Beersheba (; officially Be'er Sheva; ; ; ; , Levantine pronunciation: ; ) is the largest city in the Negev desert of southern Israel. Often referred to as the "Capital of the Negev", it is the seventh-largest city in Israel with a population of 205,588.
Beersheba grew in importance in the 19th century, when the Ottoman Turks built a regional police station there. The Battle of Beersheba was part of a wider British offensive in World War I aimed at breaking the Turkish defensive line from Gaza to Beersheba. In 1947, Bir Seb'a, as it was known, was envisioned as part of the Arab state in the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine. Following the declaration of Israel's independence, the Egyptian army amassed its forces in Beersheba as a strategic and logistical base. In the Battle of Beersheba waged in October 1948, it was conquered by the Israel Defense Forces.
Beersheba has grown considerably since then. A large portion of the population is made up of the descendants of Sephardi Jews and Mizrahi Jews who immigrated from Arab countries after 1948, as well as smaller communities of Bene Israel and Cochin Jews from India. Second and third waves of immigration have taken place since 1990, bringing Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, as well as Beta Israel immigrants from Ethiopia. The Soviet immigrants have made the game of chess a major sport in Beersheba. The city is now Israel's national chess center, with more chess grandmasters per capita than any other city in the world.
Human settlement in the area dates from the Copper Age. The inhabitants lived in caves, crafting metal tools and raising cattle. Findings unearthed at Tel Be'er Sheva, an archaeological site east of modern day Beersheba, suggest the region has been inhabited since the 4th millennium BC. The city has been destroyed and rebuilt many times over the centuries.
Tel Be'er Sheva, an archaeological site containing the ruins of an ancient town believed to have been the Biblical Beersheba, lies a few kilometers east of the modern city. The town dates to the early Israelite period, around the 10th century BCE. The site was probably chosen due to the abundance of water, as evidenced by the numerous wells in the area. According to the Bible, the wells were dug by Abraham and Isaac when they arrived there. The streets were laid out in a grid, with separate areas for administrative, commercial, military, and residential use. It is believed to have been the first planned settlement in the region, and is also noteworthy for its elaborate water system; in particular, a huge cistern carved out of the rock beneath the town.
Beersheba is mentioned in the Book of Genesis in connection with Abraham the Patriarch and his pact with Abimelech. Isaac built an altar in Beersheba (Genesis 26:23–33). Jacob had his dream about a stairway to heaven after leaving Beersheba. (Genesis 28:10–15 and 46:1–7). Beersheba was the territory of the tribe of Shimon and Judah (Joshua 15:28 and 19:2). The sons of the prophet Samuel were judges in Beersheba (I Samuel 8:2). Saul, Israel's first king, built a fort there for his campaign against the Amalekites (I Samuel 14:48 and 15:2–9). The prophet Elijah took refuge in Beersheba when Jezebel ordered him killed (I Kings 19:3). The prophet Amos mentions the city in regard to idolatry (Amos 5:5 and 8:14). Following the Babylonian conquest and subsequent enslavement of many Israelites, the town was abandoned. After the Israelite slaves returned from Babylon, they resettled the town. According to the Hebrew Bible, Beersheba was the southernmost city of the territories settled by Israelites, hence the expression "from Dan to Beersheba" to describe the whole kingdom.
Roman and Byzantine era
During the Roman and later Byzantine periods, the town served as a front-line defense against Nabatean attacks. The last inhabitants of Tel Be'er Sheva were the Byzantines, who abandoned the city during the Arab conquest of Palestine in the 7th century.
The Ottomans, who had controlled Palestine since the 16th century, took an interest in Beersheba in the late 19th century. At the beginning of the 19th century, European pilgrims to Palestine described Beersheba as a barren stretch of land with a well and a handful of Bedouins living nearby. Towards the end of the 19th century, the Ottomans built a police station in Beersheba in order to keep the Bedouin in check. They built roads and a number of small buildings from local materials which are still standing today. A town plan, created by Swiss and German architects, called for a grid street pattern, a pattern which can be seen today in Beersheba's Old City. All houses built during that period were of one story, and the two-story police station towered above them. Most of the residents at the time were Arabs from Hebron and the Gaza area, although Jews also began settling in the city. Many Bedouin abandoned their nomadic lives and built homes in Beersheba.
During World War I, the Ottomans built a military railroad from the Hejaz line to Beersheba, inaugurating the station on October 30, 1915. The celebration was attended by the Ottoman army commander Jamal Pasha and other senior government officials. The train line was active until the British Army forced out the Ottomans in 1917, towards the end of the war.
British Mandate era
Beersheba played an important role in the Sinai and Palestine Campaign in World War I. On October 31, 1917, three months after taking Rafah, General Allenby's troops breached the line of Turkish defense between Gaza and Beersheba. Eight-hundred soldiers of the Australian 4th and 12th Regiments of the 4th Light Horse Brigade under Brigadier General William Grant, with only horses and bayonets, charged the Turkish trenches, overran them and captured the wells of Beersheba in what has become known as the "last successful cavalry charge in British military history." On the edge of Beersheba's Old City is a Commonwealth cemetery containing the graves of Australian and British soldiers. The town also contains a memorial park dedicated to them.
During the period of the British Mandate for Palestine, Beersheba was a major administrative center. The British constructed a railway between Rafah and Beersheba in October 1917; it opened to the public in May 1918, serving the Negev and settlements south of Mount Hebron. In 1928, at the beginning of the tension between the Jews and the Arabs over control of Palestine, and wide-scale rioting which left 133 Jews dead and 339 wounded, many Jews abandoned Beersheba, although some returned occasionally. After an Arab attack on a Jewish bus in 1936, which escalated into the 1936–1939 Arab revolt in Palestine, the remaining Jews left.
State of Israel
The 1947 UN Partition Plan included Beersheba in the territory allotted to the proposed Arab state as the city's population of 4,000 was primarily Arab. The Egyptian army was stationed in Beersheba in May 1948.
During the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, when military intelligence intercepted a telegram from Egyptian officers about plans to redeploy along the Beersheba-Gaza line, Yigal Allon proposed the conquest of Beersheba, which was approved by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. According to Israeli historian Benny Morris, he ordered the "conquest of Beersheba, occupation of outposts around it, [and] demolition of most of the town." The objective was to break the Egyptian blockade of Israeli convoys to the Negev. The Egyptian army did not expect an offensive and fled en masse. On October 21 at 4:00 in the morning, the 8th Brigade's 89th battalion and the Negev Brigade's 7th and 9th battalions moved in, some troops advancing from Mishmar HaNegev junction, north of Beersheba, others from the Turkish train station and Hatzerim. By 09:45, Beersheba was in Israeli hands. Around 120 Egyptian soldiers were taken prisoner. The remaining Arab civilians, 200 men and 150 women and children, were taken to the police fort. On October 25, the women, children, disabled and elderly were driven by truck to the Gaza border. The Egyptian soldiers were interned in POW camps. Some men lived in the local mosque and were put to work cleaning but when it was discovered that they were supplying information to the Egyptian army they were also deported. Following Operation Yoav a 10-kilometer radius exclusion zone around Beersheba was enforced into which no Bedouin were allowed. Beersheba was deemed strategically important due to its location with a reliable water supply and at a major crossroads, northwest to Hebron and Jerusalem, east to the Dead Sea and al Karak, south to Aqaba, west to Gaza and southwest to Al-Auja and the border with Egypt.
In the 1950s, Beersheba expanded northward. The majority of Indian Jews emigrated to the newly independent Israel after the 1948 Partition. They were estimated in number around 20,000, and the main place for them to settle was Beersheba. Soroka Hospital opened its doors in 1960, and The Negev University, later renamed Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, was established in 1970. Egyptian president Anwar Sadat visited Beersheba in 1979.
As part of its Blueprint Negev project, the Jewish National Fund is funding major redevelopment projects in Beersheba. One project is the Beersheba River Walk, a riverfront district with green spaces, hiking trails, a 3,000-seat sports hall, a 15-acre boating lake filled with recycled waste water, promenades, restaurants, cafés, galleries, boat rentals, a 12,000-seat amphitheater, playgrounds, and a bridge along the route of the city's Mekorot water pipes. The plans include building new homes overlooking the park and neighborhood. At the official entrance to the river park will be the Beit Eshel Park, which will consist of a park built around a courtyard with historic remains from the settlement of Beit Eshel.
Four new shopping malls are planned. The first, Kenyon Beersheba, will be a 115,000-square meter ecologically planned mall with pools for collecting rainwater and lighting generated by solar panels on the roof. It will be situated next to an 8,000-meter park with bicycle paths. Another mall will be a Farmer's Market, the first ever in Israel. The market will be an enclosed, circular complex with 400 spaces for vendors, and it will be surrounded by parks and greenery.
A new Central Bus Station is planned for the city. The station will be a glass-enclosed complex also containing shops and cafes.
In recent years, some $10.5 million has been invested in renovating Beersheba's Old City, preserving historical buildings and upgrading infrastructure. The Turkish Quarter is also being redeveloped with newly cobbled streets, widened sidewalks, and the restoration of Turkish homes into areas for dining and shopping.
In 2011, city hall announced plans to turn Beersheba into the "water city" of Israel. One of the projects, "Beersheva beach," envisions a 7-dunam facility opposite city hall. Other projects include new fountains near the Soroka Medical Center and in front of the Shamoon College of Engineering.
In the 1990s, as skyscrapers began to appear in Israel, the construction of high-rise buildings began in Beersheba. Today, downtown Beersheba has been described as a "clean, compact, and somewhat sterile-looking collection of high-rise office and residential towers." The city's tallest building is Rambam Square 2, a 32-story apartment building. Many additional high-rise buildings are planned or are under construction, including skyscrapers. There are further plans to build luxury residential towers in the city.
The city is undergoing a major construction boom, which includes both development of urban design elements, such as water fountains and bridges, and environmental development such as playgrounds and parks.
In December 2012, a plan to build 16,000 new housing units in the Ramot Gimel neighborhood was scrapped in favor of creating a new urban forest, which will span and serve as the area's "green lung", as part of the plans to develop a "green band" around the city. The forest will include designated picnic areas, biking trails, and walking trails. According to Mayor Ruvik Danilovich, Beersheba still has an abundance of open, underdeveloped spaces that can be used for urban development.