Israel has only the most meager land resources, but up till now only a handful of people - green groups, planning experts and some government officials - have protested the profligate waste inherent in the way they are used. The judgment on the disposal of Israel's farmlands delivered last Thursday by the High Court of Justice reinforces the arguments about wastefulness - although it does not go into much detail about the environmental implications of the government's land policy.
Agricultural land is a major component of the reserves of open land in Israel (about 20 percent of it is farmed), and with the right planning it could serve residential and industrial purposes while preserving environmental assets and values. However, the protection of this land was seriously endangered by a series of decisions the council of the Israel Lands Administration (ILA) made in the past 12 years, which allowed rezoning and financial recompense to farmers.
The High Court of Justice ruling overturned those decisions. The policy of the ILA had the effect of accelerating processes of dispersed construction and suburbanization. The temptation to have land rezoned and sell it to the highest bidder generated intense pressure that rode over every planning consideration, such as how much to build, and where. Within a few years large tracts of land were rezoned, in many cases none of them adjacent to existing buildings.
Vast shopping centers sprang up at Ga'ash, Shfayim and other kibbutzim and moshavim - while in the Sharon, the Judean Hills and the Judean coastal plain, among other regions, residential dwellings with private gardens and yards were built on a large scale. Nor should we overlook the gas stations, facilities for social events, and a broad range of structures that have nothing to do with agriculture.
The direct environmental damage consists of the destruction of places that were an important part of the Israeli landscape as it developed over the past century, and the damage done to ecosystems. The consequences are serious, including a diminished ability to make use of land to enrich groundwater and the loss of open land to filter environmental pollutants and regulate the flow of rain water.
Beyond the direct damage, a process of suburbanization bearing social implications set in, weakening the big cities. These always lose in the competition to attract businesses and strong population groups tempted by commercial areas in moshavim and kibbutzim, and by owning separate homes with land attached.
What was especially worrisome about this process was the fact that the authorized planning bodies in Israel understood the importance of preserving the open spaces and strengthening the cities, and demanded the implementation of that policy in national and district master plans, but were ignored by the ILA council.
The council went on developing methods in which they tempted farmers with the use of cash allurements into releasing land they had worked for many years. The High Court judgment will be worthless if it does not become a watershed and lead to a different reality of land use in Israel. There is still a danger that the government or the Knesset will find ways to ignore the High Court judgment and maintain the current mechanism of cash compensation for land rezoning.
Proper planning should not ignore the great importance of agriculture as a preserver of open spaces and landscapes. Nor can it disregard the farmers' full rights to their homes - as distinct from rights to farmland - for which compensation should be given, as required, for agricultural worth and not according to the value of the land as a lot designated for building.
There is general agreement among planners from the government and academic establishments, green activists and members of the Milgrom Commission - which examined the farmland question for the government. They say the guiding principle for the use of land in Israel must be to give priority to building in urban areas or adjacent to such areas and to refrain as far as possible from rezoning farmland.
There is also broad agreement that economic inducements should be used to preserve agricultural landscapes. Indeed, the function of farmland, like the use of land for recreation, leisure and tourism, or to preserve water sources, is itself of economic importance. The existence of such land saves large amounts of money in the long term.
Two years ago, Prof. Rachel Alterman, from the Haifa Technion, and her research assistant, Iris Hahn, prepared a survey of the methods in use internationally to protect open spaces and their possible application in Israel.
The survey, which was undertaken for the Jewish National Fund, illustrated the wide range of existing methods that are in use to protect farmland in Europe and North America. Different levels of effectiveness can be used, such as tax relief for farmers and the realization of development rights in areas zoned for construction on the basis of national planning, in return for preserving land for agricultural use.
As for farmland that is not located in areas that are in demand for residential dwellings, public organizations can purchase such land from the farmers. All these ideas can bring about the preservation of farmland without ignoring the good of the farmer.
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