Israelis' Appetite for Housing Is Eating Away at Farms

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Farmer Eran Heilborn from Moshav Magshimim just north of Ben-Gurion Airport.
Farmer Eran Heilborn from Moshav Magshimim just north of Ben-Gurion Airport.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Eran Heilborn, a farmer from Moshav Magshimim just north of Ben-Gurion Airport, is angry that the government plans to take some of his agricultural land for housing. “Who gave the order to destroy this moshav? Is our place in history over? It was founded just 70 years ago.”

He's not alone. About 100,000 dunams (25,000 acres) of farmland are no longer being used for agriculture since Moshe Kahlon became finance minister in 2015 and acted to increase Israel’s housing stock to stem soaring prices. The 100,000 dunams include 80,000 taken from farmers through an accelerated expropriation process and 20,000 that can no longer be cultivated due to fast-track planning approvals.

In Heilborn’s case, the tract contains 820 dunams, all of it now farmland. It is now slated for construction of 3,200 housing units in buildings of up to 15 stories. Part of the land will go to commercial, office and industrial uses and will contain two public parks. It will one day host a station for the Tel Aviv Light Rail’s Purple Line.

Heilborn, a 54-year-old grower of flowers, persimmons, plums and peaches, is worried about how he'll earn a living in the future. The plan calls for taking 15% of his 120 dunams.

“If I know that I have a certain number of dunams, I buy tractors, refrigeration and sorting machinery accordingly. Seven or eight years ago they took part of our land for Savyon," he said, referring to the neighboring town. "Before that, in the '90s, they took land to expand Route 40 and also for the Israel Electric Corporation.”

Heilborn is aware that the land sits in Israel’s most densely populated area, but says farmers shouldn’t be expected to bear the full brunt of the demand for land. “First, they can build on inventories of land they already have. Afterward, in 15 years ... maybe by then the situation will have changed,” he said.

He will receive compensation, but that’s not what interests him. “I didn’t become a farmer for that. I have an orderly farm with foreign and Palestinian workers, all of whom have work permits. They talked to us about substitute land in Beit Dagan, but the land isn’t relevant because it has drainage problems and would require a lot of investment.”

Too many homes?

Apart from the issue of large swaths of land being rezoned, it seems much of the planning is disconnected from Israel’s housing needs. Last year, construction began on about 47,000 new homes nationwide. Yet the National Committee for Planning and Building Preferred Housing, which is overseeing the accelerated construction plans, cleared the way for more than 59,000 units in the same year. All told, planning was done for 151,000 units, 30,000 more than the state targeted.

It’s not clear why the committee has worked so assiduously at the expense of agricultural land, but it's clear that everyone involved from committee chairman Ariel Yotzer, chief planner Dikla Persico and on down has been enlisted for the cause.

Most of the homes won’t be marketed anytime soon, but in the meantime the farmland is taken out of use because under the rules, at least a quarter of the infrastructure has to be built within four years on land that has received planning approval.

The bottom line is that the state has decided it's no longer interested in agriculture, which is legitimate given the shortage of land and water, but it has never officially enunciated such a policy to the farm sector or devised a plan to ensure food security, as less and less land is used for producing food.

Moshav Hatsav, east of Ashdod, faces the same problem: It's expected to close 800 dunams of agricultural land, and there's a huge plan to expand the neighboring town of Bnei Ayish, which today has a population of about 7,000.

Its 817 dunams of land will increase fourfold to enable construction of 6,000 new homes and for its population to grow by as much as 20,000. Another 500,000 square meters will go to businesses to create jobs.

Ron Moskovitz, chairman of the Zmora Local Council – to which Bnei Ayish, a community with poor demographics, belongs – said “they’re building a new city on top of the existing one and a small local council. ... This is a chance to save 7,000 residents for whom the future without the plan is bleak.”

But opponents say that if the plan is tantamount to a new town, then the committee is exceeding its mandate. Shai Nahum, 53, is one of them. He grows pomegranates and wine grapes, and he and his brother Eyal stand to lose 32 dunams of land.

“Other farmers in the moshav grow cauliflower and squash in huge quantities. A big part of Israel’s cauliflower harvest comes from Hatsav. We’re one of the most productive moshavim in the country,” he said. “But we ... even agreed to a compromise in which they take 350 dunams from us. For us, that’s a lot.”

He said the plan as it is now will crush the moshav economically. “We wanted land somewhere else so that we could continue growing, but they didn’t offer us anything relevant, They offered us fallow land. We’re not going to turn the other cheek – there’s going to be a world war.”

Threats like that have gone nowhere with the planning authorities, which have rejected petitions against expropriations and planning in other localities on the grounds that building homes is a national priority.

The farmers aren’t alone. Local residents affected by the plans, other planning authorities and environmentalists have come out against a large number of the plans, mainly out of concern that the big increase in population will create massive traffic problems in areas that are now mostly rural.

Transportation promised

A report written to examine reservations to the Bnei Ayish plan noted that there were plans to extend public transportation to the Ashkelon area and  develop light rail connections between Ashkelon and Ashdod to nearby towns. However, there is no approval for this.

Ron Rogin, an attorney representing local farmers in planning committees and the courts, said the plan calls for a big increase in housing that isn’t needed and will cause irreversible damage to agriculture in the area.

Kiryat Ata had developed a comprehensive master plan, but the fast-track committee had it canceled. “The master plan had called for building in stages but a race is on between the normal and the abnormal, and the abnormal – the committee – has the upper hand,” Rogin said.

The first plan it promoted is for Kiryat Ata South and calls for 4,500 homes on 1,500 dunams, with 12,000 square meters (3 acres) for business. Unlike most of the committee’s big planning efforts, this one seek to preserve the town’s suburban character.

In addition to the Kiryat Ata South plan, a plan that was approved for the north of town covers 6,372 dunams of farmland and calls for a new neighborhood of 11,000 housing units and another 1,400 units for the elderly. It also calls for a hospital, university and business centers.

Hagai Marmari, a 51-year-old member of Kibbutz Usha, said the town could have nonagricultural land to develop for housing.

“We sat in the committee hearings and tried to convince people that Kiryat Ata has enough land to build on. We showed that they won’t need our land for another 30 years,” he said. “Kiryat Ata isn’t the biggest city in the country but the size of its housing plan is the largest. We don’t oppose building a hospital or a university, but we're asking them to build what’s needed first.”

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