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The state of Israel and its planning officials appear to be collectively suffering a split personality in their attitude to environmental planning according to data presented in a recently-released study by a non-governmental watchdog group.

The report, prepared by planner Iris Hann for the Open Landscape Institute, says that despite government statements of support for preserving open spaces planning authorities in fact approved major construction projects on environmentally sensitive sites in 2008 and the trend was accelerating in 2009.

Last year, it said, the government and the National Planning and Construction Council retroactively approved the establishment of the new community of Mitzpe Ilan, situated in the Nahal Iron (Wadi Ara) area, between Afula and the coast.

Mitzpe Ilan was set up as a residential community unlawfully on a site that was originally settled by soldiers from Nahal, the army's pioneering brigade.

In other rural areas, the government has encouraged construction of single-family ranches in the Negev and Galilee.

In the case of Mitzpe Ilan, the report states, no real examination was conducted into reasonable alternatives to developing new housing there.

One alternative scheme, for building the community on a site that currently serves as a Border Police base, was rejected.

The report says that Mitzpe Ilan is just one in a series of rural building projects authorized over the past two years, some of them on land that the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, to which the Open Landscape Institute is affiliated, describes as of "high environmental sensitivity." Construction of two such projects in the Lachish region, southwest of Jerusalem, has already begun.

At odds with planning policy

Referring to the single-family ranches, Hann charges that the government decision to back their construction is badly flawed.

"Setting up ranches is completely contradictory to planning policy and to the principle of directing development resources toward existing communities," she writes.

Her report states that official planning policy permits establishment of such structures only in extraordinary cases and then only in the Beer Sheva planning district. The government, however, is endorsing their construction throughout the Negev and Galilee regions.

That, Hann says, makes a mockery of the concept of sustainable development, which dictates that land be used in a beneficial manner, within existing communities. It also means avoiding inequalities in the system and not closing off land to the public, as occurs when single-family ranches are built.

New legislation is now being advanced with the government's support to allow owners of existing ranches to acquire more land without submitting to public tender, as part of a special planning procedure.

The priority given to building new communities and the ranches is also reflected in the allocation of resources for planning.

According to an Israel Lands Authority document no less than NIS 15 million has been allocated in recent years toward planning of 30 single-family ranches in the Negev. That translates into NIS 500,000 for each one.

In addition to decisions likely to directly damage open spaces, authorities did approve several measures meant to stimulate effective and economical use of such spaces, the report says.

It says that one of these was an order not to approve any rezoning of agricultural land between 2009 and 2012.

This, however, goes against legally binding plans lodged in the central district.

Selling state- owned land

Land privatization in Israel is a top priority of Benjamin Netanyahu's government but there were already steps in that direction before he was sworn in as prime minister last March.

The Israel Lands Authority's resolution No. 1144, dealing with ownership rights to land designated for commerce and industry, would constitute a revolutionary change, if and when it is applied, writes Hann.

The resolution would allow land earmarked for commerce and industry to be sold to private buyers rather than leased from the state as at present.

Hann says this is a policy that needs careful scrutiny.

"To our way of thinking, there is justification for widespread public ownership of land in Israel," she wrote in the report. "The transfer of ownership of land for industry and commerce has not been fully examined. Neither have the possible implications for the environment, the economy and society been explored."

Another issue Hann addresses is that of planning for land now held by the defense establishment, which amounts to half of all state-owned land.

The National Planning and Construction Council has considered drafting a national outline plan that would regulate administration of these lands. Hann says that differences of opinion within the Defense Ministry have stalled that proposal.

The courts enter the ring

In recent years the courts have been playing a major role in determining the future of the country's open spaces, primarily in seeking to curb illegal construction. The Hann report describes several cases of court intervention and builders' attempts to defend their actions.

In one case heard by the Haifa District Court, an attempt was made to justify illegal construction in the Druze towns of Isfiya and Daliat al-Carmel by asserting that the towns were beset by total planning chaos.

The court rejected the claim, writing in its ruling:"There is no justification for a sinner being rewarded as a result of the powerlessness of the authority." Another case cited in the report pertains to Nimrod, a settlement on the Golan Heights.

Hann says that this settlement was established in violation of the terms of permits that were issued but that in this instance a court nevertheless struck down indictments for illegal construction, on the grounds of "abuse of process," since it was the state that encouraged the settlement's construction.

"It is dismaying to find that it is the state itself that is providing backing to the unlawful construction of communities in the heart of open spaces," writes Hann. "It would have been proper if the party that encouraged the construction initiative in an unlawful manner would be the one to bear the consequences and compensate the citizens and not the environment or the general public."