Israeli Court Upholds Cut-off of Asylum Seekers’ Water, Electricity

The court accepts city of Petah Tikva's claim that other cities do the same, no racism involved, which refugees’ lawyer says is demonstrably false

File photo: Asylum seekers queue outside the offices of Israel's Population, Immigration and Border Authority, June 2017.
Moti Milrod

The Lod District Court rejected an appeal Tuesday to stop the Petah Tikva municipality from turning off water and electricity in apartments where asylum seekers are living. The appeal, filed by human rights groups, follows a wave of such utility cuts over the past six months in apartments that have been subdivided into separate flats.

Judge Daphna Blatman Kedrai ruled that a public appeal is not the right way to deal with this matter, and that instead the residents themselves should appeal the decision through the municipality. The judge also noted that it had not been proven that the city has a policy of disconnecting utilities specifically to apartments of asylum seekers.

However, she noted that essential utilities should be cut off in apartments that have been subdivided into separate premises only when human life is in danger, and instructed the municipality’s welfare services to assist people who had to vacate their apartments.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the Assaf refugee assistance group and the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants argued in the petition that cutting off water and electricity was intended to pressure African asylum seekers into leaving Petah Tikva. According to ACRI, Eritreans and Sundanese were living in about 80 percent of the apartments where the municipality ordered utilities disconnected. The appeal mentioned statements made against asylum seekers by the city’s mayor, Yitzhak Braverman.

The municipality said it did not know the identities of the tenants in the apartments where the utilities were ordered disconnected. It also stated that it had ordered the cut-off due to the risk to human life to the tenants and to neighbors, as a result of the apartments being divided into smaller ones.

“The appellants’ claims of racial discrimination are based on media reports that are not first hand, and on a post by the mayor on his Facebook page featuring remarks involving enforcement of [utility-]connecting cases where apartments have been subdivided and back taxes are owed, and involving the entry of foreign workers to the city,” the judge wrote in her ruling.

She noted that the city had asked that these remarks not be taken into consideration and presented documentation and data to back up its claim that the cut-off of utilities had not been initiated out of racial discrimination. She wrote that she found the city’s response “satisfactory,” and that its policies should be examined “on a deeper level than relying on supposedly populist statements on social media platforms.”

The judge said the appeal’s argument that other cities did not take the same steps, and that most of the apartments were occupied by Eritreans and Sudanese, were “partial and amateurish” and that they could not be preferred over municipal records. The judge said the city had provided documentation showing that there in fact were other cities where utilities had been disconnected in apartments that had been subdivided. In some cases, the judge noted, the city’s claim of risk to tenants and neighbors justified cutting off the water and electricity.

The judge said the city should prepare for any evacuation that might be needed as a result of the municipality’s moves, and that this was necessary if veteran residents of the city were to be evicted and “all the more so for poor populations.”

ACRI attorney Oded Feller said the organizations were considering a petition to the High Court of Justice. “No other municipality has taken such a drastic step. If they had, thousands of apartments throughout Israel would find themselves without utilities,” he said. Feller added that the mayor, who signed the cut-off order, “declared proudly that the goal was to evict asylum seekers from the city, and we regret that the court refused to demand that he explain his harsh remarks.”

The attorney said it was unrealistic to suggest that the asylum seekers themselves go to court, as they lack the tools to do so on their own, and that the tenants were being made to bear responsibility for infractions of the building code by the apartments’ owners.