The World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division, which is defined by the government as one of its executive arms, is formulating a plan to settle more Jews in the Galilee to achieve a demographic balance with the Arab population. This would be accomplished by establishing new towns and expanding existing ones beyond the limits set in the national master plan for development.
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In recent weeks, the Settlement Division has contacted a number of planning firms to suggest that they bid on a tender to prepare a development policy document for absorbing 100,000 new residents in the central Galilee, in the area surrounding the Beit Netofa Valley. The division is already advancing government-sponsored plans to erect a number of new communities in the Negev.
The goal of the plan is stated clearly in the letters: To further expand and develop the mitzpim (hilltop settlement) plan of the 1980s, with the goal of “giving expression to Israeli sovereignty through settlement activity.”
The letter notes that the mitzpim plan created a strong network of communities but did not succeed in changing the demographic balance in the area. “The current reality in the rural region of the central Galilee is a lack of settlement options that will attract a stable Jewish population and create a meaningful demographic balance,” the letter states. “Sustaining the area and preserving our hold on it requires the continued development of a rural-settlement array alongside urban development and the continued realization of the objectives of the mitzpim plan as a plan to improve settlement continuity and enhance the demographic balance.”
To attract tens of thousands of new residents and achieve a demographic balance, the Settlement Division claims that several major steps are necessary, including the establishment of four new communities that already have preliminary government approval. Two of these communities, to be called Shibolet and Ramat Arbel, have yet to be approved by the relevant planning bodies. Two other communities, Haruv and Yissachar, were originally slated to be built north of Kiryat Tivon in the western Galilee. Now the WZO is proposing that they be moved to new sites east of the Movil junction, to a site in the central Galilee.
The Settlement Division letter criticizes the current planning policy, which is based on National Master Plan 35 (the plan for national development). This plan stresses the expansion of existing communities, discourages the establishment of new communities and limits the capacity of rural communities to 500 homes each.
According to the letter, the division believes that within existing communities and adjacent to them, new neighborhoods should be built of 700-1,000 units each. The division also proposes abandoning the policy of dense construction in urban areas like Carmiel and Upper Nazareth, and to instead allow the construction of single-family homes until the outer edges of city limits.
“This is a continuation of the demographic war in the 1980s that was conducted against the Arab population,” said MK Hanna Swaid (Hadash), who lives in the Galilee and is a planning expert. “The previous plan undermined older cities like Carmiel, Tiberias and Afula by drawing strong populations to the single-family homes in the new communities. But the area has enough communities. What is needed to help both the Jews and the Arabs is more jobs, infrastructure improvements and a reduction in the education and employment gaps between the center and the periphery. This [proposed] process is not a planning process, but part of the struggle over the land.”
The Settlement Division proposal could have far-reaching implications for the open areas of the Galilee. “Establishing new communities involves more than just the residential structures themselves, but also accompanying infrastructures like roads, electricity, sewerage and water pipes,” noted Itamar Ben David, head of planning for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. “This will ruin the landscape, reduce the amount of open space and lead to the destruction of natural habitats. This is especially true when we’re talking about single-family homes that are built in an outrageous waste of precious land.
“Unfortunately we are seeing, over and over, and during the past year or two even more often, the Israeli government, through the Settlement Division and the Construction and Housing Ministry, working vigorously to advance initiatives like this,” Ben David continued. “These initiatives contravene the national planning policy led by the Interior Ministry, and come instead of working toward a serious and thorough solution to the real problem, which is the housing shortage.”
The Settlement Division spokesman said in response: “In accordance with cabinet decisions, the Settlement Division is fully authorized to propose and advance regional and local plans and suggest them to the decision makers. The work of the division focuses on settlement development in the area in question, and is based on a feasibility study that will be presented, in the end, to the decision makers.
“As part of the Lev Hagalil [Heart of the Galilee] plan, we are examining, inter alia, the feasibility of establishing a number of communities about which there are government decisions that have yet to be implemented,” the statement continued. “National Master Plan 35 does not preclude the existence of plans of different types that it has defined, and everything is being done in accordance with the various stages of evaluation that are the guiding principles of the proposed plans.
“It is worth noting that at this time the Settlement Division, in accordance with a government decision, is working on planning a Druze settlement in the Galilee.”
The chairman of the Lower Galilee Regional Council, which has jurisdiction where Shibolet and Ramat Arbel will be located, said the move implements a cabinet resolution that “unfortunately” has yet to be put into practice.
“We have to establish new communities and broaden existing ones,” said Moti Dotan, the council chairman. “For instance, that’s what we’re doing in Mitzpeh Netofa and Beit Rimon, near Shibolet, which will be built between them. I would like to note that the government and the planning authorities have restricted us with National Master Plan 35 in terms of the number of housing units in existing communities, and we have not succeeded in getting past those planning restrictions, so we support the construction of new communities.”
He said Shibolet would be located on Mount Turan and would help people with special needs integrate into mainstream society.
“Settlement and Zionism are not dirty words, even though not many people use them.”
Salah Suleiman, who heads the neighboring Arab regional council of Bueina-Nudijat, said the government should spend the money on improving existing communities - including the nearby Arab ones - rather than on building new ones.
“While they’re investing in new communities, it would be appropriate to strengthen the nearby Arab ones. Our situation is very bad, terrible,” he said. “I’m not opposed to development, but let it be development for everyone.”
Suleiman also wondered aloud at the point of the document laying out the plan for building the new towns, which said doing so “gives expression to Israeli sovereignty via settlement activity.”
“Are we objecting to the sovereignty of the state and its laws?” he asked. “As long as they don’t take our land, we don’t take an oppositional stance.”
Suleiman also said he does not understand the logic behind building new towns rather than expanding existing ones.
“Building new communities requires a huge investment,” he said. “It’s a waste of public funds. They should give a boost to what already exists. Why do we need more communities?”