Planning committee approves two new Jewish villages on Golan Heights

Society for Protection of Nature in Israel, which opposed the move along with Environment Ministry and Nature Authority, argues existing communities should instead be expanded

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

An aerial view of Gamla on the Golan Heights. (AVRAMGR, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)
An aerial view of Gamla on the Golan Heights. (AVRAMGR, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

The National Planning and Building Council on Tuesday voted 17-5 to recommend the establishment of two new Jewish villages in the Golan Heights in northern Israel.

The future community of Orcha is to be located in the eastern Golan Heights, about five kilometers (three miles) north of Moshav Ramat Magshimim. Matar is set to be built in the northern part of the area, a kilometer south of Moshav Sha’al.

Both areas are sparsely populated, with less than 10 people per square kilometer. Plans are for each community to ultimately have 2,000 housing units.

A statement issued by the Israel Lands Authority said that the plan, which also includes boosting the population of Katzrin, was aimed at meeting “the high demand” for housing in the Golan Heights, improving services there, and reducing gaps between the center of the country and the periphery.

But several groups have publicly opposed the move, including the Environmental Protection Ministry, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI).

A statement from SPNI said that from an ecological, scenic, planning, economic and social point of view, expanding and strengthening existing settlements was preferable to creating new ones.

Israelis hike near the Jalaboun stream, Golan Heights, on April 23, 2022. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

The Golan Heights is one of the most important areas in Israel for nature, tourism and leisure, attracting tens of thousands of hikers and vacationers each year, said Assaf Zanzuri, the SPNI’s coordinator of planning policy.

Local residents need a hospital, stronger educational institutions and more job opportunities, he said, not a plan that he dismissed as having been hatched in order to further an election campaign. Strengthening the Jewish presence in the Golan Heights is a position likely to be popular among right-wing voters ahead of the November 1 election.

Israel seized the western two-thirds of the Heights from Syria during the 1967 Six Day War and extended Israeli law there in 1981 in a move not recognized by the international community. In 2019, then-US president Donald Trump broke with the consensus by recognizing the Golan Heights as part of Israel.

Ministers take part in a special cabinet meeting on the Golan Heights on December 26, 2021. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

While the Golan makes up five percent of Israel’s claimed territory, only 0.5% of Israelis live there. In October, then-prime minister Naftali Bennett announced the government’s intention to dramatically increase the number of people living in the region.

In December, the cabinet unanimously approved a NIS 1 billion ($317 million) development plan aimed at doubling the number of Israelis living in the strategic area in the coming years.

The SPNI warned at the time that the plan threatened the open vistas, springs, waterfalls and rich biodiversity that make the sparsely populated region a huge draw for Israelis and tourists.

View of the Druze town of Majdal Shams, Golan Heights, northern Israel, February 11, 2021. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

Rather than reinventing the wheel, it said, the state should use some of the 12,000 existing permits for residential construction that have not been implemented. An additional 4,500 permits exist to build in the town of Katzrin alone, it added.

Some 53,000 people live in the Golan Heights: 27,000 Jews, 24,000 Druze, and some 2,000 Alawites (an ethnoreligious group originating from Shia Islam).

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