Endless stretches of sand and sky surround the teenagers as they tumble off buses in the Negev Desert.
"It's really pretty here. It's very different from the Ukraine," said Larisa Protasova, 17, as she posed for a photo on the edge of a sand dune. A recent immigrant to Israel, it was her first time seeing the Negev.
Protasova was one of 16,000 young Israelis -- including immigrants as well as soldiers, students and youth group members -- who were brought to the Negev on day trips in December, part of a campaign to convince them to make their lives here one day.
The two-day event over Chanukah, dubbed "Light Up the Negev," was organized by the Jewish National Fund-Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (JNF) with the express purpose of "selling" the Negev to Israel's youth.
The Negev represents about 60 percent of Israel's landmass, but has only about 8 percent of the country's inhabitants. After the Gaza Strip withdrawal and with pressure expected to build on Israel to uproot settlements in the West Bank as well, developing the Negev has become a priority for the government, which recently approved $3 billion toward building an infrastructure of jobs and communities in the region.
The JNF, meanwhile, has launched a $500 million campaign specifically for Negev development.
Israelis traditionally have shunned the region because of its remoteness from the rest of the country, the lack of jobs and the relative harshness of desert life. The vast majority of Israelis live in the center of the country, where the cost of living is much higher but opportunities for jobs are greater.
Officials hope the surge of investment will lure people south to fulfill the vision of Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, to "make the desert bloom" by transforming the Negev into a center of life and trade, not the periphery it has remained since the country was born.
Plans include the creation of a biotech park in Beersheba, new tourism projects and several ecologically minded villages to be built with environmentally friendly materials. Also being promoted are swaths of land to be sold as ranches.
Israeli officials hope that some 250,000 more people will move to the Negev.
"We must educate young Israelis and let them know what opportunities await them once they move there: affordable housing, open spaces, jobs, a sense of community and a place in history," said Sharon Davidovich, who helped organize the event and formerly was a JNF shaliach in the United States.
Efrat Duvdevani, director of the recently formed Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee, said there is a rare consensus in the Jewish world around the need to develop the two regions.
"The Negev and Galilee are not politically controversial. It is something that unites people and brings everyone together, including the Jewish community abroad," she said. "It has nothing that has to do with this party or that party but the history and, most importantly, the future of Israel."
The Negev is home to some 140,000 Bedouin. Officials say the development plan will benefit them by bringing better education and housing, but some in the Bedouin community are opposed to the plan, fearing that additional building in the region will encroach on land they claim.
Over Chanukah, youth visited different sites throughout the Negev, including military bases, development towns and parks, learning about the region's history and environment.
Some of the youth spent time painting houses and planting trees in the town of Yeruham, while others cleaned out a riverbed or helped build a bicycle trail in Mitzpeh Ramon.
One group of immigrant youth from the former Soviet Union visited Mitzpeh Gvulot, an experimental farm from the 1940s just outside Kibbutz Gvulot.
"Do you know where you are on the map?" asked their guide, a female soldier. The teenagers, all of them from the Tel Aviv area, shook their heads no and laughed.
The soldier showed them around mud buildings that a group of young pioneers built in 1943. One had served as a communal dining room, another as a bakery.
Arkadi Demianenko, 16, who immigrated to Israel from Ukraine in 2000, said the history was interesting, but he didn't see his future in the Negev.
If even 10 percent of the 16,000 youth who came to the Negev on this trip decide to move there, the operation will have been a success, said David Ashkenazi who organized the event as JNF-Israel's head of informal education.
He said the Negev life clearly wouldn't appeal to everyone.
"It's for them if they want a different kind of life -- not the same kind of life they would live in the center of the country, but if they are looking for a more pioneering life," Ashkenazi said.
That appealed to George Moscowski, 14, from the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon, who said the openness of the scenery drew him in.
"In the future I'd like to live in a free, open place that is not crowded. Maybe it will be green one day," said Moscowski, who hopes to study computer programming.
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