A somewhat mysterious new haredi city in the Negev is set to enter the planning stages next week, but has already garnered strong objections from key environmental groups.
Kasif will be built at the Tel Arad junction next to the Beduin town of Ksifa, with the capability to house 50,000 initially and room for expansion, on close to 7,000 dunams.
It is unclear, however, how serious a prospect the city is as a solution to haredi housing needs. A Construction and Housing Ministry spokesman said Thursday the city would only be built in 15 to 20 years, so it is apparently not intended to meet the critical existing shortage. A planning memo maintains that it would be designed to meet housing needs from 2025 and beyond.
Kasif originated in a government decision from April 15, 2007, which directed the Construction and Housing and Interior ministries, along with the vice premier's office, to put together a professional team to write up a planning memorandum for the city. That memo was completed in February of this year.
However, Micha Rothchild, a member of the Haredi Building Council lobby group, scoffed at the notion that Kasif was an alternative to haredi housing projects over the Green Line and elsewhere, or that it was even a serious solution at all.
"There are no plans and no maps which show where it will be. There's no planning committee actually working on the project," he told The Jerusalem Post Thursday.
"It all came about when [Kadima MK] Meir Sheetrit was construction and housing minister and he didn't want to give the haredim anyplace in the center of the country. So he looked far away and saw Ksifa [between Beersheba and Arad] and said, 'Aha! Let's build Kasif next to it,'" Rothchild said with heavy sarcasm.
"From our perspective, it's a balloon. It's not real; it's certainly not an alternative to anything," he went on. "It's two-and-a-half hours from Jerusalem. Why can't they build the same thing next to Kiryat Gat? There's lots of open land there."
Interior Minister Eli Yishai's spokesman did not return requests for comment by press time as to whether Yishai was pushing the new settlement.
The Construction and Housing Ministry memorandum, drawn up, apparently, over the last two years is set to be debated by one of the national planning committees this coming Tuesday. The planning committees sit within the Interior Ministry.
Meanwhile, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) and the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (IUED) have already lodged objections to the planned city and will raise them again on Tuesday.
While acknowledging the haredi population's need for more housing, they contended that a new city was not the correct first step.
In a position paper on the Kasif issue, SPNI said that building a new city anywhere in Israel violates the planning principles that the state itself has set down, which state that new cities should not be built. Instead, outlying neighborhoods of existing cities should be filled out first.
SPNI and IUED contend that a new city would greatly reduce Israel's open spaces and disrupt the natural flow of wildlife through the area. Instead, they argue, there is room for more people in the sparsely populated neighborhoods of Beersheba.
However, when the authors of the Housing Ministry memorandum polled local authority heads, they ran into serious opposition. Local authority heads feared that an influx of low-income haredim would drive property prices down and become too much of a burden on municipal resources.
While nearby Arad is already 10 percent haredi, bringing in more haredim would shift the delicate balance of the city and jeopardize long-term goals, the planners wrote.
The authors of the memorandum suggested that building one new haredi city with all of the public facilities the haredim would need in the area, such as schools and synagogues, would then make it easier to bring haredim down from the center of the country to fill out Beersheba's neighborhoods as well.
Finally, the planners said that Kasif was the best location for building a city because of the availability of land and possible expansion, good topographical conditions, proximity to the existing infrastructure corridor, totally state-owned land, proximity to existing economic centers, and lack of sensitive nature sites.