Black Hats in a Sea of Green

Environmental groups are fighting several plans to expand or build new ultra-Orthodox towns and employment centers, saying they will encroach on sensitive open lands.

For several years environmental groups have battled single family-home communities sprawling into the open landscape. Now they are turning their attention to rapidly expanding Haredi towns and the establishment of new ones in the midst of open spaces.

A special study commissioned on the jurisdictional boundaries of Katzir-Harish completed its work several weeks ago and recommended that land be annexed to the religious town to facilitate the construction of a neighboring Haredi city. The study stopped short of accepting all the expansion requests submitted by the Housing and Construction Ministry, though.

In its request to expand Katzir-Harish, the ministry said its studies indicate that the ultra-Orthodox community urgently needs thousands of housing units each year, and that housing solutions are difficult to find within existing communities.

"New localities must be found for the Haredim," the study read.

Fearing that their lands will be swallowed up and that the influx of ultra-Orthodox will be drain on the area, surrounding Arab communities and kibbutzim bitterly oppose Katzir-Harish's expansion. They also oppose growth on environmental grounds.

Local residents organized an action committee against establishing and expanding the city, saying it will take over forested land and block the remaining ecological corridor between local communities and the separation fence on the Green Line.

In the Jerusalem area another special study commission for jurisdictional boundaries is considering expanding Kiryat Ye'arim, a religious town to the west of the city, by over 500 dunams (about 125 acres ).

The commission claims the town's land reserves have all been used up, and that it should be allowed to grow naturally to the size of a city with a population of 20,000.

It went so far as saying that, with secular Jews and Arabs having already been given the option of living in suburban Jerusalem, it was now the Haredis' turn.

A lineup of environmental organizations filed objections to the proposed expansion before the commission met to discuss the issue two weeks ago.

Especially vocal was the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, which claimed that even at its current size Kiryat Ye'arim was a horrid planning mistake in its disregard for the area's environmental importance, despite its proximity to other existing municipalities.

"The expansion plan and its offshoot effects have destructive significance from an environmental point of view," said the SPNI, referring mainly to effects of building near the Yitla Stream, on open land considered highly important environmentally.

"Contrary to the town's claims, the housing supply in the Jerusalem district for those in the Haredi population needing it outstrips supply for any other sector," added the SPNI. "Jerusalem - and Beit Shemesh especially - offer quality housing alternatives. Directing municipal growth inward and limiting expansion onto open spaces are important principles in planning policy and are binding on all district municipalities, from the capital Jerusalem to the smallest village."

Ruth Yosef, who chairs the Interior Ministry's Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee, appeared last month before the special commission and also mentioned the extensive housing supply promoted by the Interior Ministry in Beit Shemesh.

"We are doubling the number of dwelling units in the city," she said. "The intention is to go from a city with 85,000 residents to over 200,000."

Green groups are worried about open spaces being harmed by housing plans for Haredim in two other places: Elad, a Haredi city with growth aspirations, and Kasif, a city being planned in the Arad Valley.

New town, new problems

The SPNI says that Elad's expansion plans will partially encroach on land designated to become a nature reserve. Much of the open land in the area was reduced or cut off by the separation fence, adding to the importance of what remains. A special borders commission to be set up for Elad is expected to seal the fate of this land too.

Kasif is an entirely new city slated to rise next to the Tel Arad National Park on land that had been zoned for agricultural use, according to SPNI. But land reserves within the city of Arad itself have already been approved for use in construction, and a decision was made to establish several new towns in the area. The National Planning and Building Council decided last year to support the Kasif plan, despite objections by the SPNI.

The trend of developing living and employment areas for the ultra-Orthodox is also notable in well-established Haredi communities like Rekhasim, east of Haifa.

A plan was recently put forward to build a business park on open territory just outside the town based on the claim that women in the community need a place to work nearby. Green organizations argued in vain that the Haifa Bay area has plenty of available space while Interior Minister Eli Yishai said that even a larger business park than planned should be built.

Green groups are aware of the housing shortage faced by Haredim, and that it isn't enough to just say "no" - alternatives must be provided too.

"We think solutions based on expanding existing communities or building adjacent to them must be promoted," said Nir Papai, head of SPNI's Environmental Protection Division. "In addressing the needs of this population solutions must be provided primarily in the central region, not in places like the Arad area. Expansion of Beit Shemesh already provides a significant solution, while another important option could be utilizing open spaces near Kiryat Gat. We also think that a city of 10,000 housing units, or maybe a bit more, could be built in Katzir-Harish as previously planned in the regional master plan, but this needs to be an open city for everyone, not just Haredim."