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When an 'ecological' community is not
By Daniel Orenstein

The Israeli environmental movement has undergone a constructive transition over its 50-year history. With its roots in campaigns that focused on nature preservation, it has matured into a broad-based force in public discourse that has transformed its original narrow focus into a broad quality of life vision for all Israelis. Critics of the early movement asserted that by focusing on nature, environmentalists were ignoring the issues that concerned most Israelis - economic well-being, public health and quality of life. Environmentalists who stressed the importance of an endangered bird or amphibian were perceived as elitists by those who had more pressing worries.

Learning from this experience, early Israeli environmentalism morphed into a socio-environmental community that could articulate with increasing resonance a vision of an Israel that would be a good place to live in. Environmentalists increasingly considered public health hazards and the close proximity of poorer communities to environmental hazards. The classic campaigns for open spaces were reframed in terms of the right of all Israelis to access public land for recreational and aesthetic reasons. Public access to ecological resources became a unifying concept that brought traditional environmentalists, inner city activists, Arab citizens, religious groups and others together in common cause. Recent environmental campaigns demonstrate the strength of this coalition, including the establishment of the Ayalon Park in Tel Aviv and the rejection of the ill-conceived Safdie Development Plan in the Jerusalem hills.

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However, the establishment of the Negev community of Haruv is an unfortunate example of where the environmental movement has failed. Haruv, if approved by government planners, will be located 20 kilometers east of Kiryat Gat. It is a self-described "ecological" community of religious and secular families and one of many new, small Negev communities promoted by the Or Movement and the Jewish National Fund in the United States. The mantra of establishing Israel's "last frontier" is used by those seeking to inject the Zionist movement with 21st century optimism. It is also a thinly disguised response to the fear of a Bedouin takeover of land by coaxing large populations of Jews to the Negev.

But this form of low-density, dispersed settlement directly contradicts the legislated planning guidelines of Israel. Israel's master plan for development, TAMA 35, for example, asserts that in a land-scarce country with a growing population, all new development should be high density and contiguous to existing development. This concept is also the cornerstone of smart-growth planning - the planning paradigm that instructs how to minimize environmental and socioeconomic damage in urban development. By bringing suburban sprawl to the Negev, the establishment of Haruv and other new Negev settlements would be an environmental mistake for the following reasons:

Their development wastes land resources by consuming more open land per capita than any other urban form. Further, they are effectively privatizing this land for their own personal enjoyment, denying access to the rest of the population.

This development is an insult to the Negev Bedouin, who are told that there is no room in Israel for their form of low density settlement. If we advocate that Israel is a free and equal society, we cannot continue such blatant discrimination in land rights between Jews and Arabs. There is no environmental sustainability without social justice.

Haruv sits in the transition zone between the desert and Mediterranean ecosystems - one of Israel's most ecologically important and critical habitats for preservation. Their development will irreparably damage local ecology. Aside from the direct impact of building on open space, there are extensive secondary ecological effects. Domesticated animals in rural settlements, for example, ravage local bird, rodent and lizard populations.

Small, isolated communities demand a tremendous amount of energy, water and transportation infrastructure development per capita, translating into high public investment for a few select residents. Unlike urban development, there are no economies of scale, where many people enjoy the same investment in infrastructure.

Haruv residents will inevitably be "free-loaders" on the facilities of neighboring towns without contributing to the local tax base of those towns. The negative environmental and aesthetic impacts of retail and industrial centers will be left to those who live in the towns and avoided by these elite settlements.

Haruv residents will be dependent on automobile transportation, thereby increasing congestion, air pollution and fossil fuel use. A public transportation system cannot profitably maintain efficient service to low-density communities.

Despite all of this, the founders of Haruv advertise themselves as a model of "sustainable" development. In 2005, an "ecological" community of Michal, planned in the midst of the Gilboa nature reserve, was rejected by planning authorities, who correctly argued that a new community with all the aforementioned environmental impacts could not be marketed as ecological.

In Israel of 2007, the only truly sustainable development is one that addresses economic, social and environmental impacts. The residents of Haruv could bring their ideology to any of the numerous Negev cities, towns and smaller communities - all of which would benefit from their Zionist and environmental spirit. They could build energy efficient buildings, engage in drought tolerant landscaping, and use gray water irrigation and solar power in the urban setting, without destroying Israel's last remaining open space.

Instead, Haruv's residents will isolate themselves, create the demography of their choosing and privatize their own slice of utopia. They will enjoy the spoils of a consumer lifestyle, while the rest of us suffer the environmental and social cost. The Negev is indeed the future for housing Israel's growing population, but the idea that the only way to create a strong population in the Negev is to import it through the bribe of an ecologically destructive development pattern is morally bankrupt and insulting to the existing populations. In an Israel where the environmental community has made tremendous strides forward, Haruv and other proposed Negev communities are a step back.

Daniel Orenstein, Ph.D., is a visiting fellow at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies and Ameinu representative on the Jewish National Fund USA Board of Trustees.

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