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While the government's intentions regarding land reform in Israel are making front-page news, another reform, all but complete and being pushed by the Agriculture Ministry, is taking place in almost utter silence.

It is a reform of the poultry industry that proponents say will save money and opponents say will ruin the landscape and cause terrible suffering to the birds.

Environmental and social welfare activists wail that the proposed changes will ruin the region's unique landscape while lavishing wide-ranging but unequal benefits to the agriculture industry.

A cabinet resolution from two years ago calls family-run chicken farms in the Upper Galilee to be relocated to several dozen centralized locations outside residential communities.

The drive involves more than 500 coops, which the Agricultural Ministry says have created health and environmental hazards. Large, centrally-located coops are supposed to be more efficient, it says.

As part of the plan, the coop owners can sell their egg quotas and expand into other business ventures, like rural tourism. They can qualify for financial help in converting their businesses and are entitled to capitalize the subsidies they received in the past.

The steering committee proposed enabling poultry breeders to establish facilities of up to 150 square meters, such as country lodgings (at 40 square meters a unit), restaurants, galleries and art studios as well as offices for professionals where the coops are currently located.

Industrial plants and visitor centers would also be permitted, and on those moshavim (small cooperative farming communities) designated as "tourist" locations, small, boutique manufacturing facilities of up to 250 square meters will be allowed.

Replacing the smaller coops with larger buildings may substantially alter the Upper Galilee's mountainous landscape, argue opponents of the plan.

The reforms taking shape have spawned an opposition coalition that includes the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the group Anonymous for Animal Rights, which contends that the proposed chicken coops will seriously debilitate the well-being of the chickens themselves. They have been joined by the Association for Distributive Justice, which has roundly criticized the division of resources in the Upper Galilee.

All of these groups say the proposed change gives substantial benefits to the coop owners, in a region which is home to Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon and members of his family. They say this creates an apparent conflict of interest.

Several weeks ago, the Association for Distributive Justice contacted the Israel Lands Administration and the head of the Finance Ministry's budget division regarding the plan. The group says the plan is designed to enable coop owners to forgo the quotas on a range of land uses without being required to pay for the change in use.

According to the association's lawyer, Nadia Mogilevsky, the move circumvents a decision of the Israel Lands Administration council limiting the extent to which the use of agricultural land can be changed to another business purpose and the requirement that full payment be made for capitalized lease fees at the customary rate for such purpose.

"[My] association believes giving benefits like public land is invalid as a matter of principle and contrary to law and court precedent," she said.

SPNI has not reacted to the plan officially in recent weeks, however, it included the plan in a list of threats to open space published a few months ago. According to the environmental group, the tourism capacity of the region and the impact on associated infrastructure, such as sewage and waste disposal, have not been examined thoroughly.

Anonymous for Animal Rights is attempting to conduct a campaign regarding the well-being of the chickens with a combined emphasis on the environmental issue.

The group tried to promote the alternative of multi-level chicken coops that would have adjoining yards, which they say improve conditions for the chickens without wasting open space.

The Agriculture Ministry said the reform plan was designed to provide greater efficiency in production and marketing and to improve safety. The new coops will be built according to accepted international animal welfare standards, it added.

The new plan, said the ministry, will remove an environmental nuisance and will provide space for new families in accordance with national and regional planning policies. The planned rural initiative will be carried out in keeping with regional planning for hotel guest rooms and tourist facilities, and the ministry has said any such changes will be subject to separate approval and will not proceed simply by virtue of the reform plan for the chicken coops.

The ministry added Simhon had appointed the ministry's director general to deal entirely with the reform plan.