Israel's Head of Building-law Enforcement Lives in Illegal West Bank Outpost

Avi Cohen, who leads the Finance Ministry’s department of building regulations enforcement, lives in Palgei Mayim, an outpost of Eli.

Avi Cohen's home in Palgei Mayim, an unauthorized West Bank outpost. The photo shows a single-family home, faced in limestone and with a red tiled roof.
Olivier Fitoussi

The head of the Finance Ministry department that enforces planning and construction laws lives in an illegal West Bank settlement outpost.

Avi Cohen, a lawyer, lives in Palgei Mayim, an outpost of the Eli settlement. Palgei Mayim was established in 2001 and has about 40 homes, some of them mobile homes.

No master plan has ever been approved for Eli, because parts of the settlement are built on privately owned Palestinian land.

Cohen’s job includes issuing demolition orders for illegal construction inside Israel, though he has no authority over demolitions in the West Bank. He instituted the proceedings that resulted in the state’s bulldozing of 11 homes in Kalansua last week.

According to one source, who was speaking on the condition of anonymity, government officials “know not to ask about the state of Cohen’s building permits, because it’s a bombshell.”

Eli was founded on the basis of a 1984 cabinet resolution. During the late 1990s, a series of outposts to Eli were created, including Palgei Mayim. All the homes in Palgei Mayim were served with demolition orders between 2001 and 2007. According to Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank, about half these houses sit on privately owned Palestinian land, and the rest are on what it known as “survey land,” meaning it hasn’t yet been surveyed to find out whether it’s state land or privately owned.

In 2014, the state finally drafted a master plan for Eli, but it was put on ice after a petition to the High Court of Justice resulted in the court issuing an injunction against approving it. In any case, the plan doesn’t include Palgei Mayim, which can’t be legalized unless the Knesset passes legislation authorizing the confiscation of private Palestinian land.

With legal building permits unavailable, Eli and other nearby settlements have issued “in principle” permits for buildings that comply with the still-unapproved master plan. These “in principle” permits have no legal validity whatsoever.

On Wednesday, a few hours after Israeli authorities razed 15 buildings in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran, in the Negev, and just days after the Kalansua demolitions, a source familiar with Cohen’s department said that in recent months, “there’s been a tendency to crack down on building violations in the Arab community. It’s hard to know if this comes directly from the prime minister and the other relevant ministers, or if the bureaucracy sensed the mood and fell in line, but someone’s trying to make a show of force here — to press on the Arab community’s sorest spots. It’s cruel behavior.”

Another source attributed the upsurge in demolitions to a desire by both Cohen’s department and the Justice Ministry “to show who’s the boss.”

Cohen was appointed head of the department two years ago. He had previous experience in the Planning Administration back when it was still part of the Interior Ministry, before it was transferred to the treasury in summer 2015.

In 2016, according to treasury statistics, the department issued 152 demolition orders and demolished 51 buildings larger than 50 square meters. The comparable figures for 2015 were 24 and 16, respectively. These figures cover the entire country aside from the south, where demolitions are the responsibility of the Public Security Ministry.

“A situation in which the system responsible for enforcing building laws is headed by someone living in an outpost demonstrates contempt for the system and Israel’s values,” charged Rabbis for Human Rights.

The treasury said that construction in the West Bank is governed by Jordanian law, not Israeli law. Cohen bought his house more than 10 years ago and has never been served with a demolition order, it continued. The house itself has a building permit from the local council and approval from the World Zionist Organization’s settlement division, and the neighborhood was developed by the Housing Ministry.

The demolition policy set by Cohen’s department is overseen by the Justice Ministry and requires approval from the attorney general, the treasury statement continued. Demolitions are carried out “in compliance with the principle of the rule of law,” in “an egalitarian, nondiscriminatory manner, according to rules known in advance, without arbitrariness or randomness.”

The department “upholds the principle that all citizens are equal before the law, with no connection to the department head’s place of residence,” it added.