Israeli Cabinet advances plans to ‘Judaize’ Galilee, expand West Bank settlements

Proposed steps would also expand the law to let residential communities choose who can live there, on both sides of the Green Line

The Hararit community settlement in the Galilee region in 2021

Jonathan Lis reports in Haaretz on 5 June 2023:

The government is advancing a number of steps to encourage Jewish families to move to communities in northern Israel, a region with a large Arab population.   As part of the plan, which cabinet members describe as an attempt “to save Jewish settlement in the Galilee,” the government will expand a controversial law that allows small residential communities to choose who is allowed to join them.

The cabinet will also advance a resolution to subsidize the price of land in communities suffering from “demographic or security hardships.”  The government coalition hopes to complete parts of the plan, part of which is based on coalition agreements between Likud and the Religious Zionism party, in the next few weeks.

“Rural settlement, which was intentionally established to take over land and Judaize the Galilee, is disappearing because of the leap in land prices,” Settlement and National Missions Minister Orit Strock of the Religious Zionism party told Haaretz. “To make the communities younger, we need to dramatically reduce the price of land.”

The high socioeconomic ranking of communities in the north is deceptive, and does not reflect the true status of the residents, said Strock. “We need to forcefully lower the prices to enable young families to live there. Otherwise, we will get more people who will buy summer homes there, and that’s not what we need.”

The Jezreel Valley and Misgav regional councils, in the Galilee area, recently sent notices to 18 communities in their jurisdictions to reduce the number of kindergartens next year due to the low number of children in the area. The government sees this move as evidence that these community settlements in the north are aging, and the fact that, due to several reasons, chief among them the high cost of housing, young couples cannot and do not want to move to them.

The first component of the plan is a major expansion of the Admission Committees Law, an amendment to the Cooperative Societies Code legislated in 2010. Its goal was to bypass a Supreme Court ruling forbidding residential communities from leasing land only to Jews; the law, as it currently stands, allows communities in the Galilee and Negev of up to 400 families to run Admission committees that examine every transfer of land ownership in the community. In doing so, they determine who will be allowed to live there.

Members of Knesset claimed this week that communities that have reached the cap of 400 families have frozen the admission of new residents due to the ban on choosing who is allowed to move in. The government, therefore, aims to expand the law so that it applies to communities with up to 1,000 families, or alternatively will allow any such community to sell up to 1,000 plots of land through admission committees. A 2019 report by the Knesset Information and Research Center said that many communities continued to operate the admissions committees even after they reached the quota.

The Admission Committees Law does forbid disqualifying any candidate for residence on the basis of race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation or political affiliation, but the wording of the law allows committees to reject candidates with the justification of being “inappropriate for the social and cultural fabric” of the community.

MK Ahmad Tibi of Hadash-Ta’al said that the law serves the purpose of filtering out potential residents by race. Under the auspices of the law, “about 900 communities are out of the question today when it comes to housing for an Arab citizen in the State of Israel,” he said.

The bill to expand the law to communities of 1,000 families passed its first vote in the previous Knesset, and it set a quota of 600 families per community. In March, the Knesset began to continue the legislative processes. The version Strock is advancing, which extends the law to communities of up to 1,000 families, will be prepared in a separate Knesset committee before being brought directly for its second and third votes in the full Knesset.

The expansion of the law could pose a challenge to the opposition, as a number of opposition Knesset members support the bill in principle. MK Alon Schuster of the National Unity Party has stated that although he opposes the term “Judaizing the Galilee,” Israel must “allow communities, most of the residents in which are Jewish, to develop” at a Knesset Economic Affairs Committee in March.

Schuster clarified at the time that he supports the law. “We must allow for organic growth. This is very important, and I’m pleased about the shared path the opposition and coalition are taking” on the law, he said.

The version of the law that Religious Zionism is currently advancing, though, would also apply to West Bank settlements. “The regions we added are areas in which there is rural settlement that needs strengthening,” Strock told Haaretz. “There, it’s not a matter of the high cost of living, but the opposite – in these areas, we need to erase the question of the socioeconomic status from the lexicon. The State of Israel needs to take an interest in people living in these places. We don’t need to go according to misery, but according to the national interest,” she added.

Strock said that there is no justification for government aid for rural settlement in areas that are in higher demand. “The Gezer Regional Council [in central Israel] – let’s say that if it were to be wiped off the face of the Earth and there would be just cities there, no one would be too sorry,” she said. “We don’t have a strategic national interest in the existence of this settlement. It takes up land that, as far as real estate is concerned, is unjustified.”

‘No hardships’ in Arab communities

Two weeks ago, the cabinet quietly organized a group to draft a proposal for a government plan to subsidize the cost of land in communities that suffer from “demographic or security hardships” within 30 days.  The team is helmed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.The cabinet was asked to support the efforts of Construction and Housing Minister Yitzchak Goldknopf to lower housing prices in the north, but ministers from Religious Zionism said that this was insufficient, and demanded that Netanyahu establish a committee to draft a different proposal. The cabinet’s decision to establish such a committee was not released to the media.

In addition, the Prime Minister’s Office is expected to examine providing further incentives, including subsidizing afternoon day care, with the goal of encouraging young families to move to the north.  Strock explained the decision to advance this aid for Jewish communities alone, saying that Arab settlement does not suffer from similar hardships. “There are no longer small Arab villages at all. Everything that is called an Arab village has been the size of a city for a long time,” she said. “The homogeneity that is so important to residential communities exists naturally in Arab communities. You won’t find Druze from Daliat al-Carmel settling in Sakhnin, or the opposite, and not even Bedouin from the Galilee who would settle in Hura” in the Negev. The Arab towns have no limits on land, said Strock. Regarding Druze towns, Strock admits they do not have enough surplus land to expand, and that “this must be solved.”

Tibi responded to Strock’s statements, saying that “The claim that there is no housing problem in Arab towns in the north is a bad joke in the best case, and a racist pretense in practice. Arabs who leave their communities to live in Carmiel, Lod, Haifa, Nof Hagalil or Hadera do so because of hardships – there is no land and no quality of life. The growing crime rate is also a reason for migration,” he said. “Arab communities have housing issues, but other possibilities are closed to us.”

Another proposal, which has attracted substantial criticism from environmental organizations, would see representatives of the settlement and agriculture ministries added to the Higher Planning Council and regional planning and building committees in areas of national priority in the Negev and Galilee.

A government source said that the objective is “to make the voice that represents rural settlement heard and become a part of the discussion on planning.” But environmental groups, led by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the Zalul Environmental Association and the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, argue that adding these ministry representatives will shift the balance on planning committees in favor of supporters of development at the expense of preserving nature and the environment. That is why the green groups are demanding to add representatives of civil society organizations or experts from academia in the relevant fields to the planning bodies, too.

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