A few kilometers south-east of the Gaza Strip, near the Egyptian border, a group of Israelis, many of them former inhabitants of evacuated Gaza settlements, live in agricultural communities in an area called Halutzah. Further south lies the town of Pitchat Nitzana. For residents, the future clearly held continuous Israeli occupancy of the land between the two – but the Trump peace deal shattered that vision.
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Proposed land swaps would see sections of Halutzah become part of a potential Palestinian state. According to the maps released with the plan, which are not set in stone, the area north of Nitzana will be a high-tech and manufacturing industrial zone. Israel was not issued with more accurate maps, planning authority officials accompanying Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington told Haaretz.
Halutzah means pioneer in Hebrew, and the area was established in the early 2000s, within a very clear political context. Territorial swaps were already on the agenda of then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s peace efforts, seen as a possible way to give Israel sovereignty over some West Bank settlements. Thousands of residents and supporters came out to protest the plan – and were ultimately vindicated, when late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his minister of infrastructure, Avigdor Lieberman, approved the establishment of another string of communities in the area. After 2005, these became home to settlers pulled out of Gaza.
The head of the Ramat Negev regional council, Eran Doron, has kicked off a public campaign against the swap, accusing Netanyahu of favoring West Bank settlements over Negev communities. He is worried the new industrial zone will torpedo the plan of building a new town north of Pitchat Nitzana, despite assurances to the contrary. “I haven’t seen a map,” Doron told Haaretz. The Israel Lands Authority, which has advanced the plans for the new community, also could not say with certainty whether the plan will be harmed.
The Negev consensus
“The plan... challenges the consensus about settling the Negev. It will deal a harsh blow to settlement and our ability to absorb new families,” a local council representative told an extraordinary meeting convened by Doron on Wednesday. The new town north of Pitchat Nitzana is only one item in a larger planning strategy, most of which has already been discussed with government ministries, local officials argue. “This plan of Trump’s sees unsettled land and disregards substantitive planning content. In my opinion they’re making a big mistake,” said Yoel Rivlin, a planning officer at the World Zionist Organization’s settlements department.
The establishment of a contiguous settled area “is important for the Negev. It is the area’s reserve of land,” Rivlin argues.
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While the population of Pitchat Nitzana is secular on the whole, most residents of Halutzah are religious Zionists and support the settlement enterprise. Trump’s plan might have put them in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between annexing settlements in the West Bank and agreeing to hand over Negev territory near their homes.
“We came here to make this part of the country bloom, and we hope our plan will be fulfilled,” Elida Prince, spokesman for the Netzarim community in Halutzah told Haaretz. “We don’t have to give any land to anyone. There’s no reason to hand over any part of the Negev, nor any part of Judea and Samaria, there shouldn’t even be any such formula,” he added.
The Trump team has made much of a case of the land swaps, which are seen as an essential step towards the creation of a viable Palestinian state with some aspect of territorial contiguity and access to resources. The most likely areas up for exchange are all in the Negev, although the idea of incorporating the so-called Triangle Arab communities in what is now central Israel into Palestine is also being floated.
Critics of these land swaps say the division is both impractical and unlikely to find support with Palestinians.