The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee is organizing a march and rally in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square Tuesday to protest the housing shortage and house demolitions in Arab communities. This decision sends a clear message to the establishment and Israeli society as a whole: The country's Arab population isn’t giving up on its citizenship: It aspires to be an integral part of a just, egalitarian society – a society that sees it as a partner rather than a fifth column, that understands its problems and respects its national identity.
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Holding a protest on a bread-and-butter issue like housing in the heart of Tel Aviv reflects a process of rethinking on the part of Israeli Arabs’ political leaders. If the majority of Israelis is ignoring the minority and refusing to listen to it, then the minority must come to it. If the public, the media and the decision makers haven’t heard the cry that has resounded for years from Nazareth, Sakhnin and Umm al-Fahm – then perhaps voicing it in Israel’s heartland will make them hear it.
Housing has become the top issue on the country's public agenda. During the election campaign, every party spoke of the need to lower housing prices. But for the Arab sector, high costs are only a secondary obstacle. Tens of thousands of young Arab couples have nowhere to build a home, and even if land is available, there are often no master plans or building permits.
Data published recently by Haaretz, based on research by civil society organizations, show that over the next decade, some 18,000 houses will be needed each year just to accommodate the Arab community’s natural population growth. Moreover, the fact that most Arab towns lack both land for construction and master plans that would permit building legally has led to an enormous backlog in terms of demand, as well as an explosion of illegal building.
The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee – comprised of Arab MKs, local council heads and other representatives who strive to coordinate the community's political activities – says demolition orders are pending against 60,000 houses in their locales. It argues that this problem must be solved by legalizing retroactively most of the houses built on privately owned land near existing communities. In addition, it demands that the government expand the municipal borders of Arab locales to provide adequate land for legal construction.
The committee understands that Tuesday’s demonstration, and the Arab general strike that is slated to accompany it, is a big gamble. If many Israeli Arabs refuse to join the strike, or if attendance at the rally is thin due to apathy or lack of organization – the protest could boomerang, possibly making the Israeli establishment and general public conclude that Arab society is indifferent to its own problems.
Consequently, this demonstration will be a test, for Arab leaders and citizens alike.