Can a cybersecurity center bloom in Israel’s Negev?


On the far east edge of sprawling Beersheva, a determined weed of a city within Israel’s southern desert expanse, a new school of Zionists — defense techies — are building a live-work hub with an increasingly relevant focus: cybersecurity.

“Ten years ago, if you were to convince an Israeli, ‘Let’s put money on Beersheva; let’s put the best cybersecurity center in the world in the middle of the desert,’ everybody would think you were a lunatic,” Nimrod Kozlovski, founder of Tel Aviv University’s cybersecurity graduate program and former captain of the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) electronic warfare unit, said during a November tour of the construction site. Although only one of 10 high-rises slated for the industrial park has been completed so far, Kozlovski and his cybersecurity startup incubator, JVP Cyber Labs, already have made a home in their ground-floor offices.

Nimrod Kozlovski, one of Israel’s most trusted cybersecurity experts, now runs a cybersecurity startup incubator called JVP Cyber Labs within the CyberSpark ecosystem. Photo by Simone Wilson

CyberSpark — as the park’s host of co-founders have named it — sits on a skewed triangular plot measuring about 20 acres. Its final form will be a jigsaw of sleek gray buildings filled with cybersecurity research and development (R&D) centers for hundreds of multinational companies, surrounded by some desert shrubbery and extras like a swanky conference center and a restaurant row. Perhaps most desirable, though, is its rare proximity — a few hundred feet up a grassy hill — to an IDF megabase that will, according to plan, combine all the army’s tech-related units from the Tel Aviv area into one well-oiled desert compound beginning next year. Each graduating class of cybersoldiers will double as a cornucopia of new hires for the companies next door.

“It’s like a high-tech company in itself,” said Ministry of Defense official Yonat Marton of the army’s new information technology (IT) base. Marton is head of civil infrastructure for a branch of the Ministry of Defense created for the sole purpose of moving troops south, the Southern Relocation Administration.

“We talked about making it like the Google campus,” she said. “We’re looking at what they built … trying to understand how the building is going to serve collaboration and everyday work.”

IDF graduates funneling into the CyberSpark brain pool will include experienced offensive “white-hat hackers” and defensive “cyber warriors,” Kozlovski said. “The army plays both parts. Because first of all, when you understand [your own] offensive intelligence-gathering capabilities — the potential of cyber — you also understand your vulnerability.”

It is this critical field training that has led veterans of the IDF’s high-tech units to launch game-changing cybersecurity companies like Check Point, Cyvera and CyberArk. And now, after a year of high-profile breaches like the one at Sony Pictures Entertainment, hundreds of multinational tech giants — really, every company with something to protect — are expected to tap into this feed of real-time IDF solutions by setting up their cybersecurity R&D centers on the cozy Beersheva campus. 

Cisco, EMC, IBM, Lockheed Martin, Deutsche Telekom and Oracle already have moved in or are on their way.

“On a monthly basis, we have another multinational company announcing that Israel will be their R&D center for cybersecurity,” said JVP Cyber Labs partner Kozlovski. “Some I cannot disclose on paper, but on a daily basis, we hear of companies from the Far East, companies from the E.U., interested in opening R&D centers for cybersecurity in Israel.”

Israel’s army-born expertise in both hacking and protecting digital information made it an early leader in the cybersecurity field, Kozlovski said — and could be what ends up making southern Israel indispensable.

“Many countries — like Estonia, for example — started to understand the importance of cyber after being hacked,” Kozlovski said. “In Israel, the story is reversed. Israel has very strong offensive capabilities in cyber because we really understood, early on, that asymmetric warfare was going to change the landscape of war.”

Kozlovski credits IDF legend Ehud Barak, who served as IDF chief of staff in the early 1990s and as defense minister from 2007 to 2012, with realizing that “cyber capabilities would be a game-changer — both for the intelligence corps and intelligence battery, and for ongoing monitoring of enemies’ communication.”

Said Kozlovski of Barak: “When he was a young soldier in the Special Forces, his particular unit was assigned with getting intelligence from across enemy lines. [Soldiers] would actually go in and implant tapping capabilities or surveillance capabilities. I think he understood that technology could replace a lot of the human activity. That if you could tap into communications lines, if you could — through smart hacking capabilities — get access to a lot of data, that would be a game-changer in the way you accumulate intelligence.”

Ever since the 1973 Yom Kippur War — “a crisis of intelligence” — the IDF has redesigned itself around its failings, Kozlovski explained. And now, he said, “Israeli intelligence is really centered around technology excellence. It’s about the capabilities to collect and analyze a lot of data, and it’s about the ability to make intelligence out of the data you collect — what we now would call big data analytics.”

Inside the JVP offices, entrepreneurs from a handful of cybersecurity startups sit in blue cubicles, glued to their computers. “This is old, traditional Zionism,” said Guy Moskowitz. He’s working on an app called CyberCanary that can block hackers and tappers from accessing your phone. “Coming here to Beersheva is something we always valued and wanted to do.”

In this ecosystem forming on the edge of Beersheva, JVP’s ground-floor incubator serves as the soil. Once its carefully selected startups have been through 12 to 18 months of incubation, the goal is for them to expand into their own corporate spaces on the floors above.

Another company currently in JVP’s incubation phase, SecBI, is led by three IDF graduates who all later went on to work at RSA, the security company contracted by Target. Doron Davidson, the company’s CEO, said he was inspired by Target’s infamous 2014 breach to write software that detects and automatically prioritizes cyberattacks in real time.

“So the poor analyst at Target who missed that attack, now he will have the tool to find it,” Davidson said.

Lockheed Martin, the single largest military supplier in the U.S. and one of the first to nab R&D offices at the campus, said in a statement to the Journal that the startup component was a huge draw.

“The small and medium enterprises located at the campus … are building many of the world’s foremost emerging cybersecurity technologies,” said a Lockheed Martin spokesman.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, like many before him, has used Negev settlement as a central campaign and legacy issue, said in his long-winded address to some 450 global industry leaders at the Israeli cybersecurity conference in January 2014: “The concentration of these exceptional institutions in a very small space … creates the possibility of a hub. Everybody knows everybody. Everybody competes with everybody. But everybody also cooperates with everybody.”

One day soon — by sometime in 2015, founders hope — a long white footbridge will connect CyberSpark to the Beersheva train station and to the Ben-Gurion University campus just across the tracks. But for now, the bridge piece is wedged into the sand across from CyberSpark like a great whale skeleton, barely peeking over a sheet-metal construction fence. On his tour, JVP Cyber Labs partner Kozlovski stopped to point out an old photo hung on the fence by the park’s contractor, Gav-Yam Negev. In it, Albert Einstein sits and chats with Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, perhaps best known for his Zionist dream to make the desert bloom. The two men smile; their hair is wild.

A Ben-Gurion quote is printed next to the picture. “In my opinion,” it reads, “there is one mission that is not of any one moment, but of a generation: Immigration to Israel and the revival of the Negev. We can achieve this through two of the qualities with which we are blessed: a pioneering spirit and scientific excellence.”

Desert rush

Over many decades and Ben-Gurion-inspired campaigns to lure Israelis to the desert, science (at Ben-Gurion University) and industry (mostly the low-tech kind) have slowly built up Beersheva.

But the trickle of Zionists heading south is nowhere near the exodus promised by Ben-Gurion — 2 million Jews by 2020 — and his long line of dream-keepers. In 2005, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon envisioned 900,000 southern residents by 2015. (At this point, realizing his vision would require an influx of more than 200,000 people within the next year.)

So, where all else has failed, recent administrations have called in the IDF.

“The government looked for a project that could really change the face of the Negev — a sustainable change,” said Marton from the Ministry of Defense.

Change came in the form of a $5 billion plan for a fleet of new desert military bases that will host tens of thousands of employees — some of them commuters, but hopefully some of them new locals. The Ministry of Defense announced in 2011 that it was launching a “national effort to strengthen the Negev through relocating the army bases, the elite units and the relocation of quality personnel and their families to the Negev.”

In addition to the IDF tech base at CyberSpark, two other major bases are currently under construction within a 15-mile radius of Beersheva. 

One is a training campus for young soldiers so massive it’s being called Ir HaDahadim, Hebrew for “the city of training bases.” It will bring around 10,000 soldiers each day to the deep south to train for their specific unit or specialty — administration, medicine, logistics and munitions, to name a few.

The other is more secretive: Ministry of Defense officials plan to build a 1,200-acre consolidation of all the sub-units under Unit 8200, Israel’s storied intelligence division, along the road from Beersheva to Dimona. Within its walls, there will be paved streets, dining facilities and apartments alongside IDF data centers and intelligence-gathering facilities.

In total, the three bases are expected to draw more than 30,000 soldiers southward — 7,000 of them well-paid career soldiers in high-ranking positions, half of those with families.

“We are working with those officers, and we are bringing them to the Negev so they can see the opportunities and maybe buy or rent a house,” Marton said. She could not provide numbers on how many actually have agreed to make the move yet, but she said the Ministry of Defense is collaborating with Negev municipalities and real-estate developers to build attractive, middle-to-upper-class Jewish neighborhoods near the bases.

Among their properties: a residential tower in the nicest part of Beersheva; a plot of land in brand-new Negev settlement of Carmit; and Zahala Yeruham, an upscale neighborhood in Yeruham modeled after Zahala Tel Aviv (also built for army families upon the establishment of Israel).

In order to push units, a federal public relations campaign has attempted to conquer the drab vision of Beersheva and environs as a remote planet for factory workers, brave kibbutzniks and prime ministers with wild hair. 

A Ministry of Defense promo video posted to YouTube shows a handsome IDF pilot in uniform, praising the Negev. Out his living-room window is a stunning view of the new 8200 base; on his couch, a wife and two kids. According to Haaretz, another video, screened at a January  2014 conference encouraging IDF family men to make the move, promised: “The Negev offers a young, pleasurable social life, academic studies and lots of freedom … all the possibilities are open to you.”

Attendees also reportedly received a photo book titled “My Negev” and a booklet outlining the ample benefits and subsidies available for IDFers who agree to go south. (The Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee alone, Haaretz wrote, put up more than $1 million for the financial breaks.)

But until the new bases open their doors — a rollout is planned for the next few years — it’s impossible to say how many IDF staffers will bite.

“I love the desert,” said CyberCanary founder Moskowitz. However, he added, “You either love it or you hate it.” And even though Moskowitz loves it, he still chooses to commute to Beersheva from central Israel.

“They’ve been talking about [this] for decades, and everyone knows that in the end it will happen,” said a 23-year-old army vet, formerly in an IDF intelligence unit, who felt she was not authorized to speak on the record. “It will be uncomfortable for most people to migrate from the center to the south every morning, but everyone will get used to it within a year or two. It’s not that far, and by 2020, the roads infrastructure probably will be much more developed, which will make the time to the south shorter.

“Bottom line,” she said, “it’s important to evacuate the center for the real estate and for the improvement of IDF’s abilities.”

The brand-new town of Carmit, situated just a few miles from the planned intelligence base, is for now eerily empty — a no man’s land equipped with a pristine sewer system and untouched synagogue. The management company, Metsudot, boasts on the town’s recruitment website that Carmit “puts the Northern Negev on the map as one of the most sought out residential areas in Israel.” And as for job opportunities, it says, the cybersecurity park in nearby Beersheva is “seeking local employees.” 

Real-estate marketers are also rewriting desert demographics: An image of the surrounding area on the Carmit website leaves nearby Bedouin towns — both those unrecognized and recognized by the state — entirely off the map.

The neighbors

Bedouins living in the recognized village of Lakiya, just four miles west of the new Jewish town, have not forgotten about Carmit.

Today, descendants of the nomadic Arab tribe that has roamed the Negev for centuries — who now have Israeli citizenship — can see the Jewish ghost town of Carmit over a hill of pine trees planted by the Jewish National Fund.

“The city of Lakiya is now surrounded by big development plans that never take into account the actual residents of the area,” said Juma’a Azbarga, a 58-year-old Lakiya native running as a long-shot candidate for Israeli parliament in the upcoming election. As he sat in front of his squat home overlooking the area one December morning, Azbarga sketched out a series of borders on a notepad in his lap.

He said, as he sketched: “To the east we have Route 6. Another new road separates us from El Makabil,” an unrecognized Bedouin village to the south. “On all the other sides are forests.” 

And now, Azbarga added, “We’ll have an army base sitting on our neck.”

A rendering of the new IDF intelligence base planned for the Negev is visible from Route 60 near the Shoket Junction.

He and other city leaders told the Journal that Israel’s long-term plan to lure Jews to the Negev has led to a population crisis for new generations in Lakiya, who have nowhere left to build. “You can see in the town families with seven or eight children who are already grown up,” said Azbarga. “They want to build their own houses and have families of their own,” he said. “But there are no more lots.”

Those who do try to build on land that’s disputed or unrecognized by the state as Bedouin-owned often see their homes crushed by Israeli bulldozers — a practice heavily documented by Israeli human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

“We don’t think about it ideologically,” Juma’a said. “We think about it rationally. We have 12,000 people living in Lakiya. Thinking to the future, we will have no place to expand. Where will our children and grandchildren live?”

Israeli officials in favor of the controversial (and currently shelved) Prawer Plan to move Bedouins off their family land into planned cities have argued that Bedouins will never catch up to Israeli society, economically and intellectually, without the correct infrastructure. The foreign ministry even said the IDF’s $5 billion base-relocation project, in particular, offered “a unique opportunity to create conditions that will also allow the Bedouin community in the Negev to enjoy this anticipated prosperity in the Beersheva region.” 

But Lakiya residents told the Journal they had yet to see any advantages of the IDF’s IT and intelligence bases moving in nearby, as Bedouins rarely rise to work in those units. 

Azbarga remembered a time when he still had hope that the area now swallowed by the base would be the land on which Lakiya could grow.

Before the base, Azbarga said, there were rumors Israel was planning to build a shopping mall in the lot, which he hoped would at least help stoke the lagging Bedouin economy. But then, around seven years ago, Lakiya residents got wind of plans for a new IDF intelligence base on their southern border — half the size of their town. 

Unit 8200 might as well be a spaceship scheduled to land in Lakiya’s backyard. Today, a big real-estate sign stuck in the mud along Route 60 shows a rendering of the final product: a high-security mini-city housing the nation’s secrets, surrounded by a buffer of trees.

Multiple locals said they were most worried about radiation emanating from the intel hub. Azbarga headed a committee that petitioned the project at both district and state levels, to no avail.

“They don’t talk to us,” he claimed. “They just work around us.”

He wondered why the Ministry of Defense hadn’t chosen any of the vast unpopulated areas of the Negev for its base. “The Negev is 12 million dunams,” he said. “There are a lot of areas totally empty.”

Hussein Abu Trash, a 65-year-old Bedouin resident of Lakiya, looked out over the future site of the IDF's 8200 unit and the remains of neighbors' homes that were demolished to make room for it.

According to Ministry of Defense official Marton, the base was strategically placed in the vicinity of Beersheva and other new IDF infrastructure. The only Bedouin-related setback the ministry encountered, she said, was having to convince a family of 60 to 70 Bedouins to move off the Unit 8200 plot. “I don’t think they’re angry, because it wasn’t permanent land,” Marton said.

Lakiya’s town leaders denied this account. They claimed that ministry officials coerced the El Rubedi family through ongoing pressure and repeated demolitions of “illegal structures” on their family land. 

Today, six or seven piles of rubble — a mash of cinderblocks, computer parts, mattress chunks — mark the spots where their homes used to be.

Bedouin politician Azbarga toured the land with the Journal. “There was life here,” he said, observing the wreckage. “It hurts that everything just stopped.” He crouched down to take a cellphone photo of a lone white flower in the mud.

More dramatically, a southward extension of Route 6, or the Trans-Israel Highway — serving new towns and carrying IDF soldiers to their bases — will have displaced more than 3,000 Bedouins by the time it’s completed, according to a coalition of Israeli NGOs. The area between Beersheva and the Shoket Junction (where the intelligence base is located) is one big construction zone for the route. Tractors push around leaning piles of dust and dig deep craters in the Earth; concrete slabs and tangled pipes shoot up from the Earth. It almost looks like a miles-long landing pad is going in.

For some driving through it, the chaotic zone is a sign of Ben-Gurion’s dream finally realized — of a modern, security-driven way to bring Israelis deeper into their homeland. 

But for many residents of Lakiyah, it’s a sign of the IDF overrunning the Negev. “We are going back toward the military regime,” said Azbarga, remembering a period of his youth in which Bedouins had to pass through security checkpoints similar to those now set up in the West Bank. “I feel now that it’s coming. I hope not.”

The Negev Coexistence Forum, the Israeli NGO that facilitated the Journal's interviews in Lakiya, has been documenting the gradual reduction of Bedouin lands. In an article on the military's expanding southern presence, the organization's director, Haia Noach, opined that because the government couldn't find civilian incentives strong enough to develop the Negev, it had “abandoned most of it to the army and the Ministry of Defense.”

Lakiyah Mayor Salem Abu Ayish said he finds it ironic that, while his townspeople wanted so badly to populate and farm the Negev — and were stopped from doing so — the IDF had to recruit Jews to do the same.

“It’s discrimination,” Abu Ayish said. “If they could put us all into one skyscraper, they would do it.”

Dream on hold

The only roadblock that could possibly derail the IDF relocation project, this late in the game, is an ongoing feud between the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Finance over earmark technicalities.

Amid the recent implosion of the 19th Knesset, the ministries engaged in a bitter faceoff, each accusing the other of withholding funds necessary for the IDF to keep moving south.

“This letter was written with the blood of my heart,” Beersheva Mayor Ruvik Danilovich wrote in a dramatic open letter to Netanyahu when he heard funds were halted for the IDF branch of his city’s cybersecurity park. Danilovich expressed his “deep frustration and great sadness, in view of the inability to advance such an important national mission.”

Both parties have attempted to frame the feud in their favor: The Ministry of Finance maintains that the money for the IDF’s southern push is included inside the Ministry of Defense’s 2015 budget.

“The project of relocating IDF bases to the Negev is a national project of great importance,” the Ministry of Finance spokesman said in a statement sent to the Journal. “The project was allocated within the yearly budget of 2013 and 2014. … It also continues to be funded in the budget of 2015. From the [Ministry of Finance} viewpoint, we see no reason for the delay in performing the project.”

According to Ministry of Defense official Marton, her side counters that the IDF’s Negev money was supposed to come in the form of a special allotment outside its normal budget.

“If we don’t get the money in a week,” when the 2015 budget must be approved, she said, “the project will be put on hold indefinitely.”

“These companies came to Beersheva,” she said. “They chose Beersheva because they knew the army was coming. They knew the intelligence units and software units were coming. We talked with IBM, we talked with Lockheed Martin, and they talked about the fact that they could choose another country. They chose Beersheva [over] other countries because they knew the army was going to come to the Negev.”

Urban planners in Tel Aviv, too, are itching for the plan to move forward. Once the Ministry of Defense empties out its IDF bases now spread over prime, trendy areas of Tel Aviv, approximately 35,000 apartments — including about 9,000 classified as “affordable” — will rise in their place, according to the Ministry of Construction and Housing. 

In the end, the Knesset’s recent dismantling might also be the project’s savior: Because Netanyahu fired his finance minister as his government collapsed, he now has the power to transfer funds.

At a Dec. 10 press conference overlooking the IDF’s new desert training facility, Netanyahu promised: “We will not allow this project to be stopped. I came here to make it clear that I will remove impediments. The process of moving IDF bases to the south is historic. It will change the face of both the Negev and the country; I am absolutely committed to this. As prime minister, I led it. Now, as finance minister, I will see that it has the necessary budgets for its continued implementation because it is in our soul and in our future.”

The clock is ticking. “The IDF’s move to the south is a national, change-generating project, which serves a national interest bigger and more important than any of us,” Beersheva mayor Danilovich wrote. “There is no room for power struggles and arm-twisting. No one has the right to delay or thwart it. The fact that it is not executed deals a harsh blow to the State of Israel and the vision for the Negev’s development.” 

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