Israel’s Housing Crisis Is Being Solved at the Cost of a Food Crisis

That’s what the head of the Moshav Movement warns as the country’s massive building programs eat away at farmland

Hadar Horesh
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Amit Yifrah.
Amit Yifrah.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Hadar Horesh

Out of sight during the massive home-building program being led by the National Committee for Planning and Building Preferred Housing, a war is underway. The government is ignoring the hundreds of dunams of farmland that are being lost to the construction of new neighborhoods, while large and midsized cities have their eye on agricultural land for commercial development with the hope of generating more municipal tax revenue.

Arrayed against them are regional councils, kibbutzim and moshavim that are seeing their livelihoods undermined by the urban sprawl; they say this socioeconomic development is also working against the national interest.

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The struggle over land is one of the main challenges for Amit Yifrah, who took over as chief of the Moshav Movement two weeks ago. He’s now battling over the planned expansion of the town of Kiryat Malakhi in the south that threatens his own moshav, Arugot.

You’re fighting for every hill. But where do you expect the government to fund land for hundreds of thousands of new homes for a growing population?

“At hearings they ask me where we’ll house the 2 million additional people expected by 2040. I ask them how we’ll feed 2 million additional people. They say that by 2040 Israel may have emerged from the housing crisis, but by then it could enter a food crisis – unable to produce enough food for itself.

“In the ‘60s the country had 2.5 dunams [0.6 acres] of agricultural land per person; in 2015, when the planning committee began its work, we were down to 300 square meters [0.07 acres] per person. On an international comparison, we’re in 160th place among 190 countries in an index of farmland per capita. In Western Europe, it’s 2.5 dunams per capita. A report by the Agriculture Ministry says that at the current rate, food security will be harmed.”

A building in the moshav of Arugot.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Agriculture is becoming more efficient. We’re producing a lot more with less land.

“Protecting open land isn’t just a matter of agriculture. We can rethink the policies of planning new neighborhoods on the outskirts of cities. I’ve just come from a hearing on the expansion of Kiryat Malakhi at the expense of three adjacent moshavim – Yinon, Arugot and Timorim – that belong to the Be’er Tuvia Regional Council.

"We’re talking about a massive plan that will require large infrastructure and bridges over major arteries – and for what? Kiryat Gat built Karmei Gat, an entirely new neighborhood west of the main highway, cut off from the rest of the city. They built a wealthy neighborhood cut off from a poor city. We say ‘enough of this expansion.’ Focus instead on urban renewal.”

Where were you when the government formed the National Committee for Planning and Building Preferred Housing?

“We gave the government a little bit and now they want everything. When the government thought to extend the term of its mandate, we appealed to the High Court, which rejected it. Today it’s clear that the main obstacle to reducing the cost of housing isn’t the amount of housing being planned. We can return to sane planning.”

Some people say that farmers aren’t working a lot of the land they have, so why not use it for other purposes?

“There’s no such thing. Today we have 1 million dunams and it’s all being farmed. There could be farmers who have left the business and have stopped working their land for various reasons, but they turn the land over to be worked by others and it’s still in use.

“In any case, they’ve expropriated 100,000 dunams. You have to remember that the land they’ve taken away is quality land because most of it is in the center of the country. The damage is far worse than what you see by the amount of land that has been expropriated.”

Farmers are known to rent out their buildings and land for purposes other than agriculture. Are you fighting against this illegal practice?

“I oppose any illegal building, but the government allows every moshav 60 dunams for other employment-related activities. That creates an economic foundation for the moshav. There’s nothing improper about a small undertaking like a gas station or wedding hall being developed in a relatively small part of the moshav’s land area …. Most of it isn’t illegal construction but the use of existing buildings for warehouses and logistics centers. Two days before the last Knesset was dissolved there was wall-to-wall support for amending the law [on building in moshavim] and moderating it.”

The moshavim in the center of Israel have long turned from farming communities into neighborhoods for the upper middle class. Isn’t it time we recognized reality?

“We can deal with the exceptions. In the end, the moshav won’t be the moshav that we once knew, where everyone was a farmer and everyone had a greenhouse for flowers. Instead, it will have three components: Small to medium-sized family farms, jointly controlled agricultural areas, and residents who aren’t farmers but work in related areas like rural tourism, warehousing and other services.”

What’s the problem with having detached homes as we see abroad?

“We have to decide how to adjust to the changing reality. If you look back, you’ll see we’ve traveled a long road and made changes. Once there were no nonfarm activities. But we still believe in the model that serves the national interest by preserving land through agriculture.”

What about building taller homes of three or four stories in parts of the moshav?

“Four-story buildings will kill the moshav. Why not consider the opposite? We need to think how with less land we can do more farming – not buildings. The government hasn’t done enough to develop the Negev, for instance.

"You have to remember that most moshavim are in areas of high demand [for housing]. In high-demand areas only a few moshavim continue to exist and we hope to fight for their survival. Why doesn’t the government invest in developing new crops that can be cultivated in smaller areas like ornamental fish and cannabis?”