Negev development plan irks environmentalists

The cabinet passed a decision encouraging private citizens to bid on land and then develop it for either agriculture or tourism.

In hopes of increasing revenue from unsettled areas of the Negev, the Galilee and the Judean Hills, the cabinet passed a decision on Sunday encouraging private citizens to bid on land marked as private farms and then develop it for either agriculture or tourism. But some environmental groups have criticized the move as harmful to natural habitats. Interior Ministry Director-General Arie Bar said private farms helped the economies of sparsely populated areas by attracting tourists. The decision created a committee to help develop the so-called "Wine Route," a group of 30 farms from Dimona to Mitzpe Ramon that have existed for years but were not allowed to produce wine or olive oil until now. After buying a farm through a bidding process, private owners can use the land for tourist attractions and hotels, according to a Knesset press release. Bar said issues that have come up with private farms in the past, such as the use of land for uncertified purposes and illegal farm expansion, are addressed by the new ordinance, which gives the government more power to assess land and remove those owners. "If owners don't follow their agreements with the government, we have the ability to evict them and offer the land up for bidding," Bar said. Owners of farms that span a larger area than the space allocated, or that are used for purposes such as building houses and shops on agricultural land, will be evicted, Bar said. Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit said the decision is meant to regulate the use of private farms. "Some owners illegally took over four times as much land as they were given," Sheetrit said. Unmanned farms will go back into government hands, he said. "Now, we will put these farms up for bidding. The current situation is unresonable." The Interior Ministry banned zoning new farming land in the center of the country to preserve open spaces, Sheetrit said, but he supports private farms in other areas. Enviromental Protection Minister Gideon Ezra said private farms should be built only in the Negev to propell growth there. "The Negev is important to us, as is preventing desertification," Ezra said, adding he does not support private farms outside the Negev because they take away open spaces. "These are existing farms, we are not building them from scratch." However, green organizations said the initiative does not go far enough in protecting open spaces, which are a natural habitat for many animals and plants. Gitit Weissblum, spokeswoman of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), said the government must "develop existing villages, not create new ones. Awarding land to individual families will harm the environment and economy in areas around it." According to Weissblum, a new village would require roads, as well as electrical, telephone and sewage systems, which take away from the natural habitats of animals in the area. "A large part of this land was developed illegally," Weissblum said. "The government gave it away as farmland and owners opened shops, hotels, and fenced the area off... By helping advance private farms, the government is rewarding those who broke the law." In addition, Weissblum said, developing open spaces could hurt the economies of existing cities, especially in the Negev. "This is our land for hiking and providing animals with natural habitats," Weissblum said. "The government is unfairly giving a lot of land to a very small group of people," Shay Tachnai, coordinator of nature conservation in the South for SPNI, said the individual farms had originally been intended for isolated, irregular cases only. "By passing this ordinance, the government labels all properties in the Negev and Galilee as 'isolated incidents,'" Tachnai said. According to Tachnai, the government is putting Jewish villages in the Negev in part because it is hoping to stop Beduin and other Arab settlements in the area, but predicts the move will have a boomerang effect. "When the government allows the Jewish population this form of settlement, the Arab and Beduin population will go after it as well," Tachnai said.