Israel Proposes Construction Enforcement Units for Arab Communities

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Taibeh residents protesting housing demolitions outside of the Prime Minister's Office, Feb. 2016.
Taibeh residents protesting housing demolitions outside of the Prime Minister's Office, Feb. 2016.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The government has proposed setting up special units to enforce planning and building laws in Arab communities – a proposal that is liable to lead to conflict with the leaders of these towns.

The proposal is based on recommendations submitted last week by a special task force set up by the previous attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, to discuss ways of improving enforcement of building codes in Arab towns.

According to a source familiar with the issue, the proposal was drafted by the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, Eli Groner. It calls for setting up a special unit to enforce the building laws in every town with more than 10,000 residents. The unit, which will be subordinate to the municipal government, will be responsible for demolishing illegal construction in coordination with the district planning committees and the police.

The source said the proposal arose during a discussion of a reform of the planning process meant to ease the housing shortage in Arab communities. The proposed reform would establish 16 new local planning committees to serve Arab towns – six this year and 10 in 2017.

The issue will be discussed on Wednesday at a meeting of the ministerial committee on Arab affairs, but no decisions will be made. Instead, the ministers will be briefed on the enforcement of building laws in Arab communities and on police activity in these communities in general.

The proposal to set up the new enforcement units was supposed to have been discussed by the cabinet on Sunday, sources familiar with the issue said, but was postponed to sometime in the coming weeks.

Mazen Ganaim, mayor of Sakhnin and chairman of the committee of Arab mayors, said he was unaware of the proposed new enforcement units, but that the mayors would never agree.

“We won’t agree to such a thing under any circumstances,” he said. “At meetings with government officials, we made it clear that the issue of unlicensed construction isn’t the responsibility of the local authorities, but of the government and the planning authorities, which for decades neglected Arab towns in everything concerned with expanding jurisdictional areas and approving master plans.

“We’re willing to lead on the enforcement issue, but with clear conditions: that all demolition orders be frozen for three years, and that the government allocate funds for planning during this period so we can legalize [the illegal buildings],” he continued. “Without these tools, we can’t work to enforce [the building laws] in any way.”

The forum of Druze mayors also published a statement earlier this week saying they would not cooperate with the government on this issue until steps were taken to legalize houses built illegally. The forum said the government should have worked to expand their towns and approve master plans for them, and that the committee’s recommendations came as a major surprise to the Druze.

Jabber Hamoud, mayor of Sajur and chairman of the Druze mayors’ forum, said this stance has been conveyed to the relevant government offices, and the mayors hope to schedule a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the issue in the next few days.

Immigrant Absorption Minister Zeev Elkin, a member of the ministerial committee on Arab affairs, confirmed to Haaretz that the issue of creating special units to enforce building laws in Arab communities will be discussed at Wednesday’s meeting. He added that he and another panel member, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, plan to propose that the special budget allocations the cabinet recently approved for Arab towns be conditioned on steps to enforce building laws, and also on increasing the number of Arabs doing national service.

He said the panel’s recommendations would ultimately be brought to the cabinet for approval. Both the Finance Ministry and the Ministry of Social Affairs are known to oppose the Elkin-Levin proposal, fearing that it would undermine cooperation with Arab municipalities.

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