Israel Promised to Build Its First Modern Arab City Since 1948. Here’s What Came of It

Nine years have passed since plans for Tantur where approved, at the time sparking Israeli Arab hopes. Since then, no cornerstone was laid, no road was paved and hope was lost

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Site where Tantur, the first non-Jewish town to be planned in Israel in decades, is supposed to be built.
Site where Tantur, the first non-Jewish town to be planned in Israel in decades, is supposed to be built.Credit: Gil Elyahu
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

At the heart of one of the Arab community’s main complaints against generations of Israeli governments lies a number: zero. That’s the number of new communities that have been built for Arab citizens since the establishment of the state. At a time when the residents of Nazareth saw how Upper Nazareth was being built on the outskirts of the city, the residents of a number of communities in the Galilee watched the establishment of the city of Carmiel, and in Jerusalem dozens of new residential projects were added to the map, not a single one was designated for Arabs.

The plan has turned out to be an add-on to the old, impoverished town of Jadida Maker – a far cry from anything that could be called Israel’s first modern Arab city

In July 2008 everything changed, at least on paper. The Israeli government made a decision that was described at the time as historic: to build a new urban center for the non-Jewish population in the north. The site chosen several months later was a hill north of Highway 85 (Acre-Safed highway), south of the town of Jadida Maker and east of the city of Acre. The place is called Givat Tantur, an area in which most of the land was confiscated by the government in the 1970s.

Although it wasn’t decided to return the land to the Makhoul family of Jadida, who at the time claimed ownership of it (and only after a lengthy legal battle was it decided to leave it as state land), but rather to settle Arabs there. A new city, an address for the upper-middle class, began to develop in the planning institutions. After decades when the popular option for improving quality of life was to move to Jewish or mixed Jewish-Arab cities, some people believed that the dream of living in a modern community with a direct connection to the large populations centers, yet still Arab, was possible.

Jadida Maker. Surrounded by pirate waste disposal sites, and has a serious problem of treating environmental blight.Credit: Gil Elyahu

About nine years have passed since then, and although the plan was approved in the National Planning and Building Council, no cornerstone was laid, no road was paved. Hilmi Shimi, a businessman living in Jadida Maker who had considered moving to the new city, has already given up. He’s headed for Acre. “I have no faith in the system, that it will really be implemented,” he told Haaretz. “When you travel to Acre, to Carmiel and to Nahariya you see how new neighborhoods are being built at top speed. Here’s there’s foot-dragging and nobody knows when it will be finished, and the question is not only when, but also how.” Now it turns out that in the end, bulldozers will go up Givat Tantur, roads will be paved and houses will be built. But it won’t be a new Arab city, only a neighborhood of the backward community of Jadida Maker, or “an urban layer,” as it’s called in the Finance Ministry, which is responsible for planning.

According to the present plan, the area designated for an “urban layer” covers about 4,500 dunams (1,125 acres) and includes 14,000 residential units as well as public and commercial buildings, offices and open spaces. The Planning and Building Committee for Preferred Housing Projects notes that the plan is being formulated and government ministries are working to implement it within a few years.

Apparently the ministry does not attribute much importance to changing the nature of the community, and prefers to emphasize the progress of the building plan, which is in advanced stages in the committee for preferred housing projects, in order to accelerate the process. “This is one of the flagship programs being promoted in the committee,” officials told Haaretz, since it includes a significant addition of residential units, whose objective is to ease the housing crisis being experienced by minority communities.

Those who are aware of the problems involved in connecting the poor village to the city of the future that has meanwhile turned into the neighborhood of the past, are officials in the Israel Land Authority and the Housing Ministry. Therefore, at this stage they’re in no hurry to present the urban layer as an integral part of the community already during the first stage. If there’s a party that isn’t trying to conceal its satisfaction with the move, it’s the residents of Jadida Maker.

Attorney Wissam Arid, of the village’s popular committee, explains that adding Tantur as a new neighborhood, not a new city, is crucial. He said the expansion could be a lifeline for the community on the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.

“Jadida Maker is surrounded by communities and highways and main arteries that won’t enable any future expansion except in the direction of Tantur,” he says. “It’s natural for this area to be an integral part of Jadida Maker already in the first stage, and designated for residents of both villages. If they want to rescue the collapsing community, in almost all aspects the new neighborhood can be a lever for success.”

But Shimi sees things differently. He says the attempt to absorb new families from outside in the existing community has already failed in the past. “We have bitter experience in Maker with the project neighborhood that over time turned into a poverty-stricken neighborhood,” he explains. He says a possible solution would be limiting those who could move into the new neighborhood. “If it’s open to everyone,” he says, “in the present situation only a weak population will come, and then what have we accomplished? We have to designate it for young couples from the community to guarantee them and their children a better future.”

These differences of opinion are familiar to the heads of the project. Moshe Cohen, who is in charge on behalf of the Israel Land Authority, told Haaretz that its implementation will require the accompaniment of “a guiding official hand.” He, like others involved in the initiative, still envisions young couples and well-established families becoming the new residents.

Prof. Yousef Jabareen, right, attorney Wissam Arid and Hilmi Shimi.Credit: Gil Elyahu

He maintains that the place is planned according to modern standards, and will provide a solution for the population. But such optimism is thrown into question in view of the original planning and the way it was described a few years ago. At the time the new community was supposed to have improved environmental standards: a clean industry park on its margins, a dividing strip of land to enable the regulation of rainwater infiltration to prevent flooding, and strips of plants on the main streets of the city to moderate the effect of air pollution were only some of the projects on the agenda. Another important project, especially for Jadida Maker – which is surrounded by pirate waste disposal sites, and has a serious problem of treating environmental blight – was to build centers for sorting and recycling waste.

Not much is left of this original vision: The plan for waste treatment was shelved and the environmental chapter deals mainly with a clean commercial and industrial zone and landscape development.

Another controversial part of the plan is the size of the land mass. “The government is planning 14,000 residential units on an area of 4,500 dunams, some of which will be private and public spaces,” says Prof. Yousef Jabareen of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, who researched the subject. “The average in Arab society is five people per family, which means that they want to settle about 70,000 people on an area of about 3,500 dunams.”

He says this will create extreme density. “For illustration, a city like Upper Nazareth, with 40,000 residents, has an area of 33,000 dunams, and a city like Carmiel with about 44,000 people has an area of 23,000 dunams.”

The Arab Center for Alternative Planning agrees with Jabareen. “The question of density is one of many factors that will prevent young couples from coming and purchasing an apartment in this area,” says Samar Swaid, director of the center. Originally a resident of Peki’in who lives in Haifa with his wife, Swaid said, “I won’t leave an urban fabric like Haifa and come to a layer that will be joined to a community like Jadida Maker.”

It’s clear to everyone that this is a weak community, he adds, and therefore there is need for a basic change: in education, culture and employment. As an example of a successful change he mentions Kiryat Gat. Alongside new neighborhoods, “they brought large high-tech firms there and provided a livelihood for young couples and prepared infrastructure.”

The Housing Ministry and the ILA don’t reject out of hand the claim regarding density, but stress that it is average for many cities and communities in Israel, and furthermore, in some of the neighborhoods they will build 24 units per dunam in high-density construction and in other areas that will be joined to the plan, there will be four to six residential units.

And what about the weakness of the existing community? Housing Ministry planners say cities and towns in Israel that received a “bad name” actually recovered when new neighborhoods or an urban layer were built alongside them, attracting better educated, more prosperous residents.

In any event, the plan that was approved in 2014 by the National Planning and Building Council “for the construction of a new city for the non-Jewish population in the Galilee” has turned out to be nothing more than an add-on to the old, impoverished town of Jadida Maker – a far cry from anything that could be called Israel’s first modern Arab city.

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