Galilee city of Harish
The Galilee city of Harish. Photo by Nimrod Glickman
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Plans to transform the lower Galilee city of Harish into a burgeoning ultra-Orthodox community are moving ahead, even as residents warn the move could create ethnic tension.

The committee appointed to run the Katzir-Harish Local Council, headed by Nissim Dahan of Shas, will remain in place for another two years, after elections set for next month were called off on Wednesday by the Knesset's Interior and Environment Committee.

The committee, headed by MK Amnon Cohen (Shas ) voted 7-4 to accept the request of Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas ), who sought to delay elections originally scheduled for January. Ministry representatives said they had not made any preparations for the elections.

This marked the third time the Knesset panel had agreed to extend Dahan's tenure. Dahan, a former health minister, has headed the Katzir-Harish council since 2007, after then Interior Minister Roni Bar-On dissolved the local council, which could not pass a budget.

Interior Ministry director-general Amram Kalaji explained that the request stemmed from a plan to expand Harish and transform it into a large ultra-Orthodox city. Kalaji said the plan represented a project of national scope and insisted that it was important to keep Dahan in place in order to advance the process.

Kalaji noted that there are concerns the expansion of Harish could be derailed by harsh objections from area residents.

Katzir-Harish, in the lower Galilee, now has about 1,200 families, most of whom are secular. They are fighting the plan - which has developed over the past three years - to transform Harish, which has plans for a city of 150,000 people, into a Haredi city.

The plan was promoted in an effort to meet the burgeoning Haredi community's demand for housing, since few young Haredi families can afford homes in any of the traditional Haredi enclaves.

The idea to develop Harish for Haredim came after the original plans for an open city at the site ostensibly failed to attract enough interest among developers. But local residents say the government has been frustrating contractors' efforts to buy land there.

Kibbutzim and Arab local councils in the area, along with environmental groups, are also fighting the plan, which they say will drastically change the pastoral character of the area and create ethnic tension.

The head of the Committee for Harish's Future, Hemy Bar-Or, said in response to the panel's decision that the residents plan to petition the High Court of Justice to enable the residents to hold democratic elections.

"The residents of Harish are turning into cannon fodder for the Haredi city," Bar-Or said.