Families in a moshav on the outskirts of Jerusalem must stop renting out their chicken coops for storage by the end of the month, the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court has decided.
The court, which issued its ruling last week, said residents of Moshav Ora are not entitled to rent out their chicken coops or use them for small businesses. By failing to pay the tax due on land used for non-agricultural purposes, 45 families on the moshav have been making money off converted farmland without paying the higher taxes imposed on non-agricultural land, the court said.
The families said they plan to appeal the ruling, which they said would leave them without a source of income.
"My mother is 85. She doesn't have [another] source of income," said Yigal Avdar, a longtime resident who represents Moshav Ora on the Mateh Yehuda regional council. "So I have to ask you, how is she supposed to live if I can't use the 500-meter space for storage, which brings a NIS 7,000 monthly rental fee?"
"Aren't there rights in this country - the right to make a living, to exist?" asked Avdar. "They want to leave us without any source of income."
But the court was not convinced.
"The defendants appear to have exaggerated when they claimed that acceptance of the plaintiff's demands would ruin the moshav's fabric of life and cause them to go hungry," wrote Jerusalem Magistrate's Court Judge Tamar Bar-Asher-Zaban. "The fact that in the 1950s, when Moshav Ora was on the frontier, the state decided to allocate lands to the moshav's residents so that they could make a living from poultry farming does not mean that after times and circumstances changed, the Ora residents are entitled to make a living from state lands without paying the state what is owed to it."
Today one of the coops stores Jewish books, one stores electrical items and one stores pet food. Others have been used as art galleries, and one held a restaurant.
Owners of land designated for agricultural purposes are indeed allowed to use it for non-agricultural purposes - but only for the direct benefit of themselves or their immediate family members, not for commercial gain, the High Court of Justice ruled six months ago.
"Local tax rates for a storage facility on a moshav are very different from the tax rates for storage in a city," said Eli Ben Ari, the senior attorney for the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, one of the parties that filed the petition on which the High Court was ruling. "That creates a huge incentive to bring to the village all sort of uses and services that were never supposed to be in rural areas. If local councils are supposed to provide for their residents, they need to be able to collect local taxes."
There haven't been any chickens in Moshav Ora's chicken coops for at least 15 years.
The coops were built in the 1950s, when the moshav was founded to house immigrants from the Yemen. At the time, the location seemed far from Jerusalem.
"The closest neighborhood was Bayit Vegan," recalled Avdar. "We'd travel to that neighborhood by foot, or donkey. We lived in tents. We didn't have running water or electricity until 1957. Our income came from orchards or the chicken coops."
The Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood, also founded in the 1950s, effectively brought Jerusalem closer to Moshav Ora.
After the wave of Russian immigrants moved to Israel in the 1990s, moshav residents increased their egg production from 300 million to 500 million a year, in the hope that the new immigrants would buy fresh eggs. Instead, they were left with a surplus and eventually stopped using the chicken coops for chickens.