Olmert: The Negev is about to be transformed into a "genuine national and tourist treasure."
By TOVAH LAZAROFF
Development in the northern Negev received a boost on Tuesday from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who approved the creation of a new rural settlement district in eastern Lachish, consisting of seven new communities.
"I welcome today's decision. The time has come to stop talking and start doing," said Olmert, who chaired the ministerial committee on settlement affairs that voted on the project, located inside the Green Line.
Olmert predicted that the thinly-populated Negev area was about to be transformed into a "genuine national and tourist treasure."
Five of the new communities - Hazan, Shomriya, Mirsham, Amatzia and Carmit - are designated for some 200 Gaza evacuee families. Two others, Hanav and Shekef, are for people who want to help build up the area.
The estimated cost is NIS 300 for infrastructure work and NIS 200 for road work. Overall, some 500 housing units are being laid out as a starting base. The project also includes tourism enterprises, guesthouses and vineyards.
"The region has great potential, and we are interested in it becoming one of Zionism's major developments in the 21st century," said Olmert.
"I foresee thousands of families in the area, which will be only 30 minutes from the center of the country on Highway 6," he added.
Prime Minister's Office Director-General Ra'anan Dinur, who headed the directoral team that formulated the plan, said, "This is one of the most prestigious areas of the country that the state can offer its residents." But the plan's approval does not mean the Gaza evacuees can start building.
There are still a number of bureaucratic steps, and the infrastructure has to be laid out. Out of the 1,400 evacuee families who have sought to rebuild in a communal setting, only two families have homes, and only 160 have permission to build.
In September, a lottery will be held for one of the larger projects of 250 families in Nitzan. Housing for an additional 319 evacuee families in Nitzanim has been held up due to a dispute with the Ashkelon municipality.
An additional nine projects have start dates scattered from November 2007 to July 2008. Seven projects do not even have start dates, including five of the eastern Lachish communal projects approved on Tuesday.
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