Majdal Krum
Majdal Krum Photo by Yaron Kaminsky
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Yaron Kaminsky
Bina: Building plans are tied down by red tape, while nearby Carmiel suffers no such restrictions. Photo by Yaron Kaminsky

Development projects throughout Israel often get off to a slow start due to poor planning or various delays. In some localities, however, they seem to get nowhere at all - like in three villages clustered together in central Galilee.

Construction plans for about 5,500 housing units in the villages, straddling Route 85 opposite Carmiel, are stuck due to what is termed "lack of a disposal solution" for local sewage. Majdal Krum has 2,000 planned units, Deir al-Asad has four planned developments totaling about the same number of units, and in Bina there are two developments planned for almost 1,500 dwellings.

"We aren't complaining about housing costs: We are looking for a place to build," gripes the head of the Bina local council, Abas Titi. He says the last time a new neighborhood was built in the village was in 1985, when three lots were sold by the Israel Land Administration.

"The entire issue of the plans is stuck due to the lack of a disposal solution - meaning there isn't anywhere to transfer the sewage - which is holding up everything," explains Titi. "Handling of the matter was passed to the water corporation, which is supposed to collect the money directly from residents and deal with the sewerage line."

Sitting on a powder keg

The solution lies with Carmiel's wastewater treatment plant, established in 1999. The plant, owned by Mekorot and the water and sewage corporation for the Carmiel area and environs, treats 22,000 cubic meters of sewage daily - about eight million cubic meters a year. According to Mekorot's website the plant collects sewage from the Beit Hakerem Valley localities.

But as it stands the Arab localities can't expand since the Health Ministry claims the treatment plant needs to be enlarged and upgraded to accommodate sewage from the new neighborhoods. Even worse: Sewerage lines must be installed to collect the waste from the three villages and carry it to the plant in Carmiel or another purification pool. Meanwhile the village residents continue to suffer from a housing shortage.

"The top tier, which has money and is financially established - doctors and lawyers - move to Carmiel," says Titi. "Those without live on a floor they add beneath or above their parents' house. We have many homes without permits and suffer from fines levied by the planning and construction committee. They should be providing solutions for construction instead. People building without permits don't want to be criminals: They do it to have a place to live.

"We are suffocating and, as council head, I am warning that this is a powder keg that could explode at any moment," insists Titi. "Plans need to be put to action and permits given. We were elected to provide these people with an answer, but there are many obstacles. The committee needs to be more flexible."

"Neglect and discrimination"

Knesset member Dr. Hanna Swaid (Hadash ) is familiar with the plight of Arab villages - and certainly not just these three. "This problem exists in 30 Arab communities in the Galilee," he says. "The Northern District [planning and building] committee made a decision not to allow or promote plans to enlarge the communities as long as a disposal solution isn't found: As long as there aren't purification pools for receiving and treating wastewater - a subject not governed by municipalities.

"The district committee claims current solutions are insufficient and that more sewage can't be pumped into existing pools, so it cannot approve expansion plans and the building of new housing units," he explains.

But this isn't merely a case of neglect by the district committee, or a mess of red tape courtesy of the water corporations, local councils, the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of Energy and Water Resources: It also involves discrimination against Israel's Arab population. Swaid emphasizes that the sewage collection problem somehow skipped the Jewish localities.

"Carmiel doesn't have this problem, and neither do the Misgav settlements," insists Swaid. "It's a problem only for Arab communities. There is neglect and discrimination. Development of the communities and providing them with basic services doesn't interest anyone. These projects should cost several millions of shekels, not a huge budget, and if it's invested the wastewater treatment plant could be expanded and upgraded. That's the bottleneck.

"The Jewish sector has a problem with prices. The Arab sector hasn't any problem with prices, but people are forced to build without permits," adds Swaid. "Building plans aren't being approved, but the needs and demand erupt in the form of illegal construction. There is land - it's just not zoned - but without any choice people build and endanger their futures. There are thousands of houses in Arab communities built without permits and demolition orders against them that can be carried out at any moment. The families pay thousands of shekels in fines. These houses also don't provide any security."

Swaid estimates that 20,000 dwellings throughout the country are threatened with demolition.

No building permits

Plans for the four projects in Deir al-Asad have been in the pipeline for 15 years already. "The plans were approved in the local committee and are now in the district committee, but until deposition of the plans was announced and objections were heard it took five years," says Nasr San'allah, who heads the village's local council.

"After that we reached the stage of announcing their validation, but then the Health Ministry stepped into the picture and refused its approval because we don't have solutions for sewage disposal - meaning upgrading the wastewater treatment plant in Carmiel and building a new pipe to carry sewage there. This would cost several tens of millions of shekels."

San'allah has no idea why the water corporation doesn't upgrade the treatment plant, but until an infrastructure solution is found the younger generation in Deir al-Asad is finding illegal solutions for housing. "The young people are building without permits and turning into building offenders and violators of the law," he says. "It's not that we justify them, but they have no other choice. As local council head I cannot confront them because when I tell residents this, they tell me: 'provide a solution.'

"Approving our plans wouldn't burden the treatment plant since, if my son is living with me and using my facilities, then he would build a house and use the same amount of water," claims San'allah. "We're talking about the same people who are already using the water and infrastructure."

How many building permits were issued in the past year in Deir al-Asad?

"There hasn't been a single permit - not even for one house," rails San'allah. "This defies the Law for Human Dignity and Liberty, which protects people's basic right to build a home. I'm a member of the local committee in Deir al-Asad: In the past year barely 10 requests were submitted to build homes, despite almost 120 couples being married here each year, and every year there are nearly 200 births.

"This also means a loss for the local council because when people build without permits there is no income coming in from permits or betterment taxes, and the community cannot be developed," explains the local council chief. "On the other hand they pay thousands of shekels in fines to the Beit Hakerem local council, which incorporates six communities. The communities, though, never see a shekel from the fines."

Despite fines and demolition orders, San'allah doesn't report any houses being destroyed. The last time was five years ago when four houses were torn down.

"I am a lawyer and have represented many people in court," relates San'allah. "I argued that these committees are for lawsuits and destruction. They apparently are not interested in planning and allowing people to build with permits, because this way they have more income. Economically it's better for them, but I really hope that's not their intention. I am a bit more optimistic now because I think everyone understands the distress and is doing something to solve it. We won't be satisfied with answers like 'it will all work out.' There will either be clear answers or all the residents will take to the streets."

Purification pool choosy in the sewage it accepts

Several months ago a house built without a permit in Majdal Krum was demolished. The head of its local council, Mohammed Manna, says the two-story dwelling was built 10 years ago and housed a family with four children.

"Obviously they built without permits, but it wasn't their fault: It was because there's no enlargement of the construction area," explains Manna.

"The first demolition of a house in the village was in June 1972, the second on November 8, 1972. The house torn down several months ago was the 90th destroyed in Majdal Krum since 1972."

Why was this particular house demolished?

"It's a very sad case," Manna replies. "The Interior Ministry and the Beit Hakerem Local Planning and Building Committee claimed the house was too close to Route 85. We measured the distance between the house and the highway: 50 meters. Why is it permitted to build 25 meters from the highway in Carmiel and Moshav Shezor?

"I was head of the council for 16 straight years from 1978," says Manna. "Before that I was secretary of the council almost 14 years. In 1978 a zoning plan for 1,400 dunams was put together. We had a population of 6,000 at the time. Unfortunately, after 33 years, from 1978 to 2011, the plan hasn't been expanded and we're left with the same 1,400 dunams, but we've grown to 14,000 residents. Where will 8,000 residents build their homes?"

How long have you been trying to push forward the new plans?

"Ten years already, and they're still not approved by the local council," responds Manna. "The reason is sewage disposal solutions opposed by the Health Ministry."

Manna, like the other local council leaders, doesn't hide the sense of discrimination dogging him. "In 1990 we built a 15-kilometer sewerage pipe to a purification pool at Kibbutz Yasur, which in my opinion is adequate," he says. "The Health Ministry claims the pool at Yasur doesn't purify well enough. If it isn't alright, why have they allowed the sewage of Yasur and Ahihud to use this pool until now while forbidding us to use it 10 years ago?"

What solutions are there for construction problems?

"The government must stop its nonsense, with its bureaucracy and contempt," gripes Manna. "It shouldn't look down on us as third- or fourth-class subjects: We are also citizens of the state, paying income tax and social security, and we deserve to live like human beings and not like animals."

The CEO of the Mei Hagalil water corporation, Mustafa Abu Raya, responded: "The problem is that the central sewerage pipe of the three villages wasn't properly maintained and has many defects. With the growing population there are plans to upgrade this line and install a new line to the wastewater treatment plant at Carmiel. A master sewage plan for the three villages was approved three months ago. The estimated cost for putting in the line is over NIS 40 million - with the government funding 80% and the Mei Hagalil water corporation meant to complete the budget with NIS 8 million. Since we aren't a well-established corporation and don't have this type of budget, we applied to the energy and water resources minister and the ministry's sewage infrastructure development administration to provide complete funding for the line. We've begun measurement work to submit a detailed blueprint for the sewerage line to derive its precise cost, and we believe that the line will be completed by the end of 2013. Until then, to expedite construction procedures, we have asked the district committee to approve the building plans before completion of the sewerage line, with the receiving of building permits conditional on the line's completion."

The Health Ministry responded: "To the best of our knowledge several building plans in the aforementioned localities were held back because of a lack of a sewage solution, as required. The delay of the building plans in these communities was due, among other things, to an urgent need to upgrade the main carrying system which was neglected for years, causing severe and continual pollution [for about 20 years] in the Beit Hakerem Valley. The District Planning and Building Committee recently decided to approve all the necessary plans for a sewage disposal solution. The plan for enlarging the regional wastewater treatment plant [at Carmiel] was approved two years ago, and construction work should end shortly. Plans to upgrade the main conveyance system, submitted by the regional sewage corporation Mei Hagalil only recently, gained our approval in September 2011. Immediately following approval of these sewage plans, the construction plans in the communities were also promoted."