Israel Approves Four Jewish Desert Communities in Tense Cabinet Meeting

A shouting match broke out after left-wing ministers slammed the admission committees and the environmental impact ■ Right-wing minister warns of Bedouin settlement if land is left undeveloped in Israel's Negev

Michael Hauser Tov
Michael Hauser Tov
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The Rotem neighborhood of Arad.
The Rotem neighborhood of Arad.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Michael Hauser Tov
Michael Hauser Tov

Israel has approved the establishment of five new communities in Israel's Negev desert, in a cabinet session Sunday that descended into a screaming match following strong opposition among left-wing members.

The cabinet's resolution authorizes the start of the planning process for five communities in the Arad area, west of the Dead Sea and within Israel's 1967 borders: one for a Bedouin village, and the rest for Jewish communities: a kibbutz (a cooperative community) and three communal villages.

In service of building the Jewish communities, core residents who commit to move to the new communities are to be recruited by the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization. The plan will also require changes to the master plan for the area, meaning it will take considerable time until residents move in.

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Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked and Construction and Housing Minister Zeev Elkin intend to have admissions committees vet applications from those seeking to move to the communities, dubbed "Mevo'ot Arad" ("Arad Approaches"), as is permitted for small villages.

These vetting committees prompted strong criticism among left-wing cabinet members – particularly Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg of the Meretz party, who said the committees should be abolished, and that development would harm the environment.

"We've gone completely crazy. Sorry to spoil the joyful mood," Zandberg said. "We're establishing more towns in the middle of the Negev."

"The first hundred years [of Zionism] were for building," she said. "Let the land rest."

Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel, of the Kahol Lavan party, responded that if Israel does not develop such land, "other settlements" – apparently referring to Bedouin villages – will be established there.

"Who are these 'others?'" said Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, a Meretz member. "They are Israeli citizens."

Justice Minister Gideon Saar, of New Hope – shortly before the exchange turned into a shouting match – said the discussion revealed "hatred for the settlement of Jews."

After the cabinet's decision was announced, Zandberg said on Twitter that "the frenzy to establish settlements" is "devastating and worrying. ... It will compete for a strong population with existing cities, it will incur significant costs precisely in this period of cost-of-living and housing crises, and it will harm open spaces and natural systems in an era of climate crisis."

Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List party, also criticized the decision on Twitter, saying that Shaked and the government are "abandoning the Negev on the altar of Jewish supremacy."

"Instead of recognizing and strengthening existing communities," said Odeh, "the government has decided to establish new towns with admissions committees that will ensure racial segregation. This is a bad decision that will harm existing communities and nature, and all residents of the Negev will pay for it for generations to come – Arabs and Jews."

Shaked and Elkin first announced their plan for the communities last Wednesday, a day after a terror attack in nearby Be'er Sheva in which four people were killed.

In the announcement, the ministers called their resolution "a significant step in strengthening settlement in the Negev with an emphasis on the eastern Negev, which is a region of national strategic importance."

The cabinet has plans to approve another five communities along the Dimona-Be'er Sheva highway, south of Arad, which are planned as Jewish communities, but any such plans would only be preliminary and would be referred to the National Planning Administration for further consideration. That process is expected to take several years before it goes back to the cabinet for further approval.

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