Israeli Ministers to Debate Bill Allowing Guard Huts in Grazing Areas

Sponsors say bill is meant to protect flocks, but greens object claiming serious harm to open areas

Sheep graze near the town of Rahat in the Negev.
Ofer Vaknin

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation is scheduled Sunday to debate a bill that would permit living in grazing areas by enabling the construction of isolated structures and granting approval to existing ones.

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel is strongly opposed, arguing that it circumvents the planning process and creates a risk that communities will be built in sensitive natural areas.

The bill, sponsored by MKs Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi) and Yitzhak Vaknin (Shas), states that the agriculture minister, in consultation with the police, can declare an area of land an “adjacent guarding area” in which the constant presence of a shepherd is needed to prevent his flock from being harmed.

Under the bill, a shepherd can ask the Agriculture Ministry’s grazing authority and the local planning authority for a permit to erect a residential building in such an area. Owners of such structures that already exist and which are generally inhabited illegally can also apply for a permit.

According to the bill’s sponsors, the objective is to turn the shepherds’ accommodations into a means of guarding public lands and to improve the management of open areas by having grazing flocks thin out the vegetation to prevent fires.

There are a number of small isolated outposts in the Galilee and the Jerusalem Hills, where residents tried without success to obtain permits for residential construction. The planning authorities and the Israel Lands Authority objected, allowing the legalization of such small communities only in the central Negev.

In a statement the SPNI argued that the bill circumvents the planning process and will allow the construction of homes and infrastructure in national parks and nature reserves. It would retroactively legalize dozens of ranches that have been illegally established and will cause serious harm to open areas.

These will not be single, isolated homes erected, the group stressed, but will include enclosures, warehouse, fences and milking facilities, along with all the accompanying infrastructure.

Smotrich said in response that the bill was aimed at preserving the ability to hold on to agricultural land. “Agricultural crime is putting its retention and its economic viability into question and is leading quite a few farmers to abandon the land,” he said. “Given the non-response by law enforcement, the farmer is forced to remain on site throughout the day, which is why living arrangements are necessary.”