Israel’s housing minister called for strict segregation between the country’s Jewish and Arab populations last week as he unveiled plans to move large numbers of fundamentalist religious Jews to Israel’s north to prevent what he described as an “Arab takeover” of the region.
Ariel Atias said he considered it a “national mission” to bring ultra-Orthodox Jews — or Haredim, distinctive for their formal black and white clothing — into Arab areas, and announced that he would also create the north’s first exclusively Haredi town.
The new settlement drive, according to Mr Atias, is intended to revive previous failed efforts by the state to “Judaise”, or create a Jewish majority in, the country’s heavily Arab north.
Analysts say the announcement is a disturbing indication that the Haredim, who have traditionally been hostile to Zionism because of their strict reading of the Bible, are rapidly being recruited to the Judaisation project in both Israel and the occupied territories.
Mr Atias, of the ultra-Orthodox party Shas, is drawing on a model already successfully developed over the past decade in the West Bank, where the Haredim, the group with the highest birth rate in Israel, have been encouraged to move into separate settlements that have rapidly eaten into large chunks of Palestinian territory.
Several mayors of northern cities in Israel have appealed to Mr Atias to help them “save” the Jewishness of their communities in a similar manner by recruiting Haredim to swell the numbers of Jews in the north.
Mr Atias revealed his new drive on Thursday as he spoke at an Israeli Bar Association conference in Tel Aviv to discuss land reform plans. He told the delegates: “We can all be bleeding hearts, but I think it is unsuitable [for Jews and Arabs] to live together.”
His priority, he said, was to prevent the “spread” of Arab citizens, who comprise one-fifth of the country’s population and are mostly restricted to their own overcrowded communities in two northern regions, the Galilee and Wadi Ara.
Referring to the Galilee, where Arab citizens are a small majority of the population, he said: “If we go on like we have until now, we will lose the Galilee. Populations that should not mix are spreading there.”
Mr Atias also revealed that mayors of several northern cities where Arab citizens had started to move into Jewish neighbourhoods had asked him how they could “salvage” their cities.
One, Shimon Lankry, the mayor of Acre, where there were intercommunal clashes last year, met with the minister only last week. “He told me ‘Bring a bunch of Haredim and we’ll save the city’,” Mr Atias said.
“He told me that Arabs are living in Jewish buildings and running them [Jews] out.”
The Haredim have a birth rate — estimated at eight children per woman — that is twice that of the Muslim population and are increasingly seen as a useful demographic weapon to stop the erosion of Israel’s Jewish majority.
Mr Atias’s comments brought swift condemnation from Israel’s Arab lawmakers. Mohammad Barakeh, the head of the Communist Party, told the popular Israeli website Ynet: “Racism is spreading throughout the government and Minister Atias is the latest to express it.”
The key initiative proposed by Mr Atias is the development of a large Haredi town of 20,000 homes based on an existing small community at Harish in the Wadi Ara, a region close to the West Bank.
Harish was established in the early 1990s by the housing minister of the time, Ariel Sharon, as part of a huge settlement drive inside both Israel and the occupied territories.
Harish and a dozen communities known as “star points” were built on the Green Line — the pre-1967 border between Israel and the West Bank — as a way to erode its political significance.
Most of the communities, however, were located in densely populated Arab areas and failed to attract Israelis.
Until recently the settler population had spurned settling in Israel and has been drawn instead either to Palestinian areas close to Jerusalem or to frontier communities deep in the West Bank.
Cesar Yehudkin of Bimkom, a group of Israeli town planners critical of government planning policy, said the goal of Harish was to occupy a large swathe of land in Wadi Ara to prevent the “natural growth” of Arab localities. “Harish is an attractive option for rapid development because the infrastructure for a large town is already in place,” he said.
Mr Atias told Israel’s Bar Association that Harish was a vital way to stop “illegal Arab expansion” and that the Haredim “are the only ones willing to live there”.
The Israeli media revealed two weeks ago similar plans by Shimon Gapso, the mayor of Upper Nazareth, a Jewish town established 50 years ago in the Galilee region to restrict the growth of the neighbouring Arab city of Nazareth.
He announced that 3,000 homes are to be built next year for the Haredim to increase Jewish dominance of the city, which has seen a steady migration of Arabs from Nazareth and its surrounding villages desperate for a place to live.
Tight planning restrictions on Arab communities mean that there are few places for Arab citizens to build legally and they are excluded from hundreds of Jewish rural communities through vetting committees, Mr Yehudkin said.
Mr Gapso, who is identified with the Yisrael Beiteinu Party of the foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has complained about the “demographic threat” posed by Arabs moving into Upper Nazareth.
He recently told the Israeli media: “As a man of Greater Israel, I think it more important to settle the Galilee than Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] … I urge the settlers to come here.”
Some 600 ultra-Orthodox families have already signed up to live in the new Upper Nazareth neighbourhood, which has the backing of Eli Yishai, the interior minister and leader of Shas.
In a related Judaisation drive, Nefesh B’Nefesh, one of the main organisations bringing Jewish immigrants to Israel, announced in December a programme to offer financial incentives to new immigrants to settle in northern Israel.
A version of this article originally appeared in The National, published in Abu Dhabi.