The Ministry of Agriculture claims the ‘National Committee for Endorsed Housing Zones’ should not have its mandate renewed for another four years, as proposed by the Interior Ministry, because it harms agricultural land.

Zafrir Rinat | Jul. 7, 2020

Open areas close to roads in Israel where a large construction project was planned, 2019.
Open areas close to roads in Israel where a large construction project was planned, 2019.Credit: Yara Safir

The activity of the National Committee for Endorsed Housing Zones (Vatmal in Hebrew) will cause harm to agricultural land in Israel, claims the Ministry of Agriculture, ahead of a hearing on this topic scheduled to be held on Tuesday at the National Planning and Building Council. 

According to the ministry, this committee’s mandate should not be extended for another four years, as proposed by the Interior Ministry. Environmental groups also oppose extending this committee’s operation.

Recently, the Interior Ministry has been promoting a legal memorandum endorsing the extension of this committee’s mandate. As part of the deliberations concerning the proposed bill, it will be presented to the National Planning and Building Council Tuesday, after which it will be sent to the approval of the cabinet and Knesset.

The committee was set up under a temporary order six years ago, with extended authority which overrides the authority of other planning committees. Its purpose is to approve large building projects in an accelerated process. According to the Interior Ministry, extending its operation is imperative due to the many challenges facing the housing market, particularly finding solutions for the ultra-Orthodox and Arab populations.

Another reason is that the committee will enable the development of plans that are coordinated with public transportation networks. To this end, the committee’s authority will be expanded, according to the proposed bill.

The Agriculture Ministry spelled out its objections to extending this committee’s term in a document it sent to government ministries and to the National Planning and Building Council. It notes that “there is no reason to extend the temporary order since this is an exceptional measure that bypasses regular planning procedures. There is no longer any justification for this measure since there are enough planning agencies which can enable the increase of available housing.”

According to an investigation by the Agriculture Ministry, most of the areas this committee considered in the past were open areas, agricultural or natural ones, lying alongside existing communities. It turns out that 70,000 dunams (17,000 acres) of agricultural areas are included in areas slated for construction.

There are also areas amounting to 400,000 dunams that are trapped inside municipal areas, which one may assume will be used in the future for construction, based on this committee’s past decisions. 

In a position paper it published recently, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel also expressed its opposition to the continued operation of this committee. It states the committee plans badly in terms of the environment since it promotes suburban construction which is wasteful in terms of land resources and is disconnected from existing cities.

However, according to the position of planning professionals in the Interior Ministry, the committee should now be used for the purpose of urban renewal.

The Medical Association and the Association of Public Health Physicians also expressed their opposition to the continued operation of this committee. Regarding the memorandum that was published this week, they write that planning bodies must reflect a balance of interests, including public health, which depends among other things on quality open areas near cities. According to the two medical organizations, the committee does not reflect these interests, which is why it should be terminated.

The Interior Ministry responded by saying that the National Council “will listen willingly and with an open heart to all sides ahead of discussions in the cabinet and Knesset.” Along with these arguments, the Interior Ministry says there are also significant issues the new law relates to, including large-scale housing (2,500 units and higher), housing in Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities, and planning for large-scale public transportation.”