Bennett Advances Golan Heights Construction Plan in Bid to Double Population

Green groups in Israel have slammed the plan, which calls for establishment of two new communities in the Golan Heights and bypasses the usual planning process

Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
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The Golan Heights, in 2018.
The Golan Heights, in 2018.Credit: Gil Eliyahu
Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is advancing the establishment of a new zoning board with broad powers and no public representatives in a bid to expedite development and construction in the Golan Heights.

The proposal is part of a program, announced in October and slated for submission to the cabinet for approval this month, to double the population in the Golan Heights by the end of the decade.

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In addition to increasing the number of residents in existing communities, the plan calls for creating two new communities. Nature conservation organizations say the aim is to bypass the required planning process and argue that the establishment of new communities needlessly damages open spaces.

The proposal calls for increasing the population of the Golan Heights from 52,000 (including Katzrin and the Druze communities) by 50 percent by 2025 and doubling it by the end of the decade. Achieving these goals will require, in addition to significant residential construction, employment opportunities and the infrastructure needed to support the new residents. The plan also calls for a number of new solar energy projects, including a large field of panels in Emek Habacha. The proposed new cooperative communities have already been given the temporary names of Asif and Matar.

To expedite the approval process, the Prime Minister’s Office seeks to create a “special committee” to deal with setting up the new communities, building new neighborhoods in existing ones and establishing industrial, commercial and tourism zones. The committee will have the powers of local and district planning and building committees, but unusually, will not include members who represent the public.

The procedure for deciding whether to create new communities, and where, will go through the national planning bodies, as usual, but once approval is obtained, the special committee will be in charge of planning them. The special committee will be licensed to operate only until 2025, for now.

In a statement drawn up in response to the plan, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel called the proposed establishment of the special committee an exceptional and unreasonable measure. The organization noted that in the past there were two special committees that were involved in establishing Harish and Modi’in, but the new panel is to be responsible for planning in an entire region.

“There is a contradiction in the plan regarding the complexity of planning in the Golan Heights, which is filled with nature reserves, active firing zones and areas of high environmental sensitivity, and the conclusion that a special committee is needed as a significant instrument for removing planning barriers,” the document states. “It is precisely these planning and environmental complexities that necessitate careful and intelligent planning.” As an alternative to creating the special committee, the SPNI proposed appointing an individual or body from the Northern District Planning and Building Committee to handle the Golan Heights.

According to the Golan Guardians, an advocacy organization whose members live in the region, the sparse population of the Golan Heights is the area’s great advantage rather than something that should be changed. “The sparsity of the population and its concentration in a single urban community surrounded by rural settlement is what enables the existence of natural spaces. Uncontrolled settlement and irresponsible development will result in their destruction,” the organization said in notes it appended to the government draft plan. Golan Guardians also called for not establishing solar fields in Emek Habacha, an area of high importance for nature conservation, and instead to focus on placing solar collectors in built-up areas within existing communities.

In a white paper it issued on the proposal, the Interior Ministry’s planning administration said that creating two new communities of single-family homes would harm plans to increase the number of residents in towns such as Katrzrin in the Golan Heights and Kiryat Shmona in the Galilee, while eliminating open spaces and using more resources.

In a written response, the Prime Minister’s Office said the new special committee “would enable focused, speedy work toward developing the Golan Heights and realizing the goal of doubling its population. The committee will preserve mechanisms of checks and balances regarding environmental aspects and protecting the public interest. The approval process will be similar to that of the district planning and building committee. The establishment of the new communities will be done in cooperation with the regional council out of a desire to preserve the community character of the localities. They will be established after [the residential units already approved for construction in the area have been built], and the land for them will be located while maintaining the highest environmental considerations.”

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