Review Panel Calls for Infill Development to Absorb Haredi Growth

Master plan review team says building new towns clashes with 'national objectives'.

A panel tasked with reviewing the country's national master plan has found that Haredi communities should be integrated into existing cities instead of having separate towns built for them.

Housing shortages for the ultra-Orthodox around the country are acutely felt, with families going so far as to live in storage rooms. Over the last several years, the Housing and Construction Ministry and Interior Ministry have made construction aimed at the Haredi public a priority, with thousands of units slated to go up in new towns and expansions planned of existing Haredi enclaves.

Haredi neighborhood
Itzik Ben-Malki

At least some of these plans, however, are at odds with a special report examining the needs of the Haredi population prepared by a team appointed by the Interior Ministry. Charged with reviewing the implementation of National Master Plan 35 - which sets out the country's building objectives until 2030 - and proposing necessary revisions, the team, led by planners Yaron Turel, Ari Cohen and Moti Kaplan, has been examining whether integration or segregation makes more sense from a planning perspective.

"Building new towns and removing Haredi communities from the country's center will reduce chances for interaction between them and other groups, and the possibility to integrate their members into the workforce," the report stated. According to the report, Israel's Haredi population numbers approximately 750,000 and is the fastest growing community in the country. It will need 98,000 new housing units by 2025.

Ultra-Orthodox communities require special attention from planners, who must consider keeping up with a quickly-growing but generally poor population that usually prefers to live in enclaves with a high density of synagogues, yeshivas and other educational institutions.

In addressing this problem the team studied a 2006 Housing Ministry report that called for building new towns and neighborhoods exclusively for this purpose. The ministry proposed several sites, including the existing town of Harish - with construction of about 10,000 apartments in the first stage - and a 2,700 dunam area (slightly more than one square mile ) in western Kiryat Gat. It also proposed two additional locations: A 180 dunam site near moshav Heletz, a rural community northeast of Sderot, and next to Yesodot, a religious moshav west of Gedera.

"In the conflict between the forces for integration and segregation there are some who exploit the distinctiveness of Haredi settlements to actually promote cutting them off," the review panel wrote. "These involve specially adapted public transportation systems and the provision of other special services for Haredim which, among other things, minimize the Haredi population's contact with Israeli society. We believe the alternative of building new Haredi towns doesn't connect the developmental needs of the Haredi community to long-term national objectives."

The panel found that developments since 2006 mean construction should be concentrated inward.

The review points out, for instance, that the original report overlooked major changes planned for the Ramat Beit Shemesh neighborhood, where land earmarked for 27,000 units been put aside for Haredi buyers.

The panel also cited construction to be carried out in Upper Nazareth, which will include 10,000 apartments for Haredim, adding that there are plans for Haredi neighborhoods in Ashkelon, Ashdod, Lod, Netivot, Ofakim, Arad, Rosh Ha'ayin, as well as the possibility of expanding Elad, an existing majority-Haredi city.

The planning team put its emphasis on integration, determining that the Haredi population should be integrated within existing urban areas. "The relatively simple possibilities are to exhaust the potential of existing Haredi areas through reconstruction and urban renewal with high-density construction and greatly increasing building rights, or expanding the territory of existing residential areas," their report said.

"Breaking through the barrier of building height limitations could set a precedent for other Haredi areas, including the new Haredi towns that have much potential for such utilization" the report added. "Preference should be given to providing an answer for the growing residential needs of the Haredi population within existing communities and separate neighborhoods, both in built-up areas and by expanding urban areas, while refraining as much as possible from building isolated cities, especially in the periphery."

The report also called the plan to create Kasif, a Haredi city meant to built from scratch near Arad and to cater to the thousands of families, "problematic because of its remoteness and location where it would probably lead to intense community isolation and dependence on outside resources."

Dror Ezra, acting chairman of the Green Party, which opposes the decision to establish the town of Kasif, said he agreed with funneling Haredi families into existing cities.

"Building new cities like Kasif is a mistake, both environmentally and economically, since it would mean destroying open areas and spending billions on building infrastructure," he said. "The Interior Ministry and the National Council for Planning and Construction are responsible for national planning. If the Housing and Construction Ministry acts differently then there is something being improperly management. Long-term planning is needed, not whims or instant solutions."