fields - Ancho Ghosh - 26092011
There’s gold in them there fields – once they are built on. Photo by Ancho Ghosh
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Between 2001 and 2006, several dozen kibbutzim returned a total of 20,000 dunams (5,000 acres ) to the state, as part of a massive debt arrangement. Almost half of the acreage is suitable to residential development, yet in most cases the land is still unzoned and unused. Even parcels that have been zoned for building have not, in most cases, seen so much as a cement mixer for the foundations.

The land that was given back to the state was part of the assets put up by the kibbutzim in exchange for the state and lender banks agreeing to forgive more than a billion shekels owed by the kibbutzim. The calculations were based on the anticipated revenue from sales carried out by the Israel Lands Administration.

The ILA was the government agency charged with managing and leasing public land, and it was responsible for getting the parcels zoned for residential construction and then marketing them to developers. But in practice only a few tracts were divided, rezoned and marketed. The biggest of these, so far, was a site near Rosh Ha'ayin destined for 1,200 apartments in high-rise buildings plus 300,000 square meters of commercial space.

Wasted space

Tens of thousands of apartment could be built with relative ease on the 9,000 dunams, out of the total of 20,000 dunams returned to the state, that are suitable for building - if only the land were rezoned and sold.

These include land at Kibbutz Afek, near the Haifa suburb of Kiryat Bialik, on which 4,300 homes could be built. Kibbutz Sa'ar, near Nahariya, has enough land for 2,400 residences. The acreage at Kibbutz Nir Eliyahu, adjacent to Kfar Sava, could support 1,200 housing units. Other tracts of significant size are located at Kibbutz Bahan, near Bat Hefer, and near Tirat Carmel.

Israel Oz, head of the organization hammering out the debt arrangement for the kibbutzim, confirmed the information. He did not provide an explanation for why prime real estate was not being developed.

According to Oz, Housing Minister Ariel Atias, who serves as chairman of the ILA governing body the Israel Lands Council, has said that the kibbutzim should be forced to give up farmland in order to free up land for residential building. Yet the ILA has done little to develop the 9,000 or so dunams of the 20,000 dunams that were returned to the state by the kibbutzim, Oz said.

Asked for comment, the ILA blamed technicalities. It said that it and the agency chaired by Oz, Administration of Kibbutzim Agreement, had their eye on the land in question from the early 1990s. "It was initially proposed that the banks and the Administration of Kibbutz Agreement would cooperate in the zoning process, but the Finance Ministry objected," the ILA stated.

"After the land was returned [to the state], the ILA began moving forward with zoning," the ILA said. And, it said, it continued its rezoning and marketing efforts even though National Master Plan 35 excluded some of the former kibbutz parcels.