‘This is our moment’: Israel okays major plan to boost Golan, double its population

Cabinet holds meeting on strategic plateau, with ministers approving $317M development plan; Bennett hails Trump recognition, then goes into quarantine as daughter catches COVID

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

The cabinet unanimously approved a NIS 1 billion ($317 million) development plan on Sunday aimed at encouraging demographic growth in the Golan Heights, with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett saying Israel intends to double the number of Israelis living in the strategic area in the coming years.

Bennett also announced several new communities and neighborhoods in the Golan, during a special cabinet meeting held in the Golan’s Kibbutz Mevo Hama.

“This is our moment. This is the moment of the Golan Heights,” Bennett told ministers. “After long and static years in terms of the scope of settlement, our goal today is to double settlement in the Golan Heights.”

The plan’s goal, formulated by a team headed by the Prime Minister’s Office director-general, Yair Pines, is to boost the population in the Golan Regional Council and the Katzrin Local Council in 2022-2025.

Bennett announced the plan in October, saying that the ultimate goal was to reach 100,000 residents in the coming years.

Currently, 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 and a minority sect to which Syria’s ruling family, the Assads, belong).

During Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Bennett announced two new neighborhoods in the town of Katzrin, as well as two new communities to be named Asif and Matar, each with about 2,000 housing units.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks during a cabinet meeting held on the Golan Heights on December 26, 2021. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The prime minister noted the recognition of former US president Donald Trump’s administration of Israeli control of the Golan Heights, and “the fact that the Biden administration has made it clear that there is no change in this policy.”

He added that since the COVID-19 pandemic has proven how many people can now work from home, the Golan is a “great option for those who prefer clean air, space and quality of life.”

Apart from the United States, the international community regards the Golan as part of Syria, which lost the territory in the 1967 Six Day War. Israel annexed the Golan in 1981.

In 2019, a new town, named Trump Heights, was inaugurated on the Golan to honor Trump’s recognition.

A construction truck enters Trump Heights on September 21, 2020 (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)

Bennett said that in light of the decade-long civil war in Syria, “every knowledgeable person in the world understands that it is preferable to have Israeli heights that are quiet, flourishing and green as opposed to the alternative.”

For the first time since the start of the pandemic, all attending ministers were required to take a rapid COVID-19 antigen test before entering the cabinet meeting.

While Bennett tested negative, shortly after making his remarks his office said it was notified that Bennett’s daughter had tested positive for the coronavirus, prompting the premier to leave the cabinet meeting and head into self-isolation at home. Bennett’s office said his daughter was vaccinated.

The government plan aims to upgrade infrastructure, establish new communities and neighborhoods, and create 2,000 new jobs by turning the region into “the capital of Israel’s renewable energy technologies,” Hebrew media reported.

View of the town of Neve Ativ, in the Golan Heights. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

The plan involves a number of agricultural technology projects, including agro-voltaic projects where solar panels are mounted over crop fields to facilitate crop growth and generate electricity at the same time.

Some NIS 576 million ($183 million) will be allocated for housing planning — about 3,300 new housing units in Katzrin and another 4,000 in the Golan Regional Council — within five years.

Another NIS 160 million ($51 million) is to be invested in infrastructure and transportation, to improve the quality of life in the Golan Heights.

Some Golan Heights residents are expected to oppose parts of the plan. Opposition is also expected from environmental organizations over the possible impacts further development could have on the environment and wildlife in the area.

Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi at a Knesset Finance Committee meeting on June 23, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Opposition MK Ahmad Tibi of the predominantly Arab Joint List party criticized the decision to hold the cabinet meeting on the Golan Heights.

“It doesn’t matter how many cabinet meetings are held on the Golan, it is occupied Syrian territory,” tweeted Tibi. “All parts of the coalition are responsible for the decisions made during this cabinet meeting, as well as for the deepening of the settlements and the violence of settlers.”

The Islamist Ra’am party, which is a member of the coalition but has no ministers, did not take part in the meeting.

Left-wing Meretz ministers Tamar Zandberg and Nitzan Horowitz did attend the meeting, though Zandberg said the decision was “complicated. We support peace and hope one day it will happen.”

Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej, also of Meretz, chose not to attend the cabinet meeting.

AP contributed to this report.

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