Israel May Be Taking the Land That Feeds It in a Race to Build Homes

Agricultural Ministry report criticizes policy of fast-tracking residential building

Harvesting crops in the Western Negev.
Harvesting crops in the Western Negev. Ilan Assayag

In a mad rush to build new homes and stem the rise on housing prices, Israel is sacrificing its access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

That’s the warning issued by the Agriculture Ministry in a report it released last week with the Agricultural Planning and Development Authority, which said the fast-tracking construction approvals the government is planning is going to involve building on and paving over farmland.

As evidence, the report found that 60 percent of the land designated for 60 separate fast-track construction programs approved through the end of last year was for agricultural land on the periphery of urban centers. That adds up to 47,300 dunams, or 1.1 percent of all Israel’s actively farmed land.

That might not seem like much now but, with the country’s population growing 2 percent annually, the pressure on farmland will grow. The fast-track program, which is being overseen by a special government committee, will be doing its work for years to come and the reserves of unexploited farmland are too small to offset it.

“We are seeing irreparable harm to the ability produce food and to the supply of fresh produce to Israel’s population as well as harm to the incomes of farming communities and the growers whose lands are taken,” the report said.

The report comes amid growing tensions between Israel’s farm sector, which includes kibbutzim, moshavim and local councils, and the Finance Ministry and Israel Lands Authority. The latter have been pushing through laws to take back state-owned land that had been traditionally used for agriculture as quickly as possible as Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon seeks to turn back the housing price tide.

The new Agriculture Ministry report has in its crosshairs the Committee for the Planning and Construction of National Priority Areas, which was approved by the Knesset three years ago, to alleviate the housing crisis by slashing the red tape involved in planning and building. The law lets the panel complete all building approvals in just two years, a flash by Israeli standards.

The ministry said the worst abuse of the fast-track program is in Israel’s north and south, where the committee has approved single-family and other low-density housing. That means that valuable farmland is being needlessly wasted, in its view.

Among the worst offenders is the “New Ofakim” project, which the committee approved in February. It calls for building 10,000 homes astride the Western Negev town, Ofakim, on what the report calls “quality agricultural land that constitutes an important part of Israel’s granary.”

“There isn’t much land left in the Negev appropriate for agricultural use beyond what is already being farmed today,” it says, pointing to some 15 building programs that are going to especially harmful to the farm sector, among them in Afula, Kiryat Ata, Maalot, Hadera and Fureidis.

“Blaming the housing shortage, the government is conducting a wild and irresponsible policy,” said Dudu Kochman, a lawyer and the head of the Agricultural Union. “The [fast-track] committee is obsessed with ignoring the decision of every other special committee established in the past and the position of regional committees and professionals.”

But Adiel Shomron, the Israel Land Authority director responsible for the priority committee, said there was little choice but to take over farmland. “The land reserves in areas of high demand are used for agriculture. We can’t increase construction without rezoning farmland,” he said.

Even in relatively underpopulated areas, the government can no longer promise rural farming communities they can maintain their status.

For its part, the Finance Ministry noted that Agriculture Minster Uri Ariel sits on the cabinet housing committee and hasn’t objected to the fast-track committee’s plans. The Agriculture Ministry itself has opposed only one of 34 fast-track plans that the committee discussed, it added.