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Israel plans to build two towns in Negev for ultra-orthodox Jews and secularists

If approved, the proposal will include the building of a town for over 100,000 built on the outskirts of Palestinian areas
Rainbow over Israel's southern Negev desert following heavy rainfall on 19 February 2022 (AFP)

Israel intends to build two major Jewish towns in the Negev desert region in the south of the country, as part of a settlement expansion plan in close proximity to areas where Palestinian citizens of Israel live.

The plan, which would establish a town for ultra-orthodox Jews and a town for secularists, is pending approval from the government next Sunday.

'This will be at our expense, as if there are no Arabs living in the Negev'

Juma al-Zabarqa, former Knesset member

About 300,000 Palestinians citizens of Israel lives in the Negev, and some are wary that the proposed scheme is ignoring the presence of the Palestinian Bedouin community in the area.

"This will be at our expense, as if there are no Arabs living in the Negev,” said Juma al-Zabarqa, a former Knesset member and coordinator of the Higher Orientation Committee for Arabs in the Negev.

“We constitute 32 percent of the population in the Negev, but they plan as if we do not exist," he told Middle East Eye.

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He added that the government aims to hasten the approval process of these towns before the Jewish holiday of Passover in April.

According to Ynet, the new towns plan was proposed by Zeev Elkin, the housing minister, and Ayelet Shaked, the interior minister. It was supported by Minister of Finance Avigdor Lieberman. 

New plan, old tactic

If the plan gets approved on Sunday, a Jewish town named Kasif will be built within a few months, housing between 100,000 and 125,000 people. Kasif will be located in the outskirts of the Palestinian village of Kasifa and the Palestinian-majority town of Tel Arad.

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Palestinian citizens of Israel in the Negev are familiar with Israeli policy to prevent the expansion of their villages and encircle their areas with Jewish towns.

"These two towns will limit us from expanding Arab towns [in the Negev]," Zabarqa said.

"There are other plans in the area which include building military barracks, railways, and a highway, all of them will block the areas in which Palestinian towns could expand in the future. These towns are now besieged.”

The Israeli government said that Kasif would be essential to solving the country’s housing crisis and provide homes for the ultra-orthodox community, which has a birthrate that doubles the national average, according to statistics released by the Israel Democracy Institute.

Currently, there is a shortage of about 40,000 housing units for the Israeli ultra-orthodox community.

'Zionist and strategic decision'

According to Elkin, the "town of Kasif will be a significant solution to the housing crisis in ultra-Orthodox society, and will allow couples to establish a new community in the south of the country.”

Kasif will include a medical centre, industrial and high-tech enterprise areas, as well as educational institutions of all levels for its ultra-Orthodox population.

Ayelet Shaked, on the other hand, described the building scheme as "a Zionist and strategic decision that brings important tidings to the public in general and to the residents of the Negev in particular."

The second town in the plan is dedicated to non-religious Jews near the border with Egypt.

Called Nitzanei, it will be an agricultural town housing almost 2,200 families and is part of an expansion of the small town of Nitzanei Sinai, at the border with Egypt.

Zabarqa said that all Israeli "national plans" in the Negev come at the "expense of Arabs, who don't benefit from them."

"The Palestinians in the Negev live in villages with no infrastructure, and no industrial areas to support them. They live on farming and herding, and these Israeli plans will restrict them from accessing the lands and affect their lives," Zabarqa said.

"The Arab towns will be turned into slums on the outskirts of Jewish towns. Israel is aiming to increase the numbers of Jewish people in the Negev, while at the same time restricting Palestinians from expanding their towns, which would force them to have fewer children," he added.

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There are almost 100,000 Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship living in these 35 unrecognised villages in the Negev.

They are part of 300,000 Palestinians in Negev towns, concentrated to the east of Road 40, which cuts Israel's southern territory in half.

Unrecognised villages are denied any infrastructure or support from the government. There are no means of transportation, no roads, no schools, and Israeli authorities don't collaborate with local leadership.

In recent months, Palestinians in the Negev have protested against a forestation plan and other Israeli policies which they see as attempts to push them out of their ancestral lands.

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