Leave Lachish Alone

At the end of 2007, there is no justification, from a planning, economic, and definitely, an economic point of view, for building new towns inside the sovereign territory of Israel.

Last week Prime Minister Ehud Olmert proved he is indeed a genuine successor to Ariel Sharon. He too, like his predecessor, fills with excitement at the site of another bulldozer carving out another road and building another town. He also sticks to that good old mantra, that its time to stop talking and start doing. The ministerial committee on settlement, chaired by Olmert, decided last week to set up village-type communities in the Lachish area. One of the main reasons for this new construction is to absorb some 200 families of Gush Katif evacuees.

The area will include three new villages and a road whose construction is estimated to cost NIS 200 million. Like the settlements, this area will serve a political purpose.

"This is about building inside the Green Line and it has great significance," Olmert explained. "There are currently several hundred families living in the area, while at the same time in the same area on the other side of the Green Line, the Palestinian population is growing."

He did not point out that contrary to the past, the two populations are today separated one from the other by a separation fence.

Finding housing solutions for the evacuees of Gush Katif is a worthy cause. But following many years in which the evacuees lived in a separate world, from a planning, social and political perspective, it is now time that they and the decision makers finally link up with the Israeli reality. At the end of 2007, there is no justification, from a planning, economic, and, definitely, an economic point of view, for building new towns inside the sovereign territory of Israel.

One does not need to be a supporter of environmental organizations concerned about the fate of birds of prey and rare insects in order to strongly oppose the establishment of these communities. This opposition is now shared by nearly every one of the organizations responsible for planning in the country, and this view has been anchored in master plans with statutory standing, and first and foremost, master plan 35. This is a plan approved by the government and it is meant to shape the way development and construction proceed in Israel over the next two decades.

Opposition to building new towns stems from the recognition that we should be thrifty and intelligent about the way we use the land resources of Israel. Land is a very limited resource that during the past two decades was used in a wasteful manner following the development of village-type communities and suburbs. The widespread construction of homes forces the establishment of costly infrastructure and damages the environment. Building a new town not only harm the land on which it is built but also the broader area around it, which is affected by the infrastructure leading to the town.

Following the ministerial committee decision, the prime minister called the development of new towns in Israel exciting. It is no less exciting, and a lot more important, to bolster and expand existing towns, and preserve the quality of life enjoyed by those living in Israel because of green fields like those in the Lachish area.

It seems that Olmert is living on Mars if he thinks that there are still large areas in Israel that will not be affected by the fact that new roads and towns will be built. On this point he differs from his predecessor, who knew very well every hill and fold in the land, which he destroyed through his endless projects of creating "star communities," hilltop outposts and settlements.

The evacuees of Gush Katif want to live in village-like communities, but this can be accomplished without establishing new towns. In the Lachish area, there are plans for expanding existing towns and to the south the development of two new village-type communities has been approved. Utilizing these possibilities will increase the population in the area, along the lines desired by the government, and will significantly limit the financial investment and the environmental consequences. The planning committees that will deliberate the establishment of new towns in Lachish can still consider alternatives, including settling the evacuees in existing towns.