Israel's executive arm for settlement construction has begun advancing plans for new Jewish communities in the Galilee that clearly contradict national planning policy, which favors expanding existing communities. These plans began to take shape three years ago, in a declared effort to create a demographic balance between Jews and Arabs in the northern region.
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The Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization's work plan was posted 10 days ago on the Agriculture Ministry’s website. It includes feasibility studies for proposed new communities in two areas of the Galilee, northwest of Carmiel near the kibbutzim of Pelekh and Tuval; and south of Carmiel, near the community settlements of Eshhar and Yuvalim.
Both areas are near large Arab towns, including Majdal Krum and Sakhnin, which together have 45,000 residents. The Misgav Regional Council, the jurisdiction of the proposed new communities, has a population of 28,000. The settlement division wants to build 3,000 homes, but it isn’t clear exactly where they will be located.
The Settlement Division has for many years been defined as the government’s executive arm for settlement construction. It operates under the auspices of the Agriculture and Rural Development Ministry and is fully funded by the state. In recent years its annual budget has ranged from 100 million shekels to 300 million shekels ($27.6 million to $82.8 million).
The division does not have the authority to approve the establishment of new communities, but in many cases it has submitted proposals that were subsequently approved by the relevant government ministries. One of the most recent communities it was involved in planning was Hiran. This new community for Jews in southern Israel is to be built on the site of the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran, where a resident and a police officer died in January in the course of evictions there.
Immediately after the plans were posted, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel submitted reservations, most prominently the fact that building new communities in the Galilee contradicts national planning policy.
“The development of new communities reduces the amount of open spaces with low-rise, low-density housing,” the SPNI wrote. “Beyond the environmental damage, the establishment of new communities is economically unjustified because of the high development costs, and also unjustified socially, because they attract people away from existing communities.” The Environmental Protection Ministry takes a similar position.
In a statement, the Settlement Division said the work plan “refers to new communities that were approved by cabinet resolution and have the approval of the National Planning and Building Council.” According to the division, “These towns will contribute to and strengthen the existing towns and the region.”
The Planning Administration in the Finance Ministry said it wasn’t familiar with the plans but added, “Our position is that it is preferable to expand existing communities than to build new ones.”