Life and Environment – The Israeli Union of Environmental NGOs held its annual awards ceremony at the Knesset on Tuesday. This year’s laureates of the Green Globe Awards included the Haifa Metronit bus rapid transit system, for promoting sustainable public transportation. The Black Globe, in contrast, went to the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization, for promoting new communities that damage the environment, at the expense of existing communities.
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At first glance, a public transport project in a large city and the establishment of new communities in the Negev and the Galilee have nothing in common. But in fact, there is a close environmental and social connection between urban sustainability, of which effective public transportation is an important component, and the perpetuation of a community model that is based on single-family homes and absolute dependence on private cars.
The Metronit was designed and built by Yefe Nof, a company owned by the Haifa municipality, and the Transportation Ministry. It consists of long, high-capacity buses traveling on dedicated lanes covering much of the Haifa metropolitan area, with the aim of quickly and efficiently moving large numbers of passengers. The system, which began operating in August 2013, suffers from a number of problems, and the decision to give it the Green Globe met with pointed criticism from environmental activists. Overcrowding on the buses, accessibility issues and various maintenance problems are among the complaints about the project. The system that is supposed to give the Metronit buses priority at intersections has not been completed because the state has not yet handed over the necessary funds.
But the project’s environmental success and its efficiency is expected to increase along with the anticipated expansion of the system and its integration with Haifa’s existing bus service. It will strengthen the city’s more urban areas while reducing dependence on private cars.
Anticipated side-benefits include a reduction in air and noise pollution and a decline in pressures to continue building in open areas.
The exact opposite is the case for the projects advanced by the WZO’s Settlement Division. The more they expand, the greater the environmental damage they cause – not for the residents of the new communities, who will enjoy beautiful views and high quality of life, but for their surroundings.
According to the jury for the Black Globe, the Settlement Division, whose activities lack oversight and which is fighting the Justice Ministry’s plan to apply the Freedom of Information Law to them, promotes the creation of dozens of new communities in the Galilee and the Negev, areas whose existing rural communities – and even more so their cities – should be strengthened.
A salient example of the department’s work is the settlement plan for the area around Arad, which is expected to receive the approval of the national zoning bodies within weeks. The plan calls for establishing six rural cooperative communities, in which all the housing is to consist of single-family homes. They will be built on open ares, and it goes without saying that their residents will be entirely dependent on their own cars.
The development and construction costs will far exceed those of adding an equivalent number of housing units to an existing rural community or urban neighborhood. The area in which these communities are to be built is crucially important from an ecological perspective; any damage to it will be especially significant. The Settlement Division argues that the locations of the communities have been carefully chosen so as to avoid damaging the natural environment, but it is obvious that the construction of the communities themselves, as well as the necessary infrastructure, will not exactly make a positive contribution to the region’s ecology and will only increase its physical discontinuity – one of the most serious threats to nature in Israel.
A plethora of reasons were advanced to justify the creation of these communities, including the claim that they were meant for populations that would not choose to relocate to existing communities in the Negev because of their special lifestyles. These include people associated with military preparatory academies and individuals who want to establish so-called ecological communities, as well as practitioners of complementary medicine and their clients.
“The climatic and scenic uniqueness of the Arad-outskirts area, which is close to the Dead Sea and an existing tourism infrastructure, presents an opportunity to develop residential settlement combined with commercial initiatives” for this broad population group, according to a Settlement Division document.
And what about the Bedouin living in the area, in communities that have gone unrecognized by the state and are slated for evacuation? The Settlement Division argues that there is no conflict between its plan and the regularization of Bedouin settlement. It proposes creating a single community for the Bedouin in the area and sending the remainder to existing Bedouin communities in the region, such as Hura and Rahat. The Jews, then, are invited to come and live in communities of single-family homes, so that they can find physical and spiritual fulfillment. The Bedouin, on the other hand – some of whom moved to the area on the express orders of the government – will have to find alternative solutions.
What does the chairman of the Settlement Division, Dani Krichman, have to say about the prize that was awarded to the agency? He elected to tender a brief response: “The Settlement Division doesn’t have time for nonsense. It is engaged in building the land, in the Galilee and the Negev, with all its strength.”