Panel to Vote on Seven New Jewish Communities in Negev

Environmentalists and ministry vehemently oppose plan, want expansion of existing cities such as Arad and Be’er Sheva.

Zafrir Rinat
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Bedouin houses in the Negev.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkowitz
Zafrir Rinat

The government is continuing its drive to establish new Jewish communities in the Negev, despite strong objections from the Environmental Protection Ministry and environmental organizations. A plan to build seven new Jewish communities near Arad will be brought for approval before a subcommittee of the National Planning and Building Council Tuesday, the first of three statutory steps to obtain building approval.

If the panel approves the plans, it will be passed on to the full council and, after that, to the cabinet.

Environmental groups and the ministry oppose the program, claiming it will come at the expense of open areas and will weaken existing communities.

The new plan is under the sponsorship of the settlement division of the World Zionist Organization, which serves as the government’s arm for planning and implementing such programs. The settlement division conducted an examination of the construction of the new communities near Arad and, based on the conclusions, prepared the plan for seven rural communities to be added to the four that have already been approved in the region. The plans would add around 3,600 residential units for some 15,000 residents.

The new towns are intended for groups that are interested in a unique community lifestyle, such as graduates of pre-army preparatory programs, “therapists and patients in the area of complementary medicine,” the younger generation from the settlements in the southern Hebron Hills, residents interested in an “ecological way of life,” or those interested in “alternative religious lifestyles.”

The justifications for the plan claim it covers Israel’s southern “seam line,” which requires expanded settlement to serve as an “effective barrier in the region.” Another justification is that the number of rural communities in the metropolitan Be’er Sheva area is relatively low compared to other regions. The settlement division also says the present plan does not compromise the plans for legalizing unrecognized Bedouin communities in the area.

The settlement division says the communities have been arranged so they will not damage the natural environment, and will not weaken the city of Arad by attracting its better-off residents to the newer communities. The planning documents state that the new residents would not have come to live in the region without the new towns, and in any case are not interested in living in cities. In fact, say the planners, Arad will benefit from becoming a center for services and commerce for the new communities.

The Environmental Protection Ministry strongly opposes the plan. The ministry’s professional staff says building new communities is much more expensive than strengthening existing ones. In addition, the ministry says Arad will be harmed, and fears its wealthier residents will move out to the new communities or suburban areas. “The establishment of new communities in the region signals to the population of Arad that the state is giving up on [Arad’s] chance to be an independent city that will serve as a center of attraction in itself,” wrote Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz, about a year ago to the Prime Minister’s Office. The ministry also determined that the construction will have irreversible environmental effects.

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel recognized that “strengthening settlement in the Negev is an important and appropriate goal,” but said it should be done “by expanding existing towns and not by building new ones. In addition to the damage to the landscape and the environmental damage, establishing new communities will harm existing ones, including Be’er Sheva and Dimona. For social and economic considerations, there are advantages to strengthening existing communities.”

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