The Environmental Price of Injustice

It is true that since the founding of the state, no new community has ever been built for Israeli Arabs, much less a city. But one should not correct one injustice by creating a new injustice - this time, to quality of life and the environment.

Last Tuesday should have been a day of mourning for those who love nature and the environment. But for some reason, it passed quietly. On that day, two decisions were made. One was widely publicized: to establish a new Arab city in the Galilee. The second passed easily, with no media fanfare: to establish a new town in the eastern part of the Lachish region.

The first decision was unnecessary. It came after Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit visited Umm al-Fahm. In his eagerness to please the residents, Sheetrit announced he had ordered his ministry's staff to examine establishing a new Arab city in the Galilee.

Given our reality (a declared policy of "Judaizing the Galilee" and ministers who are replaced every two to three years), it seems we will have peace with the Palestinians before a new Arab city arises. Nevertheless, it is worth examining the matter in principle.

Establishing a new city in the Galilee would entail huge investments of money that we do not have. Moreover, the Galilee is one of the few "green lungs" still remaining for domestic tourists. Establishing a city means destroying natural wealth, damaging the environment and making rare flora and fauna disappear. And all this in a country that has no substitute for the Galilee for domestic tourism. Where else can we go if we want to see a little greenery and a little flowing water?

It is true that since the founding of the state, no new community has ever been built for Israeli Arabs, much less a city (aside from the seven towns built for the Bedouin in the Negev). Indeed, the opposite occurred: Private Arab land was expropriated for public needs, and the "public" in question was the Jewish public. But one should not correct one injustice by creating a new injustice - this time, to quality of life and the environment.

The problems that young Arab couples face and the lack of Arab industrial zones could be solved quickly and efficiently by approving master plans for modern high-rise construction within existing towns. And in any case, why build a special city just for Arabs? Will this racist worldview of ours persist forever?

But if the new Arab city has little chance of ever arising, the second town has almost a 100-percent chance of being built. A special government committee decided to build a new community called Hazan in the eastern Lachish area for evacuated Gaza settlers.

If Arabs are the country's weakest pressure group, the Gush Katif evacuees, supported by West Bank settlers and every other opponent of talks with the Palestinians, are the strongest. They play the role of the oppressed even though they received more than they deserved from the state, in terms of both financial compensation, the establishment of a special administration to handle their affairs and the allocation of valuable state lands, such as Nitzanim. But they want even more.

In January 2007, due to pressure from the evacuees, Ehud Olmert visited the Lachish area and promised he would build a new town at Givat Hazan. Then-interior minister Roni Bar-On promised to build five new communities for them, while then-housing minister Meir Sheetrit called for speeding up the implementation.

None of them dared to tell the evacuees the truth: Israel's problem is not a lack of towns, but an excess. Olmert, Bar-On and Sheetrit all know that the cost of building infrastructure for a new town is enormous. It is much cheaper to build new neighborhoods in existing communities.

They also know that it would be better to strengthen Dimona, Yeruham, Mitzpeh Ramon, Sderot and Ofakim than to build new towns. And they also know that many towns in the Negev, including some in the Lachish area itself, are crying out for new residents. There are houses and apartments awaiting occupants. Moreover, the government's declared policy is to strengthen existing communities in the south. If so, why on earth build a new town?

The Lachish area has unique natural features, and establishing a new town there would damage the region's ecology. Dozens of scientists and environmentalists have expressed opposition to Hazan's establishment because of the unnecessary damage it would do to one of the state's few remaining open spaces.

But every Israeli leader wants to make his mark on history. Like the pharaohs who built the pyramids, every prime minister wants to build new towns and cities so that he can boast of his works. Each one wants to leave some visible bit of history behind him - and to hell with budgetary and environmental considerations.