Settle the Hilltops - or Not

The grandiose 1980s Mitzpim project in the Galilee was a turning point when it came to planning policy: In addition to political considerations, environmental issues began to come to the fore.

Shani Shiloh
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Shani Shiloh

Politics and environment are unhappy bedfellows, not least when it comes to the debate about settlement in Israel. While once politics was the easy winner if environmental issues were considered at all, this isn't necessarily the case any more. And in any event, the nature of the political debate in the country is changing, too: "Classic Zionism" has ceded ground in the public debate - though some argue that it's merely gone underground. Meanwhile, groups of people seeking a place to live only with their own kind aren't finding it as simple any more.

One single, grandiose project proved to be a turning point in the dialogue between environmental and political entities on the subject of planning, according to research by Naama Katz Ben-Sasson, a graduate of the school of public policy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. That project was the Mitzpim (literally, "lookout") project in the Galilee.

Katz Ben-Sasson researched the effect of the Mitzpim project on the country's planning dialogue, and discovered effects in both areas, mainly environmental but political, too.

The project was first conceived in 1979, and called for the establishment of no less than 52 settlements, kibbutzim and moshavim, to be strategically placed on Galilee hilltops. The purpose: to create points of Jewish settlement to break the continuity of the Arab population in the region. Fifty of these mitzpim still exist and have become official community settlements, but more on that later.

Anyway, in less than a decade, the settlement department of the Jewish Agency and the administration for rural construction at the Housing Ministry managed to plan and establish all those settlements. One snag that developed was that to implement some of the plans, the state needed to buy privately owned land from Arabs. In all the haste, sometimes things didn't work out as planned.

Thus one winds up with absurdities that developed over the years - such as a new neighborhood being established far from the older central area of the mitzpeh because of privately owned lands still located smack in the middle. Or the case of Rakefet, a hilltop townlet that found itself in court after rejecting a bid by an Arab family to buy land there. At the very heart of Rakefet are privately owned lands belonging to Arabs, on which the owners would dearly love to build "do-it-yourself" housing, but the people of Rakefet oppose the idea.

A bigger problem is that when the project took shape, nobody thought about the environmental impact of building 52 towns on hilltops throughout the region. Today, it's clear that, at least from the perspective of environmental sustainability, it would have been better to build fewer, bigger towns, to ease the burden on the environment. Each town requires its own "city center," its own water and sewage and electricity systems, its own roads. This constitutes a massive disturbance to the natural order.

The entire dialogue between various entities involved changed following the erection of the Mitzpim projects, says Katz Ben-Sasson, to the degree that representatives of environmental organizations joined planning committees in the 1990s.

A month ago, the High Court of Justice ordered the Israel Lands Administration to explain within 60 days why "community settlements" were being allowed to discriminate between potential residents. Specifically, the court wanted to know on what basis restrictions could be justified vis-a-vis the acceptability of certain people. The order followed a lawsuit by two families that had wanted to buy land at the Upper Galilee kibbutz Neot Mordechai, but had been rejected. Under the law, a euphemism here for National Master Plan No. 35, the state can't just establish new towns. The court's response reflects the status of the ILA, and also the significant influence the political echelon has on planning policy in the country.

It's nothing new that community settlements are picky about who lives in them; lawsuits by offended would-be home buyers are nothing new either. Among these are "gated communities" that consist of well-to-do residents who are, if not indistinguishable, then at least homogenous. You probably won't find any minorities, such as Arab Israelis or homosexual residents there.

But the courts have been frowning on such exclusive locales. Almost nine years ago, in 2000, the High Court of Justice ordered the state to allow Adel and Iman Ka'adan to buy land in the community settlement of Katzir. Clearly the criteria for acceptance to such communities had to undergo fundamental change.

At present, Resolution No. 1015 of the ILA does allow the residential vetting committees of these closed hamlets (as long as the town has less than 500 families) to decide who gets to live there, and who doesn't. But the latest High Court ruling will probably put paid to the habit of rejecting families from community settlements on the grounds of "unsuitability."

That said, these townlets are pretty much left to do as they please. The impact of political pressure on planning policy seems to be most serious in the case of large-scale projects, such as that of the hilltop communities in the Galilee. And, more recently, in regard to the relocating of residents of Gush Katif and the Gaza Strip. The clash between environmental and political policies that arose following the Mitzpim project is keenly relevant these days, because of the plan to build new communities in the area of Lachish for these evacuees.

"Settling the Lachish area is fraught with difficulty, which wasn't been the case of rural settlement in the Galilee," says Katz Ben-Sasson. The authorities may have approved the land from the legal and planning perspectives for Lachish, she adds, but the hurdle of environmental considerations hasn't been overcome.

Following the establishment of the hilltop towns in the Galilee, a debate arose over priorities: investment in metropolitan centers or in rural development. The controversy peaked with the approval in 2005 of National Master Plan No. 35, which ruled that no new towns may be built; instead the emphasis was to be placed on expanding existing ones.

However, that prohibition isn't an absolute. Nationalistic, geopolitical and security considerations may prevail, resulting precisely in the establishment of new towns. A case in point is Mirsham, a new community going up in Lachish, which is supposed to house 390 of the families evacuated from Gush Katif.

Arnon Sofer, professor emeritus from the University of Haifa, supports the idea of building in Lachish as a means to counter the pressure created by the "encroachment" in that area of Bedouin from southern Mt. Hebron. It isn't a political sort of encroachment, it's a question of proximity, he clarifies: "The Arab laborer isn't making a political statement when he seeks a place to live."

Sofer, a demographer and geo-strategy expert, has clout in political echelons, and doesn't think the case of the Galilee hilltop communities bears comparison with new settlement in Lachish.

"These projects aren't the same," he says. "I don't think there's a plan to build dozens of so-called outlook settlements. There is a plan by the Prime Minister's Office to expand settlements along the boundary line. It isn't like the Mitzpim project - at least not with respect to the concept of laying claim to territory."

What about the government ignoring its own resolution not to build any more towns? There's no governance in Israel, Sofer says with a shrug. Israel isn't managed, it muddles along. "But in any case, National Master Plan No. 35 was born in sin. The late Arie Shahar and Shamay Assif, director of the Planning Administration, created the plan as a 'patch' to fix National Master Plan No. 31. It's a plan that works for Tel Aviv, but it's not Zionist."

Sofer's definition of the plan as "not Zionist" is based on his world view of geopolitics and security. It was the same world view that led him, in 1975, to contact Raanan Weiss, then head of the Jewish Agency settlement division, to urge him to establish Jewish settlement in the Galilee to prevent Arab towns from spreading, merging and creating an autonomous region. It's anybody's guess whether it was Sofer's pressure that led to the birth of the mitzpim, but it's clear that the planning dialogue between political and environmental entities at that time reflects a worldview that he shared.

Before Mitzpim, planning policy had been classically Zionist, concludes Katz Ben-Sasson: claim a stake to the land. The plans for towns in those years were created by bodies such as the Jewish Agency, by people not considered to be extreme right. Their motives and explanations were nationalistic, not environmental or topographical.

Today, discussing territorial threats is frowned upon. The issue still exists, she says, but it's just gone undercover. What's happened is that people now say: Let's all live together with people just like ourselves, she explains. "They don't say, let's Judaicize the Galilee, as used to be the case." That would be politically incorrect.

Listening to Sofer, one wonders about Ben-Sasson's thesis claiming a sea-change in dialogue. He believes criticism of his views as "old-fashioned" is simply due to ignorance of the reality in which we live.

"I am a thinking, humanistic Zionist," he says. "Palestinian demography places challenges before us. In this situation, we have to stay on the defensive, so 'soft' words such as 'national master plan' and 'dialogue' are misplaced."

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