The special planning committee of the new Haredi city being built in the Negev for the ultra-Orthodox sector convened for the first time and is expected to approve the first building plans in the coming months. According to the master plan, the city of Kasif is expected to include around twenty thousand apartments for up to twenty-five thousand residents. In the Haredi world, there is an internal debate about the city, a rift that manifests in a Twitter battle between two senior leaders.
A significant step towards the establishment of a new city in the Negev intended for the ultra-Orthodox public took place in June when the Special Committee for Planning and Building Kasif convened for the first time. This is a special committee that will deal with approving the building plan and issuing building permits for the city of Kasif only, similar to a special committee that also accompanied the years of the establishment of the new city of Harish, which began construction about 11 years ago in northern Samaria (within the Green Line). On the symbolic level, this is the first practical step taken by the government to establish the city – which is considered one of the government’s main steps to address the housing shortage among the ultra-Orthodox public.
The plans for the establishment of a new Haredi city near the Tel Arad junction were first advanced by the Olmert government in 2007. According to the updated plans promoted by the Ministry of Construction and Housing, the city is expected to build 20,000 housing units which should house 100,000 to 125,000 people. A medical center is also planned to be built in the city, as well as commercial and employment areas totaling about 350,000 square meters. The community is planned to be built near the intersection of Highways 31 and 80 not far from the Bedouin settlement of Kuseife.
The special committee includes representatives of the Ministry of the Interior, which is responsible for the planning system, as well as the Ministries of Construction and Housing, Transportation, Health, and Justice. The meeting presented the general and planning background of the city and familiarity with the “First District” plan – the first neighborhood whose establishment was initiated by the Ministry of Construction and Housing. Committee members were updated on the Committee’s multi-year plan and appointed an interim legal advisor to the Committee and the Committee’s functioning and operation.
The Ministry of Construction and Housing has begun writing a new strategic plan for the ultra-Orthodox population to strengthen existing Haredi cities alongside the establishment of designated neighborhoods in heterogeneous cities. However, as of today, there is quite a bit of opposition to moving to Kasif among the ultra-Orthodox sector, since the city will be very far from the center, and it will lack, at least in the first stage, employment, commerce, and infrastructure areas.
Coincidentally or not, the main officials currently responsible for implementing the plan belong to the various factions of the ultra-Orthodox public. The Director General of the Ministry of Construction and Housing, Yehuda Morgenstern, is a Haredi Gur Hasidic (as is the Minister in charge Yitzhak Goldknopf), while the Chairman of the National Planning Staff at the Ministry of the Interior, who is in charge of the planning system, is Natan Elnatan, a veteran Shas member and former deputy mayor of Tel Aviv.
During the first committee meeting, Morgenstern said that “today’s meeting of the committee is a significant and important step for planning, development and future population of the city of Kasif, which will give a settlement impetus to an entire region and the entire region.”
According to Elnatan, “Already 15 years ago, when I was a member of the National Council as a representative of the Tel Aviv municipality, I was exposed to the dream of the city of Kasif. I am pleased that today we are at the stage of executing the detailed building plans for the city. There is a huge shortage of housing for the Haredi public in the country, and one of the main tasks that the planning bureau under my leadership has taken upon itself is to deal with and promote the issue of housing for the Haredi public. I expect that by the end of the decade, we will reach 100,000 apartments for the Haredi sector.”
Lior Shahar, chairman of the special committee for planning and building Kasif and a representative of the Interior Ministry, said that this is a celebration for the city of Kasif. “I am happy and excited about the establishment of a city in Israel, and thus we are fulfilling the words of the first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion: ‘Because only through the united effort of a voluntary people and a planning and executing state will we be able to accomplish the great task of making the wilderness bloom and settling it.’ Our roles and activities in the committee will lead to its establishment and occupancy as soon as possible.”
However, within the Haredi public itself, not everyone agrees that Kasif is an appropriate housing solution. Part of the leadership is concerned about the fact that the city is peripheral and far from the two main centers of ultra-Orthodox life – Jerusalem and Bnei Brak.
And, this was reflected in the “Twitter battle” that broke out between two senior Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox politicians – Minister of Construction and Housing Yitzhak Goldknopf and Chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee Moshe Gafni – on the same day as a meeting of Kasif’s special planning committee.
It began with Gafni’s tweet that “I opposed Kasif for the ultra-Orthodox public because of the location, the distance and the unsuitability of the area. I opposed it then and I oppose it today! Let them not come and say that part of the housing solution for the ultra-Orthodox public is Kasif, it is not a solution and it does not advance a solution.”
Minister Goldknopf responded with a sarcastic tweet: “My friend Rabbi Moshe Gafni, young ultra-Orthodox couples are living in appalling conditions in dark parking lots, basements, and temporary structures. We are building apartments for them all over the country; in Kiryat Gat, Rechasim, Beit Shemesh, Acre, Elad, Nof HaGalil, Beitar Ilit, and Kasif. If his honor has vacant plots in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, he would do well to update me.”
In any case, it does not appear that in the current situation, the rapidly growing Haredi public has too many choices, especially the young couples, many of whom – as Minister Goldknopf described – currently live in uncertain conditions. The Haredi public, which is characterized by a lower-than-average income level, has already proven its willingness to live in the distant periphery, and two large Haredi population centers already exist in Arad, which is close to Kasif, and in Tiberias. It therefore appears that the establishment of the new city will be a step that can alleviate the distress, as part of a comprehensive bundle of solutions for the housing shortage in the sector.
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