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September 4, 2015 | 20th Elul 5775

Land and Memory IV

Galilee Diary #275
March 5, 2006
Marc J. Rosenstein

The Bible, in its instructions regarding the allotment and use of land, makes a few references to the difference between urban and rural areas; see for example Leviticus 25:29-34. In general, most of the discussions of land refer to agricultural land. However, later, in the Mishnah, the rabbis had to deal with the realities of urban life, and introduced the concept of zoning; i.e., that one is not free to use a piece of land that one is allotted without taking into consideration the needs of the community:

…A man may not set up a permanent threshing floor on his own property unless it is at least 50 cubits from the boundary of his land, and he must keep it away from his neighbor and his neighbor's field, so it won't cause damage.

A dump for animal waste, and a cemetery, and a tannery must be kept at least 50 cubits distant from the city. A tannery may only be built to the east of the city. Rabbi Akiba says, it can be built on any side except the west, as long as it is at least 50 cubits away.

-Mishnah Baba Batra 2:8-9

Much of the ongoing conflict between Jews and Arabs regarding land in the Galilee stems from a lack of shared understanding of the different kinds of authorities that determine land use, and the rationales for their operation:

  1. Ownership – or in the case of most of the land in Israel, leasing rights; as described in a previous Galilee Diary entry, 93% of the land is state-owned and may be leased; the remaining 7% is privately owned – most of this based on purchase or inheritance from private owners from the Ottoman period.
  2. Jurisdiction – within what municipal boundary does the land lie? Jurisdictional boundaries are the responsibility of the state. The city limits of various towns and villages that had been taken for granted before 1948 were in many cases modified by the new state, primarily to promote Jewish settlement and development, and to facilitate enforcement of zoning regulations.
  3. Zoning – what are the restrictions on the use of the land according to some regional or national planning authority? According to the Mishnah – and to the accepted practice in most countries – I am not free to do whatever I want with the land I own or lease. The state maintains a system of planning that is supposed to balance the needs of the individual with those of the local community and wider public, so that I may not, for example, open a cattle feed lot on my suburban back yard, or build a skyscraper without a parking lot in a crowded city center, even if I own the land.

In our area the painful issue just now revolves around the fact that the state drew the municipal boundaries around the Arab towns and villages close to the perimeter of their built-up and cultivated areas, and apportioned large areas of green space to the Jewish county government in which new Jewish settlements – mostly suburban in style – were established. As the Arab population increases, the villages find themselves squeezed – and forced to abandon their traditional low-rise construction and build multi-story multi-family homes. And they look across the municipal boundary and see Jewish suburban-style communities of single family homes, surrounded by large expanses of undeveloped green space. The government argues that the Jewish jurisdiction is preserving the green space for the benefit of all; the Arabs see it as an attempt to "steal" their land and disrupt their traditional culture. I imagine this sort of tension between towns and their surrounding countryside is common everywhere in the world; but here, it carries political overtones that require us to look very carefully at the relationship between planning and power.

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