The Israeli government approved on Sunday a one-billion-shekel ($317 million) plan for the development of the Golan Heights, in a bid to double the population of the territory occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War.

According to the plan, Israel will construct thousands of new housing units, develop transportation infrastructure, upgrade the area's medical and education system and promote thousands of new jobs.

"Our goal is to double the settlement in the Golan Heights. The need to strengthen, nurture and reconcile the place is common to us all," Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Sunday at a cabinet meeting held in the Golan Heights. 

"The fact that government minister from the left and the right are sitting together is moving. Our government is enabling the rediscovery of a broad Israeli consensus," he said.

Israel's Construction and Housing Minister Zeev Elkin echoed Bennett's sentiments, calling the area "a strategic and important region of the highest order," and vowing to "deepen, expand and double" its population.

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria during the Six-Day War in 1967. In 1981, Israel annexed the area. In 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump recognized that the Golan Heights are part of Israel, making the United States the first and so far only country to do so. 

The goal of the plan, which was announced in October, is to double the population of the Golan Heights by the end of the decade. In addition to increasing the number of residents in existing communities, the plan calls for creating two new communities. 

According to the plan, 576 million shekels will be invested in housing units: 3,300 units in Katzrin, 4,065 units in the Golan Regional Council and 4,000 housing units in the new settlements, which have already been given the temporary names of Asif and Matar. In addition, 160 million will be spent to "improve the quality of life in the Golan," through investments in transportation, medicine and education.

The government also approved 162 million shekels for economic development in the area, including investing in the promotion of new hotels. In addition, the plan seeks to create 2,000 new jobs in the area.

The proposal calls for increasing the population of the Golan Heights from 52,000 (including Katzrin and the Druze communities) by 50 percent by 2025 and doubling it by the end of the decade. The plan also calls for a number of new solar energy projects, including a large field of panels in Emek Habacha. 

The director general of the Construction and Housing Ministry said the plan will "significantly improve the quality of life" of the region's residents. Developing Israel's north is one of the ministry's "major goals," he added.

Environmental concerns

Earlier this month, Haaretz reported that Bennett is advancing the establishment of a new zoning board with broad powers and no public representatives in a bid to expedite the plan. Nature conservation organizations say the aim is to bypass the required planning process and argue that the establishment of new communities needlessly damages open spaces.

In a statement drawn up in response to the plan, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel called the proposed establishment of the special committee an exceptional and unreasonable measure. 

“There is a contradiction in the plan regarding the complexity of planning in the Golan Heights, which is filled with nature reserves, active firing zones and areas of high environmental sensitivity, and the conclusion that a special committee is needed as a significant instrument for removing planning barriers,” the document states. “It is precisely these planning and environmental complexities that necessitate careful and intelligent planning.”

According to the Golan Guardians, an advocacy organization whose members live in the region, the sparse population of the Golan Heights is the area’s great advantage rather than something that should be changed. “The sparsity of the population and its concentration in a single urban community surrounded by rural settlement is what enables the existence of natural spaces. Uncontrolled settlement and irresponsible development will result in their destruction,” the organization said in notes it appended to the government draft plan. 

In a written response, the Prime Minister’s Office said the new special committee “would enable focused, speedy work toward developing the Golan Heights and realizing the goal of doubling its population. The committee will preserve mechanisms of checks and balances regarding environmental aspects and protecting the public interest. The approval process will be similar to that of the district planning and building committee. The establishment of the new communities will be done in cooperation with the regional council out of a desire to preserve the community character of the localities. They will be established after [the residential units already approved for construction in the area have been built], and the land for them will be located while maintaining the highest environmental considerations.”

Zafrir Rinat contributed to this report.