30 settlements planned for Negev and Galilee

JERUSALEM — Israel is launching a drive to settle Jews in a region awash with Arabs — but its plans are not for the West Bank or Gaza Strip.

For the first time in the history of the World Zionist Organization, the group's settlement department is planning settlements inside the Green Line, the boundary that divides Israel proper from the West Bank. The goal is to build 30 new settlements in the Negev and Galilee.

Both regions have large numbers of Arabs. The agency aims to bolster the Jewish population in the Galilee and Negev by 10 percent within the next five years, part of the ongoing struggle to fortify Israel's Jewish majority.

"For the first time, the WZO returns to the Green Line. This is a significant political statement," Shai Hermesh, treasurer for the Jewish Agency for Israel said. "If we do not change the entire settlement scene within five to 10 years, we will lose the battle."

As the WZO's partner organization, the Jewish Agency is the driving force behind the plan, which is designed to relieve a sense of isolation among Jewish residents in parts of the Galilee.

With the exclusion of Haifa and other cities along Israel's northern coast, Arabs comprise 75 percent of northern Israel's population. Hermesh said the settlement drive is the only way to ensure that Israel remains a Jewish state.

In the past, the WZO has served as a kind of subcontractor for the government, building settlements over the Green Line — but with money from the government, not the Jewish Agency.

The new operation will be the largest settlement effort since the establishment of a chain of Jewish outposts throughout the Galilee 25 years ago. At the time, the Galilee was almost exclusively Arab.

This time, the settlement drive also will include the Negev, with special emphasis on single-family farms that will encompass large plots of land. The aim is to offset the rapid growth of the Bedouin population in the area.

Some Arab leaders, like Knesset member Azmi Bishara, are denouncing the new settlement plan as an indirect way to promote the "transfer" of Arabs out of Israel, Jewish Agency officials said.

The new settlement drive in the Galilee will focus on strengthening the "heart of the Galilee" region — the district of Carmel, Upper Nazareth, Ma'alot, Migdal Ha'emek and Afula — where Arabs constitute 78 percent of the population.

In the Negev, settlement efforts will focus on the "arc," which begins in the northwestern Negev, the seam line with the Gaza Strip, and runs to the Hebron region.

Environmentalists oppose the new program, arguing that massive construction projects in the region will cause irreparable damage to the environment. They also fear that a new settlement drive will weaken existing towns and settlements, spur increased use of private cars and will require large investments in infrastructure, waste water and energy.

According to the Ministry of Environment, a crowded country like Israel simply cannot afford dispersed settlements like those called for in the Jewish Agency's plans.

To attract Jewish families to Arab regions, the Jewish Agency plans to invest heavily in local educational resources.

"Education and higher education play a special role in influencing the younger population, whether as working persons whose career is greatly affected by their level of education or as parents seeking the best education system for their children," Hermesh said.