Why Are There So Few Arabs on Israeli Zoning Boards?

Arab representation in the bodies that decide on building and development is low to negligible at all levels, contributing to the ongoing housing shortage in Arab communities.

Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
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Arab citizens of Israel protest housing crisis in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, April 28, 2015.
Arab citizens of Israel protest housing crisis in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, April 28, 2015.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

The housing crisis was a major campaign issue in the March election. In Israel’s Arab community, the problem is compounded as a result of the authorities’ contribution. In the months since the election, there has been an outcry over the demolition of illegally built homes in the Lower Galilee community of Kafr Kana and in Dahamash, near Lod, and the decision to evacuate the unrecognized Negev Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran. This frustration was also expressed in a demonstration by Arab citizens last month — held in Tel Aviv, in an unprecedented step.

The important planning and development decisions are made by the National Planning and Building Council and by the local and district planning committees, with input from outside professionals and organizations. The committees are subordinate to local governments and the Interior Ministry. It is the professional staff of these agencies, including planners, lawyers and engineers, that ultimately set policy, approve the development plans and consider the objections to the plans.

Committee hearings are for the most part considered professional deliberations and are conducted away from the public eye. This raises questions about the representation of Arab professionals level on these panels that shape planning policy in Arab and mixed Arab-Jewish communities. A recent study shows that there are no Arab citizens on most of the committees that make the important decisions.

The comprehensive survey was based on Interior Ministry data and conducted by Kais Nasser, an Arab lawyer who specializes in planning and construction issues. He determined that not a single professional position of influence on planning committees is filled by an Arab. The ministry’s Planning Authority, which oversees the National Planning and Building Council and the local and regional zoning boards, has 74 employees, none of whom are Arab.

The agency has never been headed by an Arab, nor are any of the national council’s advisers — the legal counsel, the water and sewage adviser and the social-affairs adviser. Of 1,765 advisers in the Planning Authority’s database, only 65 are Arab. The National Planning and Building Council’s appeal subcommittee, which has ultimate authority over decisions made at the local and district levels, consists of five panels that convene four times a month. None of the five has ever had an Arab chairman or chairwoman.

The situation is not much better in the six district committees around the country. Each has a lawyer as well as a district planner, who heads the district planning office. There has never been an Arab district planner nor district legal counsel. The story is not much different when it comes to the staff of each district office. Of 32 employees of the northern district, only three are Arab. The Haifa office has a staff of 19, one of whom is Arab. One of the 26 employees in the Jerusalem district office is Arab, while the central district office has one Arab in a staff of 44. In other words, of the 164 employees at all of the district offices, six are Arab. There has also never been an Arab chairman or chairwoman of a district appeal panel, since they were established in 1995.

From time to time, the Interior Ministry publishes tenders to hire researchers to hear objections to construction projects. Of the 116 researchers hired only four have been Arab, according to the data compiled by Nasser. In 2013 the ministry selected 10 teams to develop master plans for 27 communities, 12 of them Arab, in a tender process. None of the teams that was hired included an Arab planning firm.

Even on the local level, closer to the communities, Arabs are significantly underrepresented. Of the 126 local and regional committees, which are under the aegis of the relevant local or district authority, only 10 have an Arab chairman. This, despite the fact that 37 of the committees serve Arab populations, including the Arab cities of Nazareth, Tira, Rahat and Taibeh. A total of 13 Arab engineers serve these 37 committees, as the city or regional engineer. The nine Arabs who serve as legal counsel to a local or regional committee are the only Arab advisers on the committees. Nasser notes that all of the Arab engineers and advisers are on planning committees that serve Arab communities.

The survey included the composition of the planning and engineering departments of mixed Arab and Jewish cities. In Acre, where Arabs are a third of the population, just three of the 32 employees of these departments are Arab. That’s better than in Haifa, Lod, Ramle and Tel Aviv-Jaffa, all of which have significant Arab populations but no Arabs working in their planning and engineering departments.

“The findings show that Arab professionals are excluded from decision making on planning and construction at every level,” Nasser says, adding that hiring Arabs for key positions could not only contribute to the planning process but also enhance the Arab population’s faith in the process. The current circumstances are unacceptable, he says, citing a Supreme Court ruling in support of his stance.

Wajeh Kayouf, the mayor of the Druze city of Isfiya, is a member of the National Planning and Building Council and the Carmel Ridge District Planning Committee, in addition to being an acting member of the Haifa District Planning Committee. He says the lack of Arab representation on the zoning boards gives Arab local governments limited room to maneuver.

“We get involved in the stages of the planning process after all of the national plans have already been approved. They consider the interests of the national government and the environmentalists, but not the residents of the Arab communities,” Kayouf says. “That means that we need to plan what is left, and that puts us in an impossible situation. On one hand, there is no government land [for Arab communities] and on the other hand, Arab citizens want to protect what they have left of privately-owned land, so everything gets stalled.”

Kayouf says that while his presence on the National Planning and Building Council sometimes helps him to advance projects, “you are always a minority of a minority or absent from the decision-making process, and that is a distorted situation.”

In a response, the Interior Ministry said there were 12 Arabs on planning committees around the country — two in the Planning Authority’s guidance division, one plan inspector in the Jerusalem district and nine additional people whose positions were not given in the Tel Aviv, Haifa and northern districts. “A not inconsiderable number of public tenders have been issued for plan inspectors in the districts, but [Arabs] have not applied,” the ministry noted, adding: “In the northern district, there are 14 regional committees, five of which have chairpersons from the [Arab] sector. By law, 11 of them have an absolute majority of members from the sector. There are dozens of employees from the sector on the committees in various positions, including committee engineers and plan inspectors.” With regard to the composition of the local planning committees, the ministry said the local governments are in charge.

The ministry’s response does not contradict Nasser’s findings. The employees noted in the ministry statement are in relatively junior positions.
The Union of Local Authorities said in a statement that it “has presented the problem to the relevant government ministries and will continue to support the entire process leading to an increase in representation from the Arab sector on planning and construction committees.”

“The lack of representation of Arabs on planning bodies creates a distortion in the results of the planning process and the exclusion of Arabs from [the process of] shaping the public space,” says Rassem Khamaisi, a professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Haifa. An urban and regional planner, he advises planning agencies and local governments. He says the solution is to involve the community in the planning process rather than focusing on national aspects.

The Injaz Center for Professional Arab Local Governance, a nonprofit advocacy organization, has raised the issue of the underrepresentation of Arabs in planning bodies in meetings with government officials.

“Arab engineers and planners are most familiar with the challenges and opportunities and have a strong desire to bring about an improvement and the development of infrastructure in Arab communities,” says Injaz’s director, Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi. She notes that a national state committee has been established to recommend solutions to the housing shortage in Arab communities but warns that it must coordinate with Arab local governments in order to be successful.

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