Since its inception, Israel’s 36th government has been declaring its intention to accelerate the establishment of at least 10 new communities in the Negev. Five of them are to be located on the outskirts of Arad, which is roughly 25 kilometers west of the Dead Sea and within Israel’s 1967 borders. Four of the five will be Jewish communities, with selection committees vetting new residents, under the auspices of the Settlement Division, a branch of the World Zionist Organization. The fifth planned town is slated for the Bedouin community.
The decision to build the infrastructure for these communities was made by previous governments, with the approval process moving slowly through planning bodies for more than a decade, and a final decision on implementation repeatedly postponed.
“Settlement is the essence of Zionism, and anyone who thinks that the mission is completed is very wrong,” tweeted Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked. “Our duty is to enable future generations to settle the Negev. The establishment of these communities is a strategic move for Israel, both in terms of increasing the number of people living there and making the desert flourish, and in terms of protecting state lands.”
Plans for establishing Jewish communities in order to curtail the expansion of unregulated construction by the Bedouin population are not new, and were brought up over the years, but so far, they have never been realized. The pretexts for postponing the construction of new communities in the Negev were based on opposition by treasury officials, senior planning officials and the heads of local councils in the Negev, who claimed that such a decision would require budgetary allocations that were wasteful and redundant, with only marginal returns in terms of the state’s goals. In their assessment, these new communities would detract from the large investments made in developing cities like Netivot, Be’er Sheva, Ofakim, Dimona, Yeruham, Arad and Sderot, all of which have suffered from — and some of which still are suffering from — negative migration and difficulties in getting projects off the ground.
The new rural communities to be built in the Negev are not part of the national effort to contend with the housing crisis, the collapsing transportation infrastructure or the overcrowding in the greater Tel Aviv area; nor will they address the anticipated demand for housing in the Negev following the relocation of Israel Defense Forces bases to the area. Existing rural communities in the Negev still have enough room to take in thousands of additional families without investing hundreds of millions of shekels in the infrastructure required for new communities.
Environmental groups and even the Ministry for Environmental Protection are concerned about harming open spaces and ecological corridors in the area. People hoping to settle the dispute over Bedouin land argue that the new communities planned around Arad are mainly meant as an act of opposition, to block the expansion of Bedouin settlements in the Negev, instead of dealing with the problem and bringing order to the chaos there.
One of the people supporting the development of rural communities in the Negev is Ronnie Palmer, the CEO and founder of the Or settlement movement, whose goal is Jewish demographic and economic growth in the Negev and Galilee regions. “When [Interior Minister] Shaked establishes new communities in the Negev, the media portray these as settlements, leading to clashes with the establishment and with environmental groups. When they establish a new Bedouin community in the Negev, no one says a thing. In the long term, the small communities are not a dramatic issue. The problem is that the Negev and Galilee have become politicized, making the development of the Negev a political issue. This is wrong and needless,” says Palmer, accusing green organizations of hypocrisy.
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“Most of the communities approved by Shaked are ones that have gone through a saga of woes and approval-seeking over 10-15 years, and this has now reached maturation. If green organizations and environmental activists would denounce every case of garbage disposal and damage to nature in the Negev, just like they denounce every 500 dunams (124 acres) in a newly planned community, our situation would be much better.”
Palmer agrees that attempts to create remote and isolated communities should not be repeated. They harm the environment and were in any case not approved by the National Panning and Building Council. But the state must offer housing to people who prefer living in small, insular towns, close to cities in the Negev that will develop into metropolitan areas.
“Be’er Sheva, Dimona and Arad will have a population of at least 1.5 million people in the coming years, but none of them can exist on their own. We have to create momentum, with people moving to the Negev. We have to create a network, with space and contiguous settlements, with employment foci, transportation and more. The urban communities should be the beneficiaries of most of the investment, but it’s okay for some of that to include diverse opportunities for a rural environment. After all, demand in Mitzpeh Ramon is stronger than ever before. Even if 10 small communities are built in its vicinity, it won’t be so terrible,” he adds.
Some of the opponents of these smaller communities argue that they will lure people of a higher socioeconomic level from nearby cities, thereby weakening the urban centers. Such “cannibalization” occurred with the building of Modi’in, which hampered the development of Lod and Ramle. In the Negev too, upscale communities with single-family homes such as Lehavim and Meitar, as well as moshavim and kibbutzim, drew away people from Be’er Sheva and other cities. But, according to Palmer, the new smaller communities could actually be competitive and constitute a catalyst for improving life in these cities. He is referring mainly to the dispute around building Hanun, close to the town of Netivot. “A city that’s threatened by the departure of some of its people should take stock and ask the government for assistance, but not get flustered by a community that at most will have a population of 2,000. There is no reason for this primal fear.”
He adds that cities have a great advantage in obtaining development budgets, compared to smaller communities. The latter can contribute to the development of nearby cities which provide them with services. The costs involved in building the small communities planned by Shaked are negligible in comparison to the investments made in the country’s outlying areas in recent years, he contends. Cities such as Netivot, Sderot, Dimona, Ashdod and Ofakim, most of which signed off on large projects during the tenure of then-Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, are to this day receiving billions of shekels which ensure their overall development and development of infrastructure, he notes. “Many cities in the periphery are flush with money and building projects they’ve been anticipating for almost two years.”
In terms of government budgets, it appears that local authorities such as Netivot, Sderot, Dimona, Nahariya, Ofakim, Ashdod and Acre are receiving hundreds of millions of shekels for the development of new neighborhoods and infrastructure, based on umbrella agreements signed between 2016 and 2019. Netivot, for example, has in recent years enjoyed an unprecedented momentum, with a government budget of 4.7 billion shekels ($1.46 billion) for building infrastructure and upgrading existing neighborhoods, as well as for building 13,000 new apartments housing 50,000 new residents by 2040.
The government decision to build five communities around Arad has no timetable. The government budgeted for planning these communities, but not for their actual construction. The question of when this might happen has no clear answer and depends, apparently, on the political balance of power. Palmer believes these communities will be built within five to seven years.
Many believe that of all the declarations about 10 new communities in the Negev (including ones for Bedouin and the city of Kasif for the ultra-Orthodox), only five will be built, and these too will be staggered. The construction of Yatir and Hiran, for example, was announced in 2002 and 2013, respectively, but there isn’t much settlement on the ground at those locations.
Palmer’s Or movement started out by advocating for the development of new communities in the Negev and Galilee, changing direction when Palmer realized that this was a long-term battle, possibly a futile one. “We now understand that it’s better to invest in services and infrastructure in cities, and in the establishment of regional employment hubs, medical centers and venues for cultural and entertainment activities. We realized that if we want to bring about change and development, we have to deal with large masses, investing in the development and advancement of urban communities.”
Global forecasts, first and foremost a 2018 UN report, predict that by 2050, 68 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas, compared to 55 percent as of 2018. Urban development and investment in strong metropolitan areas allow for quick and convenient access to health services, education and culture, as well as providing high-quality employment opportunities. This limits environmental damage and prevents investment in redundant infrastructure that serves only a few. Israel’s Planning Administration has accordingly embraced preserving and maintaining open spaces in Israel, while focusing on strengthening and developing urban centers, as reflected in the strategic plan for housing for 2040.
The government tasked the establishment of the new communities around Arad to an agency that keeps a low public profile, sheltered under a little-known government ministry. This agency is called the Settlement Division, operating under the Settlement Affairs Ministry, with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett as the responsible cabinet member. Some 18 million shekels ($5.57 million) were allocated to the Settlement Division for the purpose of “locating and forming groups of people for settling these communities, including the construction of two temporary neighborhoods.” The Settlement Division is part of the World Zionist Organization and is thus an unusual legal entity enjoying special legislation that exempts it from paying taxes or from having to compete for bids over providing services to the government. This exceptional freedom in using public funds has been the subject of State Comptroller reports in the past, but is viewed fondly by movements and activists promoting settlement, and not only those beyond the Green Line.
Yishai Merling, the head of the division, explains that his agency doesn’t seek the establishment of communities everywhere and at any price, but rather “in locations that the state doesn’t reach,” as he puts it. “Communities near the separation barrier, communities with demographic issues and development difficulties, that’s where we have a mandate to operate,” he explains. At the time of writing, the Settlement Division’s full budget for 2022 has still not been made public, as is the case with its policy and work plan for this year.
The division is a convenient conduit for transferring funds to settlement groups and movements, regional councils, Torah-oriented communities and other diverse organizations. In the Arad-area project, its role is to ensure that the land in four of the five approved communities goes to Jewish residents, achieving this through selection committees operated by the division. In the meantime, it is supposed to take rapid settlement steps in the style of the so-called “hilltop youth” (who set up unauthorized outposts in the West Bank), although the division operates within the law. This will consist of placing caravans temporarily, in order to create “facts on the ground” before the current government falls and someone changes their mind.
Yoel Rivlin, the Settlement Division’s architect and the son of former president Reuven Rivlin, has since 2006 been promoting research and analysis that justifies rural Jewish settlement of the Negev. “Whereas in the western Negev the proximity to the Gaza Strip encouraged the state to promote settlement and development, the eastern Negev was abandoned to the Bedouin,” claims Rivlin.
“The Bedouin community has grown from 12,000 people at the establishment of the state to 300,000 people the government has paid no attention to. It never addressed the issue of land ownership or formulated a policy; it only left a vacuum,” says Rivlin. “We believe that to have been a mistake, and the present government is internalizing this fact. Regulating land issues in the Negev is currently one of the most important national missions. We at the Settlement Division understood that the right way ahead is to focus planning and development for [Jewish] communities south of Highway 31, between Be’er Sheva and Arad. The idea is to grab land and fulfill the Zionist vision. We are planning communities that will rely on Arad as a service center, while promoting regional development. We’re working together with Bedouin local councils in the area and with the Bedouin Development and Settlement Authority.”
The state invested in drafting five-year plans for the Bedouin community that called for planning and building neighborhoods in Bedouin towns, but execution has been close to nil. According to the Knesset’s Research and Information Center and the State Comptroller report from 2016, 50 percent of land that is under the jurisdiction of Bedouin communities is now going through legal proceedings to determine ownership. On the other hand, the policy of the Negev Bedouin Development and Settlement Authority in recent years is to focus on solving housing shortages, regardless of ownership issues. However, addressing the issue of ownership is the most significant hurdle facing the creation of organized Bedouin settlements in the Negev. Some of the areas intended for the new communities are used as pasture for Bedouin flocks.
“I understand claims saying that we’re causing friction, but I believe that the establishment of communal settlements and action taken to coordinate things will bring about some arrangement,” explains Rivlin in describing this dialectic. “The agricultural lands whose status is sorted will serve everyone, both Bedouin and Jews. The problem is that in the meantime, one only sees chaos. Planning in the Negev cannot be separatist, serving just one population. One has to promote other groups beside the Bedouin.”
According to Merling, the head of the Settlement Division, “even the establishment of four communities is not sufficient as a solution, and complementary moves are required. Obviously, it makes more economic sense to strengthen a city than to build a new community. Tanks also cost money and they’re not used daily, but you buy them since they’re needed. The same applies to communities. There will either be [Jewish] communities in this area in a few years, or neglect and pollution and garbage, just as is happening in many places such as this, and we know who we’d prefer to settle there.”