The government voted on Sunday to establish a new community in the Negev, as well as to examine the possibility of the establishment of a new city in the south and five further communities — all to be Jewish.
According to the decision, Ir Ovot, the new community, will built south of the Hatzeva interchange on Route 90. The city, if ultimately approved, would be built near the town of Lehavim, while the other five communities will be established near Route 25 in the northern Negev.
The communities are slated to include around 10,500 housing units.
Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, who backed the program together with Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin, welcomed the government’s decision, saying it would advance Zionist values as well as play a key role in the security of the state.
“Development will strengthen governance and sovereignty in the Negev and will open up the region,” Shaked said.
“Precisely at this time, in the face of all the security incidents, the Israeli government is establishing a contiguous urban bloc on the ground, putting a stake in the ground and beginning to build Jewish towns in the Negev,” Shaked declared.
“It excites me on a personal level and I feel a real mission that fulfills Ben-Gurion’s vision,” she said, citing the legacy of Israel’s first prime minister, who put an emphasis on settling in the Negev.
Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg slammed the initiative, saying it would have a negative environmental and economic impact, and that the government should instead focus on improving existing communities.
“There is a dangerous trend of government decisions to establish new towns, which means overrunning open spaces in Israel,” Zandberg said. “This is a big mistake in the economic, social and environmental sense. Instead of strengthening existing communities, investing in infrastructure and strengthening the population in them, these decisions weaken existing cities.”
According to Haaretz, a number of the new communities are to be built near existing Bedouin communities, on land that has been designated as an ecological corridor or an area of outstanding natural beauty.
The plan was also slammed by some local community leaders, both Arab and Jewish.
Amir Bisharat, adviser to the national committee of Arab local authorities, told Haaretz that “the government chooses to poke a finger in our eyes and prevent any expansion of Bedouin communities.” Bisharat added that the plan would lead to increased polarization between Arabs and Jews in the south.
“Authorities have been working slowly for decades and have not been able to reach a resolution and resolve the barriers faced by the Arab population. On the other hand, right-wing elements in the government succeed in approving the establishment of dozens of communities for Jews,” he said.
The head of the Bnei Shimon Regional Council, Nir Zamir, sent a letter to the government voicing his opposition to the plan, saying it was made without consulting local leaders, who would prefer for existing communities to be expanded.
“Lehavim can expand and in the Bnei Shimon Regional Council there are dozens of communities that want to build more housing units in their area and bring in more residents,” Zamir wrote, adding that he wanted to present a plan to increase housing in the area without taking over any more agricultural or open land.
Zamir’s position was supported by the Lehavim Regional Council, but the head of the Central Arava Regional Council reportedly favored the government initiative.
Last month, ministers voted to approve the establishment of five new communities in the Negev, after a heated exchange between the disparate members of the ruling coalition.
The five communities — four Jewish and one Bedouin — are slated to be built around the southern city of Arad. The proposal was brought forward by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Elkin and Shaked.
During the discussion of the proposal, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar and Zandberg — who voted against it — reportedly got into a tense confrontation.