Arab council heads in the north have reacted with anger over a proposal to establish new Jewish towns and expand rural communities in the central Galilee in an effort to achieve demographic balance with the area’s Arabs.
The plan was met with mixed reactions from mayors of Jewish towns in the region. The proposal, presented by the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division, calls for the construction of four new communities, the expansion of existing rural communities beyond what the national master plan allows, and the construction of single-family homes, rather than apartment buildings, in the region’s cities.
WZO's Settlement Division is defined by the government as one of its executive arms.
The objective is to bring 100,000 new Jewish residents to the Galilee by providing housing options “that will attract a stable Jewish population and create a meaningful demographic balance,” according to a letter the Settlement Division sent to urban planning firms.
Imad Dahla, chairman of the Turan Local Council, notes that one of the planned communities, Shibolet, is slated to be erected north of his town, on Mount Turan, which would close off any possibility for his community to expand.
“To the east of us is a quarry that ruins our quality of life, to the north is the plan for Shibolet, to the west is a nature reserve and to the south they are laying a gas pipeline that blocks our economic development,” said Dahla, who stressed that defining the plan to build new communities as “an expression of Israeli sovereignty,” as the WZO letter stated, was a “racist expression.”
“If we would live on the mountain it would undermine Israeli sovereignty?” asked Dahla. “We are loyal citizens who fulfill our obligations to the state. Someone has to do some soul searching.”
Salah Suleiman, chairman of the Bu’eine-Nujeidat Local Council, which will also be adjacent to Shibolet, said that he couldn’t understand the logic of building new communities rather than enhancing existing ones.
“Erecting new communities demands a huge investment,” Suleiman said. “It’s a waste of public funds. Let them strengthen what exists, why do we need new towns?”
Suleiman added that in addition to building new towns, the government must invest in the adjacent Arab communities. “Our situation is very bad,” he said. “I’m not against development, but there should be development for everyone.”
The heads of Jewish local councils in the region had mixed views. Upper Nazareth Mayor Shimon Gapso saw no reason to worry that new towns would weaken existing cities. “Establishing new communities is a welcome step; it both encourages population dispersion to all parts of the country and preserves parts of our homeland,” he said.
Motti Dotan, chairman of the Lower Galilee Regional Council, in which Shibolet and another community, Ramat Arbel, are to be built, said new towns were necessary because National Master Plan 35 limits the number of units in the existing rural communities.
“We can’t exceed the planning limitations, which is why we support establishing new communities,” he said. “Settlement and Zionism are not dirty words, even though we don’t use them much.” He noted that Shibolet was slated to house a residence for people with special needs.
But Safed Mayor Ilan Shohat believes that the plan is a mistake. According to Shohat, the new towns will lure economically strong families away from cities like his.
“Building new communities will only lead to a weakening of the periphery,” he said. “Past experience shows that new communities and expansion of the rural communities only weakens the older cities. We’ve been through this in Safed, Kiryat Shmona and other cities. It creates inequitable competition between us and the new towns or the rural expansion areas, and the result is that young people who grew up in the cities abandon them.
“[The government] should bring people from Israel's center to the Galilee by strengthening existing cities and making the Galilee attractive so that migration will occur naturally," he added. "Building new towns will not really contribute to northward migration.”
Shohat spoke of building a large new neighborhood of 1,400 homes on the outskirts of Safed, on the slope between Safed and Rosh Pina, where a new medical school and an academic research center will eventually be built.
"One possibility would be subsidizing the construction in the new neighborhood, where costs will be high because it’s on a slope,” Shohat suggested.
MK Eitan Cabel (Labor) on Sunday requested an urgent meeting of the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee on the plan, essentially echoing Shohat’s argument that building new communities in the Galilee was liable to weaken existing ones.
The committee, he said, “ought to debate whether these budgets should be allocated to strengthen existing communities, and also discuss the possible harm to nature that could result from the construction of new towns. We also need to think about how to invest resources to create jobs and improve access roads and transportation. Strengthening the Galilee and its Jewish and Arab residents can only succeed by reinforcing existing communities, not by building new towns for the successful and wealthy.”