats.
The government is also offering grants to attract cyber-firms, paying up to 20 percent of their salary costs.
Initially, “the military did not want to move to the desert — not at all,” said Rivka Carmi, president of Ben-Gurion University. But “the fact that there was a university that was so strong in high-tech and cyber enabled them to sell the move to their people,” she said.
Beersheba’s mayor, Ruvik Danilovich, is excited about the city’s prospective transformation. It should bring great “socioeconomic and educational change,” he said, that will turn Beersheba into an “international, metropolitan center of innovation.”
Ellen Nakashima is a national security reporter for The Washington Post. She focuses on issues relating to intelligence, technology and civil liberties.
Excerpts from Washington Post: