Israel to Advance Seven New 'Strategic' Jewish Communities in the Negev

The move to seize land in the Negev desert is of 'security importance,' Israel's interior minister argues

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Bedouin villages along Israel's Route 25, in 2016.
Bedouin villages along Israel's Route 25, in 2016.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Israel's cabinet agreed Sunday to establish the southern Israeli village Ir Ovot as a rural community and to examine the possibility of founding six additional communities for Jews in the Negev – a city and five cooperative communities.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked and Construction and Housing Minister Zeev Elkin said Ir Ovot will be built south of Hatzeva Junction. The proposed city, whose temporary name is Tela, is designated for an area near Lehavim, while the other five proposed communities, if approved, will be along Route 25, in the northern Negev. While Shaked hailed the decision, Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg warned of its possible negative implications.

Shaked said the creation of the new communities is a strategic measure of the highest order. “Beyond the Zionist value of seizing state lands in the Negev, it is of security importance,” she said. The communities, she clarified, are intended for Jews.

“Precisely at this time, with all the security incidents, Israel’s government is creating an urban continuum on the ground, laying a cornerstone and beginning to build Jewish settlements in the Negev,” this despite the fact that the National Planning and Building and Planning Council’s 2018 recommendation to establish Ir Ovot was explained, among other reasons, by the need to provide housing for area Bedouin.

“There is a dangerous trend of government initiatives and decisions to create new communities that destroy open space,” Zandberg said after the cabinet meeting. “It is a great mistake, economically, socially and environmentally. Rather than strengthen existing communities, invest in infrastructure and strengthen their populations, these decisions weaken existing cities.”

The head of the Bnei Shimon Regional Council, Nir Zamir, who is against the establishment of the proposed new city, said the decision was made without consulting the heads of local government in the area.

In a letter to the cabinet, Zamir wrote that instead of creating a new city it would be better to expand Lehavim. “Bnei Shimon also has dozens of communities that want to build additional housing units” and increase their populations, he wrote.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, last month.Credit: Noam Revkin-Fenton

Zamir sought to present the cabinet with options that will ease Israel’s housing crisis and increase the Negev’s population without destroying farmland and open spaces. He asked the cabinet to pause the proposals until council heads had a chance to submit alternative plans.

Lehavim Local Council head Yossi Nissan voiced support for Zamir’s letter. But Eyal Blum, who heads the Arava Tikhona Regional Council, praised the decision to locate Ir Ovot in the council’s territory. He said the new community will be a boon for the Negev and enable the continued expansion of the Arava Desert’s population alongside the expansion of the seven cooperative communities along the Jordanian border.

The director of Mossawa Center, the Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens in Israel, Jafar Farah, voiced opposition to the plan for five new cooperative communities. He called it “another populist resolution by a government at the end of its days that wastes public funds and can’t provide employment and housing in Rahat, Mitzpeh Ramon or Dimona.”

Amir Bisharat, an advisor to the National Committee of Arab Local Authorities said: “The Authority for Development and Settlement of the Bedouin in the Negev moves slowly for decades, failing to reach an arrangement and remove barriers for the Arab population. On the other hand, right-wing elements in the government manage to pass a plan for dozens of Jewish communities with the wave of a hand. This proves that when the government wants, it can.”

In March the cabinet moved to establish five new communities in the Tel Arad area – one for Bedouin and four for Jews.

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