food / travel

Israel Desert Escape - Negev Is Hip New Refuge From Urban Rat Race

Israelis have long ignored the vast scorching flatlands of the Negev desert in the southern part of the country. But more and more now see it as a healthy alternative for a weekend getaway -- or for checking out for good.

The five-star Beresheet hotel offers a unique view on a meteor crater in the Negev desert (Beresheet/Isrotel)
The five-star Beresheet hotel offers a unique view on a meteor crater in the Negev desert (Beresheet/Isrotel)

MITZPE RAMON – To most Israelis, Mitzpe Ramon is just some dot on the map in the middle of the Negev Desert, a dull market town built in 1951. For 50 years, it was known for having one of the nation's highest unemployment rates.

But Ilan, 62, has a different take on the place. He has chosen the half-disused industrial zone of the sleepy city to pitch his own "love and reflection corner." This is a sort of open-air lounge dedicated to poetry, openness and human kindness. "People who feel like sitting on the couches and having a chat are welcome to do so. I'll provide the coffee," he says. "The open air and the landscapes free the mind, and get you in touch with yourself. This is the reason why I settled here; people don't talk to each other anymore."

In Mitzpe Ramon, town officials and local cops don't mind letting Ilan occupy a corner of the public space for his poetic purposes, as he soliloquizes in front of his "Love Sussita", a car made in Israel during the 1960s and 1970s that he's turned into a garden on wheels, a symbol of his crusade.

But the poet-retiree is not alone. Like him, tens of thousands are moving to the desert to take a break from the city, or to discover new opportunities. There are those who now come regularly on holiday or spend a growing portion of their time here. But others decide to settle down for good, leaving their urban past behind.

Arnaud Rodrigue, a 45-year-old former management consultant, is among those who have made a definitive escape. He came from France six years ago and opened Chez Eugène, a quaint hotel-restaurant that appears like an oasis of class in a decrepit landscape. "Whether they are Israeli or foreigners, people are discovering the wonders of this region." Is it hard living in the Negev? "Yes, it is. But the Negev's possibilities are huge. Farms are producing cheese which you could never find elsewhere in Israel, but which gets exported. There are also amazing wines and fish farms. For the smart and audacios, there are good prospects here."

On the road from Tel Aviv to the middle of the Negev Desert, landscapes are being transformed, from the lush gardens of the center of the Jewish State to the semi-arid dunes and to the wide expanses of golden sand. Beyond here, the view is filled with scattered rocks with volcano fractures and angular summits – it offers the air of a Western movie set.

Apart from shiny trucks and a few buses, there aren't many people on the road heading South from Mitzpe Ramon toward the Red Sea resort of Eilat. Near a nameless crossroads, a few Bedouin shepherds watch their small goat flock while their wives sweep up under the tent. Outside, children in rags toss stones at a stray dog.

It is here, in this remote place at the end of a stony path, that 38-year-old Yoav Stern settled down, in a second-hand caravan. Every weekend, he runs meditation seminars for overstressed executives from Tel Aviv, London and beyond. The "trainings' are fully booked and include a visit to the center of the Negev. Tourists sleep under the stars.

"You can feel the vibes. Israelis come here to forget their difficult lives, the threats of a war with Iran," says the guru-therapist. "Foreigners come here to fill the emptiness of a dull life with new sensations."

Such a gold mine has not escaped the mainstream tourism industry. In Mitzpe Ramon, the five-star Beresheet Hotel, whose rooms open on a meteor crater, has quietly become one of the most popular luxury destinations of the Middle East. But you also can find more affordable accommodations in the area: guestrooms at farms, kibbutzim that welcome travelers, and even a village with real Indian teepees.

"For 60 years, the Negev Desert was nothing more than huge training grounds for the Army, which turned a third of the land into a closed military zone," says Michaël, the owner of a kiosk on the outskirts of Beersheva. "Today, this is the playground of the modern upper-class hippies looking for the thrill of authenticity."

Still, the Israeli Ministry of Defense is also transferring some of its most important military bases here to build a new high-tech hub. This gigantic project of a Desert Silicon Valley is slated to open in 2018 and will cost $5.5 billion. But in these spots, the tourists, the curious-minded and the authenticity hunters surely won't be welcome.

Read more from Le Temps in French

Photo - Beresheet/Isrotel

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Running of the Bulls in Tafalla, northern Spain

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Здравейте!*

Welcome to Monday, where an apparent coup is underway in Sudan, Colombia's most-wanted drug lord gets caught, and Michael Jordan's rookie sneakers score an auction record. We also focus on a report that the Thai government is abusing the country's centuries-old law to protect the monarchy from criticism (lèse-majesté) to target pro-democracy activists and protesters.

[*Zdraveite - Bulgarian]


• Developing: Sudan leaders arrested amid military coup reports: Soldiers have arrested several members of Sudan's transitional government as well as civilian leaders, and Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok has reportedly been put under house arrest, in what the information ministry called a military coup. Pro-democracy protesters have taken to the streets of the capital city Khartoum where there are reports of gunfire and clashes.

• Colombia's most wanted drug lord to be sent to U.S.: Colombia's most dangerous drug trafficker, known as Otoniel, was caught after a joint army, air force and police operation and faces extradition to the U.S. He led the country's largest criminal gang, and was on the U.S. most wanted list for years.

• Xi speech marks China's UN anniversary: China's President Xi Jinping marked the 50th anniversary of Beijing's entry into the United Nations with a speech calling for greater global cooperation, adding that issues like climate change, terrorism and cyber security needed multilateral solutions. Taiwan was not mentioned.

• German ISIS bride jailed for crimes against humanity: A German court has sentenced a German woman and former member of the Islamic State to 10 years in prison for letting a 5-year-old Yazidi enslaved girl die of thirst in Iraq. The case is one of the world's first trials to prosecute a war crime against the Yazidis.

• COVID update: The Beijing marathon scheduled next weekend has been postponed until further notice as China seeks to stamp out Delta variant outbreak and return to zero cases ahead of the Winter Olympics next February. Meanwhile, coronavirus cases in Eastern Europe have surpassed the 20 million mark as the region fights against its worst outbreak since the pandemic started and vaccination efforts lag.

Goodbye, Gunther: U.S. actor James Michael Tyler, best known for his role as the barista Gunther on the TV show Friends, has died at 59 of prostate cancer.

• Sneakers record: A pair of Michael Jordan's white-and-red Nike shoes, which he wore during his rookie season with the Chicago Bulls in 1984, sold for $1.47 million — a new record price for sneakers at auction.


"The end of a boss," titles Colombian daily El Espectador, reporting on the arrest of drug lord Dairo Antonio Usuga, known as Otoniel, who had led Colombia's largest criminal gang and had been on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's most wanted list for years. He was captured in a raid and will be extradited to the U.S.



A Georgia man is being prosecuted for wire fraud after spending most of his business's COVID relief loan to buy one Pokémon trading card for $57,789.


How Thailand's "Lèse-Majesté" law is used to stifle all protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

👑 Thailand's Criminal Code "Lèse-Majesté" Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family. But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

🚨 The recent report "Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand," documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations." The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

💻 The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them. Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind.

➡️


"Children are going to die. People are going to starve."

— The United Nations warns that Afghanistan verges on a "total breakdown" as millions of Afghans, including children, could die of starvation unless urgent action is taken by the international community. The agency calls for the release of frozen assets to avoid economic and social collapse, despite concerns over the Taliban government. A recent report said that about 97% of Afghanistan's population may sink below the poverty line, and World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director David Beasley warned that more than half of Afghanistan's population of 39 million were facing acute food insecurity and "marching to starvation" in comparison to 14 million two months ago.


Dutch cities have been secretly probing mosques since 2013

At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.

The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.

The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were the Al Mouahidin mosque in the central Dutch town of Ede, and the Nasser mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.

Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talked to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.

All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.

It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.

"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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