Hebrew University and Ofakim partnership

A visit Ofakim to learn about new HU-Agri/Ofakim collaboration + Nir Oz. January 10, 2024

Less than an hour after Hamas began its October 7 attack that killed some 1,400 in Israel and saw at least 199 people kidnapped into the Gaza Strip as hostages, two trucks rolled into the southern city of Ofakim, packed with what the city’s mayor said were 14 terrorists and their arsenal.  Only spontaneous action on the part of residents and police officers, armed with knives, a few handguns, and eventually the terrorists’ rifles, stopped the act, but not before the city lost about 50 people within five hours. By comparison, this city of 40,000 had about only 50 violent deaths in the past 70 years, said Ofakim Mayor Itzik Danino. – Times of Israel October 18, 2023 

Created as a development town in the heart of the Western Negev, Ofakim has known much poverty throughout the years. Aspiring to change this reality, Ofakim is now part of a national plan to create an Agri-Tech industrial ecosystem in the Western Negev. It is hoped that new neighborhoods, schools, government and business investment, an Agri-Tech park, and tax benefits will all help to attract new residents and raise the standard of living, enabling Ofakim to thrive and contribute to Israel’s agri-tech sector.

The recent October 7th attacks on the South, the fighting in Ofakim, and the story about Rachel and David Edry, Ofakim residents who were held hostage for 19 hours and distracted their attackers with food and conversation until they could be rescued, brought international attention to Ofakim. In the initial days of fighting, over 10,000 residents were evacuated to hotels across the country, but many have since returned, gradually resuming life.

Given Ofakim’s new agri-tech focus, the Hebrew University’s Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food, and Environment believes it can make a meaningful contribution to the city’s development through collaboration around education and agri-tech research and development. This is part of a larger Hebrew University vision to contribute to Israel’s recovery from the October 7th attacks and the ensuing war.

Sign of Ofakim

From Textile to Agri-Tech
Ofakim was founded as a development town in 1955, populated mainly by immigrants from Morocco and Tunisia, later joined in the 1990s by immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. Initially in the 50’s, most residents worked in construction, but the development town soon became known as a textile manufacturing center. The decimation of this industry within Israel from the mid-80s due to outsourcing abroad caused economic stagnation, and Ofakim suffered high poverty and unemployment rates for many years – winning the dubious distinction of having the highest unemployment rate in the country in 1997 and again in 2004.

Ofakim is now undergoing major changes, having selected an agri-tech vision as a pivotal force for its future development and identity, based on a thorough analysis of the City’s opportunities and challenges.

A Natural Collaboration

Given Ofakim’s agri-tech focus and given Hebrew University’s commitment to Israeli society, its Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food, and Environment, the only Faculty of Agriculture in Israel, decided last year to advance initiatives in collaboration with Ofakim, both on the education-academic axis and on the R&D-business axis.

Ofakim has great growth potential. Situated in the southern region of the country, it is Israel’s agricultural hub. A shared vision for agri-tech unites the University and the City, enabling both to work together to advance agri-tech in Israel.

Collaboration offers substantial advantages to both sides. The University will be able to broaden its research and academic endeavors in agri-tech- both in Ofakim as well as in additional areas of the Gaza envelope, to recruit new students, increase public awareness of the field, and make a significant contribution to agriculture in Israel and to the residents of the South who suffered from the war. Ofakim can strengthen the agricultural sector in the Western Negev while attracting new residents and companies specializing in agri-tech, food-tech, and bio-tech, who will contribute to the growth of the city as well as the Western Negev overall.

The collaboration between Ofakim and the Hebrew University is now more important than ever given the tragedy that befell the city in the ‘Swords of Iron’ war. This collaboration further aligns with the University’s commitment to contribute to national efforts to develop Ofakim and the Gaza envelope area.

The proposed program

The planned long-term collaboration initially focuses on three primary areas:

  • Business: The Sarona Partners Innovation and Entrepreneurship complex.
  • Education: The Regavim elementary school and accelerated programs for high school students.
  • Continuing  Education: Development of the Agri-Tech campus (Ofek Tech)- a vocational training center.

Collaboration between the Hebrew University’s Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food, and Environment and the city of Ofakim is a significant step towards advancing Israel’s agri-tech sector. This collaboration will lead to the growth and development of the agricultural sector in the city of Ofakim and across Israel.