Lachish hills
Bulldozers preparing the Lachish hills for housing for Gush Katif evacuees Photo by Zafrir Rinat
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The once unadulterated hills of Lachish are alive with the sound of bulldozers. One green group is bemoaning the loss of another nature area

Until recently the Lachish hills were one of the few regions in the heart of Israel with no homes and no roads. The planning authorities even included this region in the "biosphere area" of the Judean plain, with most of the land slated for conservation and construction limited to the development of existing towns.

In the past few months, however, heavy earthmoving equipment has shattered the silence in the eastern part of this region, roads are being built and the groundwork for houses is being laid. All this is part of the construction of three new communities, two of which - Mirsam and Givat Hazan - are intended for families uprooted from Gush Katif.

A wide highway (Route 358 ) is carving a swath through the heart of eastern Lachish, and a few traffic circles have even been built, giving the road a suburban vibe. The biosphere has been cast aside - it might be nurtured in other parts of the Judean plain.

Representatives of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel have cried foul. The hills marked out for Givat Hazan are slowly being covered with concrete and asphalt, and the region that was a continuous, natural Middle Eastern landscape is beginning to look like a settlement in southern Judea or a hilltop community in the Galilee, they say.

Givat Hazan will be populated by former residents of Neve Dekalim in Gush Katif, while Mirsam will become the new home for, among others, former residents of Kfar Darom and Tel Katifa. Another community also under construction is Haruv, which is not earmarked for families from the Gaza Strip.

Until two years ago there was contiguity between this area and land across the Green Line.

One of the justifications for building these communities was the need to increase the Jewish population density relative to the Palestinian population - but since the construction of the separation fence, the two populations have been cut off from one another.

Another reason proffered was the prevention of illegal Bedouin settlement of the area. However there are no Bedouin squatters in this region right now.

Ironically, the construction workers building the new locales are mainly Bedouin from the Negev, who live in dozens of unrecognized villages with no legal status.

"We have no choice. We must build here because this is a small country," explained Salman Jadr, one of the Bedouin laborers, who was working on the water tank for Givat Hazan with a friend.

When asked how he feels about building more communities for Jews while the Bedouin villages remain unrecognized, Jadr replied that he has no problem with the new settlements, but he expects the authorities to respect the needs of the Bedouin, too.

Butterflies and people

The families uprooted from Gush Katif are following the progress at Givat Hazan from the mobile home neighborhood built for them in nearby semi-cooperative Moshav Amatzia. Doron Ben-Shlomi, who heads Gush Katif Settlers' Council, plans to live in Mirsam.

"Mirsam will have 50 families from Gush Katif and a total of 350 homes, plus the midrasha [post-secondary Judaic studies school for women] that used to be in Gush Katif," says Ben-Shlomi.

"Givat Hazan will have 500 homes, and about 150 of these are earmarked for families from Neve Dekalim."

Ben-Shlomi believes the new settlements blend well with the surrounding landscape and do not violate the principles of the biosphere planned for the area.

"That kind of space is supposed to integrate man and nature," says Ben-Shlomi, "and just as we have to take care of the butterflies and other wildlife in it, we have to let man live in it too, and allow a variety of communities to develop in a way that suits a rural lifestyle.

"No additional new settlements will be built in this region," says Ben-Shlomi. "I know that the veteran residents of this area support us because they know that [the new communities] will attract people who will come here to enjoy nature and visit the many archaeological sites in this area."

Itamar Ben David, a planner at SPNI, said he felt the infrastructure for the new communities was being built without proper regard for the landscape.

"The groundwork for the residential areas is destroying the natural habitats in this region and denuding the land," he said.

One SPNI representative who toured the area recently with members of the planning committee said he saw a herd of deer come to a hill where they used to graze and discover it had been turned into a construction site.

Just the beginning

The SPNI is afraid that the three new settlements are just the first stage of the development of this area.

"The communities will want to expand and will ask for permits for agricultural enterprises," says Ben-David. "There are already plans for accompanying infrastructure, such as a water reservoir, educational institutions and sewage and waste disposal installations."

The establishment of the new settlements in the Lachish region is only part of the overall process of building new communities for former residents of Gaza's Jewish settlements. Two agricultural communities in the Halutza Sands region of the Negev - Naot and Bnei Netzarim - are nearing completion. Three established cooperative communities - Amatzia in the Lachish region and Kibbutz Yesodot and Kibbutz Hafetz Haim in the Soreq regional council area - are planning to build new neighborhoods for former Gush Katif residents, essentially building new communities alongside the existing ones.

The government has already approved the construction of a new neighborhood inside the municipal area of Amatzia and is processing the approval of the construction of the other two new areas.

Ben-David says that a neighborhood that becomes a new community is tantamount to an additional center of development that will spread more in the future.

"This might happen inside the municipal boundaries, but there is still a lot of open area that will also become built up," cautions Ben-David.