Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Speech on Eilat Day – 56 Years since the

I am happy to be here today to mark 56 years since the raising of the ink flag on the shores of Eilat. This act marked the joining of the Negev and this beautiful place to the State of Israel. Less than a year before the raising of the ink flag, in one of the most difficult moments of the War of Independence, a delegation of Negev kibbutzim came to Tel Aviv to meet with Ben Gurion (I have already told this story on another occasion, but good stories can be repeated). The people of the Negev were concerned by the rumor that due to the invasion of the Egyptian army and due to the almost desperate situation of the settlements in the south of the country, the Government was planning to give up on the Negev. Ben Gurion was busy and could not meet with them, but he wrote them a letter. In that letter he wrote that he did not know what would become of the Negev, but he knew what should become of it, and what should become of it is that, within a year, we would build a port in Eilat. The people of the kibbutzim thought that Ben Gurion had lost his mind. The Negev kibbutzim barely survived, and he was talking about a port in Eilat, which was then “beyond the Dark Mountains”. However, in less than a year, Bren, a member of the Negev Brigade, raised the ink flag – and Eilat was presented as a gift to the fledgling State of Israel. (I am not sure if Bren is here today, but we can imagine him here, climbing on the flagpole.) Ben Gurion first reached the shores of Eilat in 1934, and already then he tried to mobilize the United States Jewry to invest in the place. Even then, it was clear to him that Eilat would hold great significance for the future Jewish State. For Ben Gurion was a man of vision. As a man of vision, he settled in Sde Boker, in the heart of the Negev, and called on the Israeli youth to follow. Only a few did so. Development of the Negev remained merely a slogan, to which one paid lip service, but little was done to implement it. For decades development of the Negev was talked of in terms of a far and indeterminate future. Not any more. My Government has treated the development of Negev in terms of a national mission of the greatest significance. We perceive it as an urgent, immediate necessity, which must be dealt with, without delay. Eilat has made tremendous progress during the past 56 years – from 3 deserted clay huts of the Um Rashrash police, it has become a city of 57,000 inhabitants – Israel’s leading tourist attraction, and a well-known destination on the global tourism map. However, Eilat’s future still awaits it – I attach great strategic importance to Eilat and we are designating it a central role in our development plans, not only in the field of tourism. The extent of planned investment in infrastructure development in the Negev is unprecedented, and mostly in Eilat. Among these is the construction of a new international airport north of Timna, and the railroad to Eilat, the planning of which has already begun. Eilat is the natural gateway for Israeli export to the burgeoning markets of Asia, and primarilly India and China, two economies with a particularly high growth rate. In order to continue to encourage the development of Eilat, we will continue to give it the relief it receives as a free trade zone, including exemption from VAT collection. The peace agreement with the Kingdom of Jordan created opportunities for cooperation between the city of Eilat and its neighbor Aqaba. We hope that in the near future we will be able to take advantage of these possibilities and transform them into joint economic and commercial projects. The development of Eilat is only one of the goals on a long list of plans meant to propel the Negev – at long last – to its proper place on the map of the country. We are making tremendous investments in the fields of infrastructure, railroads and roads. We are working to develop the existing Bedouin settlements and build eight new settlements – two of which are already under construction – while at the same time settling the issue of lands and uncompromisingly enforcing the law. In addition, we are transferring IDF camps and security installations from the center of the country to the Negev. I believe we are at the dawn of a new era regarding the development of the Negev. In the near future, we will begin to enjoy the benefits of these plans, which, in their daring are equal the raising of the ink flag 56 years ago. When the soldiers of the Negev Brigade raised the ink flag, they saw on the horizon only a blue sea, dark mountains and yellow sands and desolate beaches of locked borders. The liberation of Eilat was a part of an operation which was meant to determine Israel’s eastern border and its southern end. Three brigades participated in the liberation: the Negev Brigade, which arrived first, the Golani Brigade, which arrived a few hours later, and the Alexandroni Brigade, which was charged with the task of taking over the Ein-Gedi and Dead Sea area – an which was primarily carried out from the sea. Today, after 56 years, with the increased pace of development and realization of the Eilat and Negev vision, and the political developments in our region, we can look forward again with new hope and envision Eilat as a regional and international tourist and trade center. It is no longer surrounded by shores of desolation and borders of hatred, but rather beaches of hope – from the Jordanian border, from the Egyptian border, and in the future hopefully also from the Saudi border. I believe that if we continue on the path on which we began, “from the South and from Eilat the prosperity will be unleashed”. Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to thank the residents of Eilat, the members of the city council and the mayor, for the Honorary Citizenship which you bestowed on me. I certainly intend to continue working for the continued development of Eilat and for the development and future of the entire Negev. Thank you. BPI-info