The Golan Heights Come Down to Earth

Nearly four decades after the establishment of Katzrin, intended to be a bustling urban center in the Golan, residents and planners are still trying to figure out why it never took off, and whether an alternative plan would have made a difference.

Keshet Rosenblum
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Keshet Rosenblum

It’s late summer in Katzrin, and the peaceful paths winding through the veteran Gamla neighborhood, the first to be built in this city in the Golan Heights, reveal no trace of the drama, disputes and difficulties involved in its construction. At the delicatessen at the entrance to Katzrin − one of many such shops run by Russian immigrants and selling Russian foods − a young salesgirl is arranging bottles of kvass ‏(a favorite fermented beverage‏) in tidy rows in the refrigerator.

A boulevard leads off from the center of town, where the Katzrin local council is housed. Lining the boulevard is a row of groceries, a hairdressing salon, a kiosk and a pharmacy. The street then becomes a simple concrete bridge, passing over a wide road that leads to the residential neighborhoods. Traffic is light.

“This is not an alienated backwater,” says Shmuel ‏(Sami‏) Bar-Lev, who has been mayor and head of the local council for 33 years, and organized the first group of settlers here 40 years ago. “This place has an intimate communal feeling. People know each other.”

Bar-Lev admits later in the interview, which takes place in his office, that some residents say “we shouldn’t have called ourselves a city.” Indeed, Katzrin today is far from being a bustling metropolis, and isn’t really an urban environment at all. These days, such locales are designated “community settlements.” In November 1973, however, the government decided that an as-yet non-existent Katzrin would be an urban-industrial center on the Golan. Three years later, as trucks laden with building materials wound their way up to the plateau lying east of Lake Kinneret, and the new community took shape, David Shalev reported in the daily Davar that “now no one can dispute the fact that this is a bona-fide city.”

Forty years after the Yom Kippur War, Katzrin is seen less as a security asset protecting the Golan and more like the fictional Twin Peaks of television fame − a label assigned to it after the mysterious murder of teenage resident Tair Rada seven years ago. Whatever terminology one chooses, Katzrin was planned in its entirety, designed to serve as an alternative place of residence in the middle of the Heights, in response to the perceived ideological and political need to populate the area captured in the Six-Day War. Until then, this area had been terra incognita for most Israelis.

“At that time, if you didn’t want to live in a city, you could choose between a kibbutz and a moshav,” says Yehuda Harel, a former MK from the short-lived Third Way party and one of the founders of Kibbutz Merom Hagolan, near Katzrin. “The kibbutz was already unpopular, and living on a moshav demanded working in agriculture. The only option left was to build a city here.”

The idea of erecting an urban center in the Golan first surfaced during the great euphoria that swept the country after the 1967 war. The operative decision to construct it was only made by Golda Meir’s government following the Yom Kippur War, encouraged by a rather fanatical group of settlers headed by Sami Bar-Lev. This closely tied group had parked itself after the Six-Day War in the captured Syrian town of Kuneitra, but that was returned to Syria in the form of a UN-supervised demilitarized zone as part of the separation-of-forces agreement struck in 1974.

At the time, the Israeli government wanted to show in a demonstrative way its determination to permanently populate the Golan with Israelis, to fill in the gap along the relatively new northeastern border, and to consolidate it with substantial settlement activity, as had been done previously in the Sinai Peninsula − in Ofira ‏(Sharm el-Sheikh‏) and later in Yamit. As in the case of those locales, the responsibility for building Katzrin lay with the Housing Ministry, headed then by Avraham Ofer. This was a complex project, rife with conflict and political considerations. It was implemented only slowly; a good part of the foot-dragging was attributed to Ofer’s dovish political inclinations.

Not only did bureaucracy impede the progress in Katzrin, but also arguments over the principles underlying the essence and form of the nascent urban center. Housing Ministry planners were grappling with a regional and rather unconventional undertaking. The master plan that emerged was designed by architect and chief ministry urban planner Hanan Mertens, but it was disputed beforehand by the architect Israel Gudovich, then in charge of rural planning at the ministry.

“The issue revolved around how to build a new city, taking into account that this was a frontier town subject to shelling by the Syrians − it was still wartime,” Gudovich recalls today.

The whole enterprise thus embodied a symbolic struggle between the rural and urban planning departments at the ministry, which ultimately demanded Ofer’s intervention. He initially ordered that the planning of Katzrin be divided into two tracks: that headed by Mertens, who continued along the lines that had guided him in planning the city Carmiel, in 1964; and the other involving the unconventional design conceived by Gudovich. “It was something that no one had seen before, which made it difficult to understand,” the architect says.

His Katzrin design was based on a plan he had drawn up for Moshav Hatzeva in the Arava desert, in the south, in the late 1960s. The location chosen for Katzrin was between two roads leading to the Golan Heights, on a gentle slope leading down toward Lake Kinneret. Gudovich suggested concentrating all public spaces in the city underground, beneath a big square covering an area of 10 dunams ‏(2.5 acres‏); the subterranean space would serve as an enormous bomb shelter in emergencies. The planners estimated that the funds they would need for constructing this public space/shelter was nearly half of the budget earmarked for building the entire city.

Butterfly effect

There were two models for the residential quarters of the city: three- and four-story apartment buildings, a long row of which would border the square on its northeastern side; and across the way, on the other side of the square, single-family dwellings. This arrangement would allow all residents to see the Kinneret. A few skyscrapers were even planned, for the area behind the rows of apartments.

Gudovich’s unconventional, if not off-putting, design was rejected following a stormy debate at the Housing Ministry, after which he resigned. Eventually, Merten’s plan was adopted − though never totally implemented. He had proposed a butterfly-shaped layout, down the middle of which run a linear urban center. Along the sides, like the wings of the butterfly, would be built eight residential neighborhoods, each with separate lanes for vehicular and pedestrian traffic, and a central promenade running down the middle of each neighborhood. The idea was to enable a resident to get everywhere on foot: from the neighborhoods to the center and from one neighborhood to another. Local community services such as synagogues and kindergartens were to be situated along these axes, within each neighborhood.

In practice, only two neighborhoods were built using this design. When construction was to begin on the third, along with the eastern side of the city center, it was blocked by the army, which declared the area part of its firing range; no further building has been done in eastern Katzrin to this day. This surprising restriction was imposed when construction was in full swing in Katzrin and precipitated a number of changes. Instead of adhering to the concept of a common center, each new neighborhood was tagged on to the boundaries of the earlier ones.

“This has removed the possibility of easy pedestrian movement, since the new neighborhoods are far from the center, necessitating the use of public transit,” says Mayor Bar-Lev now.

The change in plans did have some benefits, however: By having the town expand toward the south, Katzrin was brought closer to the Yehudiya Forest Nature Reserve on the south, and to the Katzrin stream nearby, which fills up in the winter and is now part of a municipal park within the city borders.

The now-veteran neighborhoods of Katzrin were built, according to Marten’s plans for the government, as rows of three-story apartment blocks, set along footpaths in a zigzag pattern. The buildings were constructed, depressingly, entirely from concrete, with only minimal recesses for windows. This was a result of security considerations at the time of construction, when the situation on the Heights was tense.

Five thousand units in such concrete structures were initially planned, enough to accommodate 20,000 residents, and in the mid-’70s many people, believing in the importance of settlement in the Golan, rushed here. Most of the early residents were young couples or educated professionals who came from the Tel Aviv and Haifa areas. Construction was slow, stopping time and again, stalling the waves of occupancy. This ratcheted up existing tensions between various government ministries and local authorities.

“The political situation was such that we weren’t sure the project would be completed, and that created a lot of stress,” Bar-Lev recalls. “We were young and impatient. After all, it takes time to plan and build.”

The supply-and-demand scenario changed a few years later. There are now fewer than 8,000 residents in Katzrin, one-third of the original number envisioned. “There is some growth, but it’s slow,” the mayor admits. “We have plans for building 700 more units, if needed.”

Katzrin did, however, see a significant boom in construction in the 1990s, during the large wave of immigration from the Former Soviet Union. And the new neighborhoods constructed then marked a change in conception and a break from the earlier plans.

“People had come to the Golan dreaming of a single-family home, so plans changed,” explains Bar-Lev. The results are evident everywhere: Instead of rows of apartment blocks there are individual homes, still being constructed in colorful and bombastic “Tuscan” or “Oriental” styles. Instead of separate thoroughfares for pedestrians and motorists, there are cobbled “Dutch” streets, where cyclists and pedestrians have priority.

The possible withdrawal from the Golan − an option mentioned during talks with the Syrians that involved Yitzhak Rabin in the early 1990s and Ehud Barak in 1999-2000 − gave locals many sleepless nights. They coined the slogan “The people are with the Golan” and united in the struggle to retain the Heights as part of Israel.

Bar-Lev: “People continued to come here even in difficult periods. There were days when we didn’t know what the future would hold. At no stage did the government neglect us for political reasons. We were always provided with infrastructure and resources. This was no slapdash enterprise.”

Unexploited infrastructure

Katzrin’s central downtown area has also changed over the years. At the outset, it was built not so much as a commercial center, but more as a conglomeration of small businesses, including print shops, clothing manufacturers and other light
industries − nearly all of which employed a high proportion of female residents. It quickly became apparent that these enterprises were not as profitable as shops, however, and they have since been replaced by groceries, drug stores and so on.

Today, all of Katzrin’s industry is concentrated in an industrial park on its outskirts, 2 kilometers away from the center. It spans half of the area belonging to the local council, and serves as a major regional employer. Like elsewhere around the country, this park has large hangars, some cheap food chain outlets and lots of parking.

Katzrin’s physical infrastructure is designed for a much larger population. A network of roads criss-cross its southern parts in a surrealistic fashion, complete with lamp posts and curbs − cutting through yellow fields of thistles, with no housing in sight. The local service infrastructure, too, is geared to a much larger population than that living here. There is a country club with indoor and outdoor pools, tennis courts, a gym, a spa and other sports halls. The Oholo Academic College for Education moved here from the Galilee in 1998; it has a student body of about 1,000. Katzrin also abounds in youth clubs and religious organizations and boasts a community center.

The wide green boulevards that separate the original houses here could be used for more construction, but the vision of Katzrin as a special community may have spent itself. Its young people have not always found their place here after reaching adulthood, moving to central Israel like their counterparts from other peripheral areas. And although Katzrin wisely brands itself as a “green city in the midst of nature,” one cannot ignore its urban elements, remnants of the former dream of erecting a massive urban presence here, which somehow fell by the roadside on the way up from the Kinneret.

“It would be great if we could grow rapidly, reach a population of 10,000-12,000,” says Bar-Lev, who says his model is thriving Kiryat Tivon, in the Western Galilee. “We could then improve our services, offering a wider selection of stores and goods. Even so, we already provide some services that even larger communities don’t have.”

Gudovich summarizes his impressions of the city, after a visit last month, thus: “I sat at a restaurant in the industrial park. I was alone so I interviewed the waitress. She said she was a resident, so I asked her what the city was like. What city? She replied. It may be one in name only. It’s not a city, just a place.”

In his opinion, as a nonobjective and passionate supporter of a design that was discarded, Gudovich attributes the sleepy nature of Katzrin today to faulty planning. “In some cases planning is not that important. City towers cannot be made better or worse by their architecture. But in urban planning, especially when starting from scratch, God help those who start off on the wrong foot.

“Planning is not just about money and committees. Planning means working around a conception, and here,” he says, pointing to the model based on his original design, “is an alternative one.”

In December 1974, when his proposal was rejected and he left the Ministry of Housing, Gudovich invested money and energy in launching an exhibition called “A City Is Born,” in the Gera gallery in Jaffa. Via this show, which featured plans and models, Gudovich succeeded in arousing public interest in his protest of conventional concepts of urban planning in the country: “I was fighting for the future but I had no partners. What they did here is unthinkable.”

Housing Minister Ofer even visited the exhibition, leaving a polite note that said that “even if your proposal is not implemented in the Golan, I have no doubt that it will find a place in another large urban center.” That was sufficient for Gudovich to conclude that his proposal had been disqualified on political grounds.

“Even though he didn’t specifically say so, Ofer did not believe in the Golan Heights,” he says now. “It wasn’t part of Israel as far as he was concerned. Today it’s clear that the debate over the Golan is over.”

Katzrin has other problems besides its generic planning. It’s distant, with only cumbersome access by public transportation, and the nearest metropolitan center is Haifa, an hour and a half away by car.

The decision to establish Katzrin was a response of the Golda Meir government to the low morale that swept over the country after the 1973 war. In essence, the town has not disappointed: The Golan is today considered Israel’s Tuscany, a sought-after pastoral location for a vacation. But in reality, the Heights are an assortment of settlements lacking a center and a sense of belonging, both among themselves and vis-a-vis the country − a role that Katzrin was supposed to fulfill.

A survey of other communities built around the same time shows a clear trend. Giv’at Ze’ev, north of Jerusalem, was established in 1977, the same year as Katzrin. A year later Ariel, Shavei Shomron, Shilo and Tekoa were established. But construction of these locales was based on the settlement ideology, which overrode any sense of proper architectural planning and totally disconnected from it. It could be said that urban planning was abandoned with and after the birth of Katzrin.

Also today in downtown Katzrin, work has been going on for several months to renew the Eitan Center, its old commercial center that has been rendered irrelevant due to various developments over the years. The local council is thus trying to find a solution for the site in the form of a new structure and square to be erected next to the old one. This is partly the result of the fact that commercial activity has in recent years been moving to the industrial park, despite the fact that it is much less accessible. Above the scaffolding at the center are placards hung by candidates running in next month’s municipal elections. One promises “hope” and the other “A new future for Katzrin.”

Bar-Lev is not running again. “It’s enough. One has to know when to stop,” he says. “This has been the quietest place in the country [in the last few decades]. There was no shelling or fighting here.” After so many quiet years, we ask, will the “butterfly” ever be completed? “When peace comes,” laughs Yehuda Harel. And Bar-Lev adds wryly, “not on our watch.”

An aerial view of Katzrin today. Far from being a bustling metropolis, it isn't really a city at all.Credit: Albatross/Courtesy of Katzrin Local Council
The original butterfly-shaped plan for Katzrin.Credit: Ran Arda

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