A recently filed lawsuit alleges that a major construction company deceived Arabs into believing there were no apartments available at its properties while marketing them to Jews.
Samer and Christine Damouni live in a rented house in Shfaram. Since 2012 Samer has repeatedly tried to look into new apartments built by the Sharbiv construction company in the Givat Alonim neighborhood in Kiryat Ata, but to no avail. Sales people never return his calls and when he insists on straight talk it turns out that, miraculously, there are no available apartments and that the only option is to wait for a few years.
A lawsuit demanding compensation was filed recently by the Damounis and four other Arabs who received the same answers. Testimony by a Jewish buyer who received all the information denied the Damounis raises the suspicion that marketing efforts are intended for Jewish buyers only.
Shfaram, like many other Arab communities, is suffering from a dire housing shortage. Samer works for Intel and Christine is a scientist at the Israel Institute of Technology.
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The new neighborhood seemed like a good opportunity. The website promoting it boasted of good access to major transportation arteries, proximity to shopping and business centers, and of Kiryat Ata’s investment in education, as well as its “modern concept, combining extensive green spaces and low-density houses, with maximal regard for a green environment. The excellent location, the extent, planning and construction standards of the project will give this neighborhood high-standard living, drawing high-standard people,” promises the construction company.
Damouni says that when the work in Givat Alonim began, five or six years ago, he inquired about the possibility of buying an apartment there. First, he was told it was too early, that marketing hadn’t begun yet. Then he was politely told he’d missed the dates and that he’d have to wait for the next phase of development.
According to his lawsuit, Damouni turned to Sharbiv’s sales people at least four times in 2017, and got the same response. After hearing his name, they told him that all the apartments had been sold. “They always took my name and number and promised to add us to the waiting list. I never heard from them,” he says. An Arab friend who joined him on one occasion got the same answer: We’re sorry.
In contrast, Jewish friends were surprised: They were offered many options. “That’s when the penny dropped,” says Damouni.
Late last year he asked a Jewish friend to approach Sharbiv’s sales office in Givat Alonim. A saleswoman named Sophie gave him all the details on the project’s apartments, some of which were immediately available, others being within months of completion. Sophie provided details about different sizes and prices, giving him floor plans of these apartments. “A boutique building, with immediate possession, a duplex with 152 square meters plus a 50-square-meter balcony, for 1.98 million shekels ($530,000). That’s quite a find,” she told him.
At this point Damouni entered the office, asking if the meeting would go on for much longer. Sophie asked for his name and told him it would be five more minutes. Suddenly her behavior changed. She tried to hide the promotional material that was on her desk and started to talk in a whisper about apartments available for immediate possession. When the Jewish friend asked about the price, she told him: “If he comes in, I’ll start talking nonsense, OK?”
Because she was whispering and muttering, the friend asked Sophie if she preferred talking in Russian. She answered affirmatively, and proceeded to give him more details. At the end of the meeting she told him to sit down, saying, “Maybe he’ll go away.” The conversation reverted to Hebrew, with Sophie saying out loud that there was nothing available, and that the applicant would be added to a waiting list. “We contact everyone,” she said.
The lawsuit, presented by attorney Hisham Shabaita from the Human Rights Clinic at Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Law, says, “It was clear that this was for Damouni’s ears, in an attempt to conceal the details and to deceive him.” Damouni said that when he met Sophie, she told him there were no available apartments. “When I told her there was a sign outside saying otherwise, she said those apartments would be ready only three years later.”
Two other Arab couples joined the lawsuit after getting the same treatment at Sharbiv: Basim and Riham Damouni from Shfaram, and Jerais Warour and Hadil Safouri from Nazareth. They were all told, on different occasions, that all the apartments had been sold. Basim says that in addition to being ignored, they were paying a financial price, since over the years prices have gone up significantly, including in Givat Alonim. They are also renting.
Warour and Safouri have been engaged for a year and a half and are planning on marrying in six months. “We both work in nursing and are looking for an apartment that is close to Haifa. I saw the ad and I heard from friends about this housing project. When they heard my name, the saleswoman told me I’d have to wait at least five years. Racism against Arabs is not new, but it’s the first time I’ve encountered such a blatant example. No one tried to hide it,” says Basim.
The contrasting attitude to Jews and Arabs continues. Haaretz reporter Jack Khoury and this reporter left their details on the company’s website. The former never got a call back, but the latter was contacted two hours after applying.
“I hope the court in this grave case rules in favor of hefty compensation, so that it’s clear that discrimination is not only morally unacceptable, but that it’s financially unprofitable,” said attorney Shabaita.
The Sharbiv construction company was founded in Haifa in 1956. It presents itself as a “family construction company, one of the country’s leading companies.” In recent years it’s built and marketed thousands of housing units in other projects in Kiryat Motzkin, Haifa, Hod Hasharon, Tel Aviv and other cities. “Over the years Sharbiv has consistently maintained standards of reliability, meticulousness and professionalism,” says its website.
The company refused to answer questions from Haaretz or give details about its owners. In a recent publication it mentions that it is managed by Avi Kalish, Sarah Ilin and Hanan Kalish, the children of the company’s founder. Ilin is the company’s marketing VP. The company’s public relations office said the company was studying the details of the lawsuit and would respond to it in court.
Following the passing of the nation-state law, with its “support for Jewish settlements,” the Knesset this week passed a preliminary version of a bill initiated by MK Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi), which would expand the jurisdiction of selection committees, which allow communities to exclude candidates who do not fit its “social fabric.”
Smotrich wanted to allow communities of up to 700 families to be included in this law, as opposed to the current limit of 400 families. A ministerial committee set the level at 500. This is not final, but will be determined by the registrar of communal settlements, the World Zionist Organization Settlement Division and the Israel Land Authority. Smotrich is still trying to get the limit raised to 700 families.
In 2014, an enlarged panel of High Court justices, in a 5-4 vote, rejected a petition filed by human rights groups in this matter. It turns out that the government is slowly raising the limit, allowing more communities to exclude people they don’t like. The petition claimed that as communities grew, there would be pressure to change the law, which is what is happening now.
Smotrich argues that many communities do not expand since under the current law they would not be able to exclude anyone, so that expansion would put them at risk of destroying their “social fabric.”
At first, the law was intended to assist small outlying communities, in which homogeneity was considered important. “But a humiliating selection process is not needed in a community of hundreds of families, since life in such communities is not different than in any city neighborhood,” says attorney Gil Gan-Mor of the Association of Civil Rights in Israel. “Smotrich may be trying to change the law in order to exclude Arabs, but in fact, most of those affected are Jews, based on their ethnic origin or family status.”