Umm al-Hiran - Eliyahu Hershkovitz - 09012012
Residents of the Negev village Umm al-Hiran have no running water and are not connected to the electricity grid. Photo by Eliyahu Hershkovitz
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Some six weeks ago, the Israeli government decided to push for the establishment of 10 new villages in a 180 square kilometer stretch of land straddling the Green Line, between Arad and Meitar.

The proposal was submitted by the Prime Minister's Office, Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon and Minister for the Development of the Negev and Galilee Silvan Shalom. The decision stated that the move is part of the government's policy to promote and develop the periphery while lowering housing prices. It turns out, in fact, that behind the decision lies another purpose - preventing the Bedouin from "taking over" the area.

The cost of these measures is quite high from an economic viewpoint, from the standpoint of losing green spaces, and also because of problems it raises for established localities. The usual critics of such moves, the heads of local authorities in the region and green groups, have now gained support from an unexpected corner - a study by the Knesset's Research and Information Center.

"The goal of the plan is to grab the last remaining piece of land and thereby prevent further Bedouin incursion into any more state land and the development of an Arab belt from the south of Mount Hebron toward Arad and approaching Dimona and Yeruham, and the area extending toward Be'er Sheva," Yaron Ben Ezra, director-general of the Jewish Agency's settlement division, is quoted as explaining in the study performed by the center's Shiri Bass-Spector.

"Enough housing units for everyone"

The study unequivocally concludes that in reaching its decision, the government ignored alternative solutions.

The director-general of the PMO will be in charge of the staff work, and will have four months to complete the task, with the assistance of the World Zionist Organization's settlement division. Under the proposed decision, this division will be charged with examining the planning situation and physical conditions for locating the new enclaves, and preparing a work plan with a defined timetable for devising a regional plan and detailed plans for the new communities, employment areas, tourism sites, roads and engineering infrastructure installations. After all this is completed, it will be presented to the National Planning and Building Council, which will have five months to formulate its recommendations.

"It's the PMO that's promoting the establishment of these communities, in collaboration with the WZO," claims Shai Tachnai, the southern region nature preservation coordinator for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. "There are government ministries and planning bodies that could have taken on the responsibility. It isn't clear why its handling is being transferred to this organization [WZO], which has almost run its course. Zionism today means strengthening existing communities, but the state invests millions and billions of shekels instead in infrastructure for new communities. These are tremendous costs that don't come into play for existing localities."

The government's proposal defines the plan's main objective as providing a solution to a variety of demands for settling the metropolitan Be'er Sheva area. Data from the Israel Lands Administration and several municipalities show, however, that there are already over 30,000 new housing units planned for the area. Figures cited in the study indicate that more than 10,000 of the planned units are to be private homes, including 1,366 in Arad, 6,200 in Be'er Sheva, 950 in Netivot and 3,200 in various other places such as Meitar, Omer, Kibbutz Kramim, Carmit, Shani-Livne and Har Amasa.

In addition, over the last few years, the government has approved the establishment of five new communities within the same territory - including the town of Kasif, where 10,000 housing units will be built for the Haredi community. About 3,000 units were approved for Carmit, 1,500 for Hiran and 500 in Yatir. Another community being planned is Ira, while Meitar is slated to have thousands of new homes built. In August 2010, the government also decided to encourage attracting families of army careerists to existing Negev communities by providing them with subsidies for purchasing and developing land.

"Besides these plans, the inventory being promoted by the planning authorities and not yet approved is double this number," says Tachnai. "In addition, all the Ramat Negev communities are now putting together master plans for expansion, from Beit Kama in the northern Negev to Ashalim in the south, through Mashabei Sadeh, Revivim and Kadesh Barnea. There is enough planned inventory: What exists just needs to be reinforced."

"It should be determined whether the planned inventory as shown here doesn't constitute a relevant alternative to developing 10 new villages on the outskirts of Arad, and why these alternatives weren't mentioned in the proposal," concludes Bass-Spector.

Avi Heller, head of the southern district in the Interior Ministry, commented: "Under approved plans, there are enough housing units for everyone but I, as part of the planning system, can't guarantee that anyone will live where I want. There are approved neighborhoods in Be'er Sheva and other cities, but no demand there for housing."

Unexplained recommendations

The state comptroller's report for 2005 stated that one of the flaws in the decision-making process for planning and establishing new communities was the disregard for alternative settlement solutions. "In practice, the ministers who propose government decisions for establishing new communities don't present the government with other alternatives, including economic, environmental and social assessments," the report charged. "Only short explanations are provided. The justifications are often vague and don't explain the need for the community in general, nor its specific location in particular.

"The interministerial staff work didn't take into account the national plan, but took the opposite approach of individualized initiatives, some by council heads and some by private promoters, that reflected local considerations instead of strengthening existing communities - and at their expense," the report added.

Following the comptroller's report, the attorney general and, at his cue, the National Planning and Building Council, issued procedures for deciding on the establishment of new communities. Under these procedures, the decision must be based on staff work performed at a professional level relating to all relevant aspects - general planning policy, possible alternatives, and budgetary, infrastructure and environmental aspects.

The main planning principles specified by National Master Plan 35 - approved in 2005 to define the principles guiding Israel's development and construction - determine that plans must emphasize the expansion and strengthening of existing communities, not the establishment of new ones.

Budgetary differences

The study by Bass-Spector presents data from the Environmental Protection Ministry indicating that the government investment needed for starting a new locality from scratch is more than double the amount for expanding an existing one. Taking into account costs involved in building public facilities and infrastructure, the investment per housing unit in a new village comes to NIS 1.4 million as opposed to NIS 1.08 in an existing village and NIS 484,000 in the city.

There is also a significant difference in the annual ongoing per-unit costs for residences when it comes to new villages, established villages and urban construction. These include the expenses of government ministries, the municipality, infrastructure providers and household costs as well. According to data from the study, ongoing expenses in new urban neighborhoods total NIS 178,100 a year, while in existing villages they total NIS 245,149 - and in new villages the sum jumps to NIS 328,792 per unit.

"Building new communities, across all parameters, is more expensive than expanding existing communities," the report stated. "When a proposal to establish a new community is brought before the government, an examination should be performed on its ongoing costs over the long term and external expenses, not just the cost entailed in building it. A parallel assessment for at least one alternative of expanding a relevant existing community is also required."

"Resources should go to strengthening Arad"

Ben Ezra explained that the establishment of 10 new communities on the outskirts of Arad is the outcome of a plan put forward five years ago. He said that the lack of any Jewish settlement between the Shoket Junction and Arad had meant that Arad was isolated and lead to negative migration. One way to attract people to the area, he claims, is to create settlement points between Arad and Be'er Sheva, giving Arad the standing of a district center.

But Arad Mayor Tali Ploskov says the city wasn't involved in the matter and doesn't know how it will provide the services planned. "The Arad Municipality expects to be involved in the decision making, not just asked its position," he was cited as saying in the Research and Information Center report. "We are unaware of any staff work done to check Arad's needs as a metropolitan city - what it is expected to provide in terms of educational services, culture and medicine, and what investment is needed for it to meet all these needs. When a decision on this is made, resources should go to strengthening Arad so it can serve as the metropolis for the eastern Negev, and that the opposite effect of weakening it doesn't occur."

Be'er Sheva city hall holds a similar position. "The indiscriminate building of new communities could weaken cities vying for a varied populace," maintained city architect Yosefa Davara. "The balanced planning of a supply of quality neighborhoods of private homes within existing cities must be allowed. This is the way to attract an upscale population from other places, to provide for the needs of army units moving south, and - no less importantly - of keeping the more well-heeled and upwardly mobile families in the city."