Plans to expand the Israeli Arab town of Abu Ghosh west of Jerusalem are to be considered on Monday by a committee that handles expedited approval of residential housing plans in an effort to ease the national housing shortage.
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The residents of Abu Ghosh are concerned, however, that the plan would dramatically change the character of the town and draw large numbers of residents from the outside.
The plan calls for the construction of 600 housing units on open space west of Abu Ghosh. The proposal is in addition to a long-term master plan that calls for constructing 1,800 housing units on adjacent land. Implementing the two proposals would triple the number of families living in the town. Abu Ghosh is home to about 7,500 residents and 1,000 households.
Opponents of the plan up for consideration Monday, including local council members, business people and other Abu Ghosh residents, claim that most of the new housing would be occupied by outsiders who would change the town’s character, expecting that many of the homes in the new neighborhood would be purchased by Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem.
Abu Ghosh has been known since the War of Independence for its good relations with the Zionist movement and Israeli Jews. The town’s residents trace their origins to families that came from the Caucasus region, where southwest Asia meets Europe. In part, that is the basis for the special ties between Abu Ghosh and its Jewish neighbors and of the huge mosque that was built in the town about five years ago with funding from the government of Chechnya.
The master plan, separate from the plan for the 600 additional homes, was recently approved. It includes the construction of 1,800 housing units over a period of the next three decades. The proposed plan for 600 units is a new initiative of the Construction and Housing Ministry, the ministerial committee known as the housing cabinet and the Israel Land Authority. If approved, the 600 homes would be constructed on an expedited basis.
“Our mindset is to maintain good neighborliness, to be loyal to the state and not to inject ourselves into disputes,” said Salim Jaber, a former local council head. “Every village that has grown and where an outside population has come in has created a lot of problems.” Referring to two towns southwest of Tel Aviv, he added: “It happened to Ramle and Lod. What we really want is to stay the way we are.”
Jabber predicted that local young people would only be purchasing about 60 of the new homes in the coming years, leaving the others to be bought by outsiders. “We like everyone. We don’t make a distinction," he said. "We want to live in peace with the Jewish neighbors, with the Arab neighbors, with our Palestinian brothers, but we want natural growth that will leave us as we are.”
For his part, a local Abu Ghosh restaurant owner and businessman, Jawdat Ibrahim, commented: “Developing Abu Ghosh is excellent. We’re not against it. The question is if it’s aimed at Abu Ghosh or at people from the outside. Doubling or tripling Abu Ghosh is not natural. It’s not as if there will be an admissions committee here. Anyone can come and live here, but it’s not appropriate and won’t help us. Imagine someone throwing a stone here. It would wreck the [fabric of the] village.”
Ra’id Ibrahim, a local council member and the chairman of the opposition on council, vehemently opposes the plan. “I like anyone who comes to Abu-Ghosh. There is a very special fabric of life here, but we don’t want outsiders here, not settlers from Kiryat Arba and not Arabs from East Jerusalem," he said. "I don’t want people with a criminal background to come live here because they are not wanted in their [own] villages. Don’t be impressed by the beautiful homes and cars. We are not wealthy people. We are simple people who don’t have money and do have honor.”
Vowing to fight the plan to build the 600 new homes, he said residents would go to court and demonstrate on nearby Route 1 to stop outsiders from coming to live in the town.
Residents of nearby Jewish communities have also joined the fight against the plan. They noted in a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the special ties between Abu Ghosh and surrounding communities since the War of Independence. They predicted that a change in the town's character would adversely affect relations with neighboring communities. They also protested the fact that the plan calls for scrapping a road that was to ease traffic in Abu Ghosh and to nearby Jewish communities of Ma’aleh Hahamisha, Har Adar and Nataf. They claimed the new residential construction would mar the landscape.
Objections filed by the nearby Jewish communities of Yad Shmona and Neveh Ilan noted that because state land is involved, the pace of construction will be faster, forecasting that the plan would draw 600 families to Abu Ghosh in addition to 300 from earlier construction plans that are already in progress. “That’s growth of over 64 percent in the [number of] Abu Ghosh residents within a few years,” the objection stated. “In other words, the state is taking a 600-year-old community and unilaterally changing its character." The opponents argued that Israel would not dare increase a secular or religious Jewish community of any kind by 50 percent against the community's will, introducing residents from the outside who do not conform to the identity of the place.
The housing cabinet said in response that the expedited construction approval panel is central to solving the country’s housing shortage “while accounting for all of the necessary considerations.” In the process, the panel hopes “to implement the cabinet decision to increase the supply of housing with an emphasis on areas in demand. As an executive agency, [the panel] is not motivated by narrow considerations that are not in keeping with the broader public interest.”