Imagine the British government announcing plans to build an “Asian city” in the United Kingdom, or Congress approving the construction of a “Black city” in the United States.
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The idea smacks of paternalism at best, racism at worst.
But the plan announced this week by the National Planning and Building Council for Israel’s first planned “Arab City” near Acre is being presented as a sign of progress, recognition of the housing needs of Israel’s 1.7 million Arab citizens.
But, as the Druze-Palestinian-Israeli poet Salman Masalha pointed out in these pages on Wednesday, this ghettoized approach to planning is a double-edged sword. Specifying a city as “Arab” or “Jewish” may be a well-intentioned attempt to provide community-specific services for Israel’s sharply differentiated religious and ethnic groups, but it also creates the danger that places labeled in this manner will also suffer discrimination because of those very labels. It also smacks of yet another attempt by Israel to add a new experiment in social engineering to the long list of failures it has scored when attempting to address the needs of its Arab citizens, who now constitute 21% of the population.
Israel’s Arabs have worse schools, higher unemployment, fewer university students and a lower standard of living than the Jewish majority – and their situation is not improving.
You only have to look at the differences in education, municipal services, infrastructure and housing between Nazareth, Israel’s largest Arab city, and the neighboring Jewish city of Upper Nazareth, to see the wide gaps in provision between Jews and Arabs in the exact same location.
No-one knows how long it will take to build the new “Arab city” in the Galilee. The proposal approved this week has to survive a maze of political and legal bureaucracy before it becomes reality.
Meantime, Israel’s planners would be well-advised to look at the standard of basic facilities in existing Arab communities.
Four years ago, Amitai Ziv reported here about the struggle waged by Khawalid, a fully-recognized and legal Bedouin village north of Haifa, to get phone lines installed, even though both Bezeq and HOT happily provided the exact same facility to Jewish kibbutzim and towns just a couple of miles away.
I recently visited Khawalid after reading about an international campaign on behalf of the villagers who have been waiting since 1993 for a proper access road connecting the village with the nearby kibbutz of Kfar Hamaccabi and Kiryat Ata, where there are shops, health clinics and other everyday services.
Map showing Khawalid and surrounding area. The direct route is in red, 12 km detour that villagers must take to the shops is in blue
There is a track dating back to Turkish times that connects the village to these nearby Jewish communities. It is too rough for normal vehicles in summer, and impassable in winter but despite years of requests, the local Zevulun Regional Council adamantly refuses to pave it.
Instead, the residents of Khawalid are forced to make a 12 kilometer detour past a cemetery and through another Jewish village before doubling back on themselves to cross Route 70. That highway was built in 1979, effectively cutting off the village from Kfar Hamaccabi and Kiryat Ata except for a small tunnel under the highway on the Turkish track.
Villagers used to access Route 70 via the tunnel and an illegal break in the barrier. The Council sealed the break in 2010, but still refused to pave the track through the tunnel.
The Regional Council blames the Transportation Ministry, but the Ministry says the Council has the power to include a new road in its plans. The Council says it has no money for the road – though I saw countless brand new roads leading directly to Jewish communities and kibbutzim in the area, including one to a new Jewish cemetery that the villagers are now forced to use. Earlier this year, the JNF in Britain solved that problem by offering to pay for the road – but still the Council refused, citing legal objections.
While the Council and the Ministry throw the issue around like kids with a rubber ball, the residents of Khawalid face another winter of needless transportation delays.
Such humiliation for Arab citizens is par for the course in 21st-century Israel. Can residents of the new “Arab city” expect any better if long-standing residents of communities recognized more than 20 years ago are still struggling for a simple direct access road?