A Haredi City on the Horizon

Planners deny Harish will soon be home to 150,000 ultra-Orthodox residents, but local secular residents and neighboring locales are worried - and taking legal steps, as well.

Just over a week ago, the future ultra-Orthodox city of Harish came closer to reality, after the National Planning and Building Council voted in favor of its master plan. The plan, Harish 1, encompasses most of the future city's area - i.e., its residential neighborhoods and a business center. The committee which is planning the city, located in the southern Galilee, is headed by Yigal Shahar and is now working on Harish 2, a master plan for expansion. Altogether the two plans will affect an area of about 4,500 dunams (1,225 acres ) and will include about 9,000 housing units.

At present, Harish is a small town. The plans will not only expand it enormously, but will drastically change its existing character.

Itzik Ben-Malki

Shahar, formerly director of the northern and Haifa districts of the Interior Ministry, simply accepts the government position that the Haredi population in the country needs a city in this region - even if it's at the expense of the existing secular population of the town, who will soon find themselves in an ultra-Orthodox locale with about 50,000 residents.

In a conversation with a secular resident last year, Shahar spelled out the fact that "nobody will help" him or other nonreligious stay there. "If you want, I'll convert you and you can stay here with a skullcap."

"I may have behaved insensitively in the way I presented things to the residents," Shahar said last week in his first interview about Harish. "I opted to tell the truth directly, not to reveal it in stages. This city is planned for Haredim. Other people can continue living in it, but they'll have difficulty obtaining services such as education, since there won't be enough secular residents to warrant building schools or kindergartens. My heart goes out to the residents, but things need to be taken in proportion. I believe a large part of the people living here today, people who maintain a traditional or religious lifestyle, can continue living here."

The nonreligious residents of Harish aren't the only ones fighting the expansion of the town into a Haredi city: So are the surrounding kibbutzim, moshavim and Arab towns, which claim the planners actually intend to build a much bigger city than what they are admitting at present - one with 150,000 residents, which will seriously hurt the development of the surrounding towns.

Shahar denies this. "We have not and are not planning a city like that, nor has any such request been made to the municipal boundaries committee," he says.

While the Housing and Construction Ministry has been carrying out all kinds of studies, he adds, it hasn't been engaging in the legal aspect of creating a bigger city. "I'm not even sure the Haredim would want a city that big, with all the difficulties it would involve," he notes.

Yet residents in the area continue to suspect that a much bigger city is on the way, and other local planning committees are also worried. About two weeks ago the Harish planning committee was unable to persuade another body within the Interior Ministry - the Preservation of Agricultural Land and Open Space Council - to approve the route of a road connecting the future city to various sources of water. The open space council's members suspect the planned road is just part of a transportation system for a bigger city, which would run as far as Highway 65.

"All we sought to do is take advantage of a road already planned," says Relly Prengler, an environmental planner who has been advising the Harish committee. And, no, the road in question isn't supposed to connect to Highway 65, she adds.

Shahar and Prengler both argue that the new Harish plan will not diminish the development possibilities of the Arab locales, as opponents claim.

"The Arabs feel deprived, and they have private land they want to develop," says Prengler. "We did an inspection of all the Arab towns in the area and all have surplus area for planning in the years to come."

Surrounding Arab locales have master plans with land earmarked for development by 2030, or even by 2050, Shahar notes, suggesting that one of the reasons the towns object to the establishment of Harish is that it would create an obstacle in an area they had hoped to turn into an urban continuum, leading from Baka al-Gharbiyeh to the Wadi Ara towns in the north.

One thing is clear: The new Harish will make the whole area much more crowded. Some of the neighborhoods will be right next door to Kibbutz Metzer, and some very close to the Arab village of Umm al-Kutuf. Eastward, the homes of Harish will be near the new town of Mitzpeh Ilan. The founders of that locale had wanted to preserve the natural vistas in the vicinity. Instead they'll have a view of a dense, crowded Haredi neighborhood.

Environmental organizations, headed by the Union of Environmental Defense, have bitterly complained that Harish is being planned on open areas, some of which is forest land, without any study of the impact on the environment or landscape, as is the norm with plans of this magnitude. But Shahar and Prengler argue that the establishment and planning of the city were approved in the past, and that an environmental impact study had been conducted based on a survey by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.

"It is true that the area of Harish 2 includes spaces of environmental importance, by Narbata Creek, and these will be developed into housing," Shahar says.

Trees and open space aside, the main casualties of the plan will be nonreligious residents already living in the town of Harish. One such is Hemy Bar-Or, who has been spearheading residents' battle against expansion. He and his neighbors are not comforted by the city planners' dilemmas.

"The planning committee is simply pushing us out of the city," Bar-Or said last week. "Yigal Shahar can say that anybody who wants to stay, can stay, but in practice, we can't keep living here." Last week the group he heads, Save Harish, submitted a lawsuit at the Haifa District Court against the decision of the planning committee to recognize Harish's aim as being a locale for Haredim.

The residents claim both that the planning authorities didn't consult them, and also that the latter are planning a much bigger city than what they are currently describing.

A few months ago a group of Arab and Jewish residents in the area filed a lawsuit against the planning committee and against Yigal Shahar. Among other things they claim the panel has been acting secretively and that some of its members are prejudiced.

Bar-Or and his colleagues have meanwhile found an attentive ear at the National Planning Committee. Now they hope to win the attention of the courts.