Israel Moves Forward With Controversial Plan to Build New Towns in South

The plan is for land near Sderot and Kiryat Gat, but opponents want to keep the area green.

Eliyahu Hershko

The Housing and Construction Ministry is pushing a plan to build new towns in the south, even though opponents fear the country will eat up too many of its open spaces.

In September the ministry’s planning division published tenders for establishing two new cities: one at Heletz near Sderot, one at Beit Guvrin near the kibbutz and national park of the same name, about 15 kilometers east of Kiryat Gat.

In the tenders, urban planners have been asked to plan each city with 25,000 housing units. The Housing Ministry did not give the final names of the two towns but are calling them Heletz and Beit Guvrin for now. It says the plans are only preliminary.

Beit Guvrin is being planned on some 6,500 dunams (about 1,625 acres) and includes the land where the army’s Central Command has a training base, just south of Kibbutz Beit Guvrin on Route 35.

Tzvika Tzuk

“The area has scenic and archaeological meaning,” the ministry said in the tender documents. “There is a need for an archaeological survey and a landscape document, as well as coordination with the Defense Ministry.”

Heletz in the western Negev is being planned on 8,700 dunams. The town is at the intersection of routes 232 and 352, between moshavim Heletz and Kochav Michael and Kibbutz Gvaram, about seven kilometers north of Sderot. According to the tender, the estimated cost of the initial planning is 1.53 million shekels ($40,000) before VAT.

The establishment of the new communities, especially in the south where a number of new towns are in the advanced planning stages, is considered controversial for a number of reasons.

The establishment of new towns makes it very difficult to strengthen the existing cities in the south such as Kiryat Gat, Sderot, Netivot and Kiryat Malakhi. The Sderot municipality issued a statement Tuesday condemning the plan to build a town nearby, saying it deserved the resources.

Many existing communities are desperate for new people and support; they fear they will lose some of their wealthier citizens to the new towns. Meanwhile, the government, in its attempts to lower housing prices, is marketing huge amounts of land throughout the region, which could be a further pull on existing residents.

In Kiryat Gat, the government is selling land for building 15,000 housing units as part of two agreements with the municipality. In Ashkelon, the government is moving forward with a similar agreement with even more homes. In Be’er Sheva farther south, the government has signed an agreement with the city for a rapid sale of land for 20,000 units.

In environmental terms, the establishment of new towns instead of building up existing ones is considered a threat to open spaces. Environmental Protection Minister Avi Gabbay has repeatedly said he objects to the building of new towns.

“I am aware of the fears of the connection between the finance, construction and environment ministries,” he told the Knesset at the end of June. “I definitely can calm your fears. We are against building new communities because they harm the environment and the [poor].”

Higher costs for new towns

The 15,000 dunams the two new cities would cover comes on top of the concomitant environmental damage from the construction of new infrastructure for transportation, electricity and water. Particularly noteworthy is the effect on the Beit Guvrin area, a particularly scenic green space at the southern edge of the Beit Shemesh forests.

The new infrastructure would entail significantly higher costs than the costs for adding on to existing cities.

Of course, a new community requires roads to connect it to the national road network. It also needs new water and sewage channels, new high-voltage power lines, new schools, new public institutions, and the establishment of a new municipality itself.

In 2011, the Knesset Research and Information Center conducted research after the cabinet decided to establish 10 new rural communities between Shoket Junction and the city of Arad in the south. It found that the investment by the national and local governments in expanding existing rural communities was some 169,000 shekels per unit.

The cost for each housing unit in the new communities was more than twice that amount, 360,000 shekels.

The establishment of new communities would also apparently counter the policy of the housing and construction minister, Yoav Galant. Galant has said he prefers to strengthen existing communities rather than build new towns. For example, Galant said a month ago he objected to the plan to establish Bat Harim, a new city in the Jerusalem Hills backed by his predecessor, Uri Ariel.

Surprising political aspects

Galant’s view seems to be shared by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party, of which both Galant and Gabbay are members. Kulanu also controls the Planning Administration, which was moved from the Interior Ministry to the Finance Ministry in the current government. The party does not believe that the establishment of new towns will help Israel socioeconomically, so the Housing Ministry’s pushing of the Heletz-Beit Guvrin project is surprising.

Also surprising is that the publishing of tenders for the two new cities comes shortly after the south’s planning and building committee ruled that there was no need to add to current construction plans for the Kiryat Gat area.

During an August 16 meeting on changes to the national master plan, the committee discussed two requests from the Israel Land Authority. One was to expand Kiryat Gat to the east toward Beit Guvrin, the other was to expand the city to the west toward Heletz. The committee rejected both requests.

“Kiryat Gat today has a population of some 55,000 people. The master plan target for 2035 is a population of 120,000 people, without any need for additional land in the urban fabric,” the committee wrote in its explanation of the rejection.

“In the urban framework around Kiryat Gat there are additional reserves for development,” it said, adding that the city was undergoing urban renewal and plans were being crafted to more densely populate it.

As a result, the committee decided “in favor of healthy and balanced growth for the city; there is no place for further expansion in its surroundings.” Of course, if there is no need to expand Kiryat Gat, one could argue there is no need to plan two new cities nearby.

The Society for the Protection of Nature has criticized the plan for the new cities. It said strengthening the Negev and the Lachish region above it was important, but this must be done by expanding existing communities. This would be achieved based on the national planning policy, not by building new towns in the heart of open spaces, which would badly damage the environment.

The Society for the Protection of Nature added that all the available resources should be used to absorb new families and create new jobs in the existing towns, not promote more new communities.

It said the latter approach would only “cause socioeconomic damage” to the existing communities throughout the region. This was particularly important because the existing communities around Kiryat Gat and Ashkelon had land reserves for tens of thousands of housing units that had already been approved.

“Recently, both the environmental protection minister and the housing minister have expressed objections to establishing new communities, and we expect them to keep their word and act to remove these unnecessary plans from the agenda — not help advance them in the planning bodies,” the society said.

The Housing and Construction Ministry said: “This is a preliminary examination of the feasibility (the land inventory, needs, and so on). The ministry conducts such preliminary examinations as part of the routine preliminary planning process every year all over the country."

As the ministry put it, "Based on the findings, at the end of the examination, decisions will be made on continuing the planning. In any case, this is planning for a period of 20 years and more. The place names note only the search area — they are not anything more than that at this stage.”

The Environmental Protection Ministry added that “the appropriate development is the strengthening and intensification of the existing cities and infrastructure, as well as the implementation of urban renewal projects that are preferable to establishing new cities.”