The Israeli government is requesting to expand the jurisdiction of the northern Jewish town of Harish by nearly 50 percent, even though hundreds of its homes are vacant, after a report projected that the area's Arab population will overtake its Jewish population.
“According to the forecast, in a span of 45 years, the Hadera District’s population will double and the demographic balance will change: The district will be characterized by a majority population that is not Jewish,” a zoning report about Harish prepared by the Housing Ministry said.
The Interior Ministry, which proposed the town’s expansion, said it seeks to develop all the area’s communities “in a balanced manner.” The Housing Ministry termed its report a “neutral demographic analysis.”
In recent years, various government ministries and planning agencies have sought ways to promote Harish’s development, in line with a 2015 decision that deemed it a “community of national priority” and set a goal of 100,000 residents within 10 years. At the time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed the town’s establishment as “a great Zionist message for the people of Israel – and a message for Israel’s enemies as well.” According to the Housing Ministry report, the town had only 11,300 residents in 2019, and over 640 of its apartments are vacant.
The report, a copy of which was obtained by Haaretz, was issued by the Housing Ministry in March 2019 in advance of the town's third master plan, “which is meant to expand the city and enable its comprehensive growth over time.”
It discusses various social, economic and environmental trends in the Hadera District, and between a conversation on national master plans and local planning policies, refers to the demographic forecast of the district, which includes Harish. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the district is home to about 426,000 residents living in 18 communities, half of them Jewish and half of them Arab.
The report said that assuming current trends for population growth continue, the district is likely to have 700,000 residents by 2050, with Arabs comprising 51 percent of them. In contrast, it said, Jews accounted for 56 percent of the district’s residents in 2016, while Arabs constituted 44 percent.
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The district, it said, is “characterized by significant growth rates among the Arab population.” But “because of Harish’s centrality in the region and the national arteries that run through it … its accelerated future growth would change the demographic trends.” By “national arteries,” the report was apparently referring to Route 6 and Route 65.
In July, after discussing the matter for several years, the Interior Ministry’s Geographic Committee recommended expanding the territory under Harish’s jurisdiction by 3,283 dunams, an increase of 46 percent. According to the recommendation, 3,932 dunams will be ceded to Harish, and 649 dunams currently under Harish's jurisdiction will be transferred to the Menashe Regional Council.
In addition to a number of Jewish communities, the "planning area" for Harish also includes several of Arab towns, among them Umm al-Qutuf, Kafr Qara, Arara and Barta’a. The committee's recommendations were presented to the ministry's director-general, Mordechai Cohen; the final decision will be made by Interior Minister Arye Dery.
Pointing to Harish's many empty homes the Arab Center for Alternative Planning and Adalah – the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel argued in a letter to Dery that "there is no justification to extend the jurisdiction" of the community.
“Behind these grandiose plans, in violation of all planning and spatial logic, stands the primary consideration of a desired demographic change in the Wadi Ara region and the Hadera District via Harish’s accelerated development,” charged the letter, written by attorney Suhad Bishara and Dr. Anaya Bana.
“The planned change in borders was meant to serve tens of thousands of imaginary residents who have yet to be found, at the expense of land reserves that could be used for fair planning that would serve residents who have actually lived there for generations,” it continued. “The plan is not intended to provide solutions for the distress of the people living in Wadi Ara, in communities that have no room to expand, but rather to Judaize the area.”
Moreover, it noted, Arab communities in the area submitted applications to expand their jurisdictions several years ago, but have yet to receive a response. Some of those applications related to land that, under the Interior Ministry’s plan, would be transferred to Harish. The letter also said that per capita, Arab communities in the region have far less land under their jurisdiction than either Harish or the Menashe Regional Council.
When reached for a response, the Housing Ministry said it issued a “professional report, which is a condition for submitting master plans to planning agencies. It is meant to reflect the existing situation, based on government data, and includes a neutral demographic analysis that isn’t meant in any way to alter the demographic situation.”
The report includes demographic data on both Jews and Arabs “for the purpose of engaging in planning that will meet the needs of Harish and of the Arab communities around it,” it added.
The Interior Ministry said its recommendation also includes transferring additional territory to Arab communities around Harish, and that “no territory will be taken away from any Arab community,” and that it will soon issue recommendations for expanding both Kafr Qara and Arara. “The claim that the committee is discriminating against Arab towns is fundamentally incorrect,” it added.