A recent Knesset hearing on the proposed Sha’ar Shomron Commercial Centre was an invaluable lesson in Israeli politics and its ills.
MK Ofer Cassif of the United Arab List, who initiated the hearing, described the Shaar Shomron project as a danger to “a unique ecological system in the West Bank.” To the untrained eye, the concerns raised by MK Cassif seem perfectly legitimate and entirely non—partisan, but a closer look reveals unbridled cynicism, hypocrisy and political posturing.
The first thing that made this particular Knesset hearing unusual is the forum in which it was conducted: MK Cassif raised his ecological objections in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, rather than in the Knesset’s environmental, construction or commerce committees. Why, we might well ask, did MK Cassif choose such a strange forum for this seemingly “green” debate?
And why, we might also ask, has this project progressed to the final stages of planning if it poses such a dire threat to the environment? The blueprint for the Shaar Shomron Commercial Zone has been analyzed and inspected from every possible angle over the course of years. It has been approved by the Regional Planning and Construction Committee, and breezed through the public objections phase. What does MK Cassif know now that he and his colleagues in the United Arab List didn’t know two or three years ago? What does he know that everyone else doesn’t?
The sad truth is that Cassif’s objections to the plan have very little to do with ecology and environmental protection, and everything to do with a scorched-earth policy of anti-normalization in Judea and Samaria. MK Cassif and the United Arab List have a very clear agenda– and the economic development and financial well-being of the flesh-and-blood residents of Judea and Samaria (“the West Bank,” in their lingo)- Arabs and Jews alike – be damned. No employment opportunities will be allowed. No modernization will be permitted. No co-existence will be condoned. “Normal” beyond the dreaded (but imaginary) ‘green line’ must always be equated with “backward;” otherwise, how will the United Arab List continue to rail against the evils caused by Israeli “occupation”? No commercial centers, planned by Israeli authorities to balance development and economic needs with sustainable use of resources and minimal environmental impact, will be permitted.
What makes MK Cassif’s concern for the “delicate ecosystem” even more absurd is the fact that less than one mile away from the proposed site of the of the new employment hub – in the very same “delicate ecosystem” – lies the largest commercial zone in Israel – the illegal Kfar Kasem commercial center that is gobbling up green spaces and operating without licenses, without proper waste removal, sewage, water or other infrastructure oversight, without taxation or insurance payments. In short, the free-for-all at nearby Kfar Kasem doesn’t bother Cassif or his fellow United Arab List MKs in the least, but a properly planned commercial center, built to code and overseen by engineering, environmental and economic experts, has awoken their eco-conscience. Strange, indeed.
We might say that the United Arab List has a very selective appreciation for rules and regulations. In fact, one of the central planks of the party’s platform is the repeal of Amendment 116 to the Planning and Building Code, otherwise known as the Kaminitz Law. This long-awaited and highly effective set of enforcement powers cut illegal construction by some 50% in its first year alone, creating a way forward for development projects to alleviate the Arab sector’s housing crisis, much-needed infrastructure projects, and preservation of Israel’s land reserves for future generations – but the United Arab List has been fighting it tooth and nail. In the battle against the Kaminitz Law, as in the battle against the Shaar Shomron Commercial Center, the United Arab List has brought strange and cynical arguments, shedding crocodile tears for the environment in one instance and bemoaning “racist Israeli policies” in the other. To be clear: The Kaminitz Law applies to everyone, everywhere in Israel. It gives local authorities the power to issue fines that make illegal construction a far less lucrative undertaking. The only people who have anything to fear from the Kaminitz Law are those who break the law, and those with the most to fear are those who are guilty of construction crimes on the largest scale.
The Shaar Shomron Commercial Center should be built, under the watchful eye of Israel’s planning and construction authorities and environmental regulators. It will provide jobs for both Jews and Arabs, and will be an important step toward normalization. The Kaminitz Law must be preserved and enforced; adjustments can be made, but the core of this legislation is the best way to insure that Israel’s most precious and most endangered resource – the land itself – is protected from the scourge of illegal construction.
Several months ago, when the United Arab List’s MK Ahmed Tibi attempted to hijack the Israeli government and hold the Ministry of Justice’s budget hostage in order to force the repeal of the Kaminitz Law, many MKs and members of the Knesset Finance Committee were unable to see through the false claims and the cynical rhetoric. Fortunately, far fewer were taken in by MK Cassif’s transparent attempt to derail the wheels of progress and development in Shaar Shomron. Let’s hope that Israel’s elected officials have learned to recognize – and to rebuff – the United Arab List’s recurring abuse of Israel’s democratic institutions for their own warped purposes.
Naomi Linder Kahn is Director of the International Division of Regavim, an Israeli non-profit dedicated to the preservation of Israel’s resources.