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Wadi Ara next in line for Judaization project

By Sophie Crowe | The Palestine Monitor | August 31, 2011

The small village of Harish has become a hot spot of contentious debate since plans were unveiled to build an ultra-Orthodox only city in the predominantly Palestinian region.

Harish is a village in the Wadi Ara, a region in northern Israel that falls in the Haifa District and “The Triangle” in Israel. Wadi Ara is home to roughly 120,000 Palestinians and 10,000 Jews.

Harish was built as a kibbutz in 1992, one of a string of settlements positioned along the Green Line as a means of strengthening Israel’s hold on the border, a strategy conceived of by then housing minister Ariel Sharon. Failing in its original formulation, today it is home to only 1,000 people.

Since 2009, plans to transform Harish into an ultra-Orthodox city have been pushed forward by members of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, namely Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Housing Minister Ariel Atias.

Plans for expansion, approved in 2010, are now being implemented with 6,000 housing units soon to begin construction.

An executive committee was formed to promote the new city, which is sidestepping the planning process of the local and district planning committees.

Harish was declared an economically “preferred area” in 2009, which means the price of land will be government subsidised.

This was facilitated by a recent bill, which dictates that any city whose population is set to grow to seven times its size and whose religious character is changing should be a preferred area, criteria fitting the description of Harish perfectly.

The plan has caused much consternation among the mostly Jewish residents of Harish and the nearby Palestinian villages, mainly because the city, to be expanded by 1000 dunums (247 acres), will use land belonging to the villages and kibbutzim.

The aggrieved communities united to form the Harish Regional Campaign Coalition, including Palestinian villagers, Jewish residents of Harish, and members of nearby kibbutzim, to advance a common goal: for Harish to become a small and pluralistic city, allowing residents to remain and avoiding social friction in the area. The Coalition is also challenging the lack of transparency in the planning process being conducted by the housing ministry, and the destruction of unique forest land that expanding Harish will necessitate.

It is Palestinian villages that will be most grievously affected, as the current blueprints will see them hemmed in, preventing their own expansion. Harish is set to expand in a big arc, cutting off access between the villages of Kufr Kara, Umm al-Qutuf, Arara, Barta’a and Meiser.

The ultra-orthodox—or Haredim—have a reputation for intolerance among Palestinians in surrounding villages and Jews in Harish, who believe they would be openly hostile towards outsiders. Palestinians say they will not attempt to use Harish’s new roads due to fear of aggression from the Haredim, forcing them to travel around its boundaries to reach villages on the other side.

Under the leadership of Taqfiq Jabareen, the villages are challenging the discriminatory policies of the housing ministry by arguing against the use of the “preferred area” law Jabareen is currently pursuing a court battle that began in March 2010.

While most of their complaints have been batted aside by the National Council for Planning and Building, they did succeed in reducing the original plan for 150,000 new residents to 60,000.

Mr. Jabareen believes the state is implementing a similar strategy in Wadi Ara as it has in the Naqab and the Galilee, which are focal points of the Judaization drive. State policy here is based on the expropriation of Palestinian land and encirclement of Palestinian communities, in order to keep their numbers from rising.

Katsir, a neighbouring settlement, originally joined with Harish to make a local council though Harish is now set to become an independent town. The boundaries of the two settlements will still meet, ensuring the fragmentation of the villages.

This process will lead to the ghettoization of the villages, Mr. Jabareen predicts.

Take Barta’a, for example. To the east of the village is the Green Line, while on all others will be expanded Harish. Barta’a has tried to expand on surrounding lands but is continuously rebuffed by the national planning commission, which claims this land is too precious and unique for building. This same “natural reserve” is part of the space that will accommodate the new Harish.

Israel’s national settlement plan is guided by the principle that Palestinian centres of life should never be contiguous, which is achieved by breaking up towns and villages with Jewish municipalities.

Bimkom, an Israeli organisation for planning rights, noted in a 2003 report that all the spaces between Palestinian communities belong to a neighbouring Jewish regional council.

This way, Palestinian towns never grow to become cities and acquire the political and social dynamic of urban spaces, effectively keeping this population politically weak and pre-empting development.

Wadi Ara, with its high Palestinian population, is a salient site for this project.

A new settlement of national religious people, Mizpe Ilan, located very close to Umm al-Qutuf, was recognised by the state five months ago. Settlers began to set up trailers on state land three years ago and the state now says it will allow three hundred families to live there.

The Palestinian village of Dar al-Hanun, on the other hand, has existed in Wadi Ara since the 1920s but attempts to obtain official recognition are persistently thwarted, the state insisting the environmental character of the area is too sensitive for human habitation.

The village, falling inside the Menashe regional council, does not receive any basic services from the state, such as electricity, paved roads, water supply or sewage system.

Mustafa Abu Hilal is chairman of the village’s council. “I am not opposed to the expansion of Harish, but to the discrimination; I cannot obtain recognition of the home I have lived in for decades,” he told Ha’aretz newspaper in 2009.

In the first plan for Harish, Dar al-Hanun was included in the city. “It was only after we protested about this that they altered the plan to go around the village,” Mr. Jabareen explained.

Umm al-Qutuf has not had the same fortune. 150 dunums of the village’s private land lies inside Harish’s boundaries, in an area zoned as residential in the new plan.

Housing Minister, Atias warns that having Palestinians in a Haredi residential area would be irresponsible due to the likelihood of inter-communal clashes. The villagers wonder why the minister insists on bringing tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox to Wadi Ara when he understands the kind of social tension that will result.

The housing ministry has offered to give these landowners commercial space instead. They refuse on the grounds that having commercial property is worthless since the Haredim will surely boycott Palestinian business. Mostly, however, they feel they have a right to their own land despite the grand schemes of the authorities.

The land on which Harish was established was confiscated from Palestinians gradually, some of it in 1961, some in 1983. The road that acts as a boundary between Harish and Umm al Qutuf was built in 1993, also on confiscated land.

The state typically explains these policies with the need to convert agricultural land into public land. Campaign activists from Umm al-Qutuf point to the contradiction in using so-called public land for the benefit of only one sector.

“Public” in Israel can generally be interpreted as “Jewish.”

The nationwide tent protests have also reached Harish, also opposing the new city.

Harish resident Limor Lieberman has set up camp in a caravan on state land. She moved to Harish three years ago, attracted by the low house prices and ease of access to major centres like Tel Aviv with the proximity to Route 6, the main artery running the length of Israel.

“If the plan for Harish becomes a reality, we will have to move,” she stated.

Vanessa, a Jewish resident of Harish, agrees that living conditions will be made impossible by the influx of Haredim. “I lived in Jerusalem as a child and have seen it happening. Rocks would be thrown at our car,” she recounted.

She considers subsidised housing for the Haredim unfair to everyone else. “Lots of people need cheap housing,” she asserted, “but Shas is favouring the ultra-orthodox.”

The infrastructure for an open town already exists but Atias and his ilk have demanded that everything be rebuilt to suit the specific needs of an ultra-Orthodox community. This will incur a much higher cost, inspiring further ire amongst residents, who consider it a waste of state money.

According to Lieberman, there is co-existence in Harish, among secular Jews, a small number of national religious Jews, and a small minority of Palestinians.

“The new plan will destroy this balance, with Harish as a microcosm of the whole area,” she continued. “We want a pluralistic city. If a community was designated for secular people alone there would be outrage.”

The housing ministry insists anyone can live here though the city is being marketed to Haredim only and locals believe Shas will secretly pay off contractors who will sell to Haredim.

Limor claims that for years Shas officials in the housing ministry and Israel’s Land Administration have frustrated attempts by outsiders to move there. The ministry has reportedly feigned that no group other than the Haredim is willing to live in Harish, in order to mask the long-standing plan to build their city.

“Contractors have filed lawsuits against the ministry for denying them the right to buy land here,” she noted.

The Harish Regional Campaign Coalition echoes these concerns. It criticises the appeals committee, which it claims “has permitted discrimination against Arab citizens who will not be able to purchase homes in the city of Harish, in clear defiance of the Ka’adan ruling which put an end to discrimination against Arabs in the purchase of houses.”

Nissim Dahan, a former Shas minister, is the mayor of the Katsir-Harish regional council. Although mayors are normally elected in direct elections and unaffiliated with political parties Dahan was appointed by Interior Minister, Yishai. Jabareen believes Shas wanted to have an insider to pass the controversial plan while inhabitants of Harish bristle at having an ultra-Orthodox mayor for their secular town.

In 2008, Dahan affirmed that “we want to Judaize the Wadi Ara area … The state wants to put this place in order so that the Arabs won’t rear their heads. 150,000 Jews who will live here will put them in proportion.”

To the idea that secular Jews may not want to live amongst a Haredi community, Dahan retorted, “Go live with the Palestinians. Want to live in a small village? You are harming Israel’s security.”

When later questioned about these comments, he explained his intention was “to create a border and a sequence of Jewish habitation. The locality of Katsir-Harish is on the seam zone of Israel’s eastern border and these issues were said after terror attacks that took place in the area.”

Conversely, as Roi Maor of +972 Magazine has pointed out, no terror attacks took place in the area in the years before he made these comments.

Planning in Israel can be understood as an extension of politics and the bias of elites. Palestinian communities often do not have any local planning commissions and they are generally excluded from planning on the national level. A Bimkom report concludes that the lack of representation of Palestinian communities on regional planning and building commissions “render[s] their official status as citizens next to worthless.”

The establishment of a Haredi city in Wadi Ara may be convenient for Shas’ efforts at accommodating their ultra-Orthodox voting bloc, but Mr. Jabareen worries that this development “will only end in clashes and hatred.”

September 1, 2011 - Posted by | Ethnic Cleansing, Racism, Zionism

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