Analysis

Israel Fences in Arab Towns, Then Complains of Illegal Construction

The Jewish nation-state bill, which includes a clause allowing for Jewish-only communities, worsens Arab 'ghettoization' and Arab lack of trust in the Israeli government, rather than working to solve the housing crisis

Garbage goes uncollected in an Arab neighborhood in Lod, a mixed Jewish-Arab city in Israel.

The special committee to advance the Jewish nation-state bill in the Knesset discussed for the first time on Tuesday a controversial clause that would enable the creation of Jewish-only communities. This clause, which reeks of racism, hasn’t horribly shaken Jewish Israelis, or Arab Israelis either, for that matter. As far as the latter are concerned, that’s the way things are already.

A study by Prof. Yousef Jabareen of the Technion’s Architecture and Town Planning Department found that Israel already has 940 communities that are entitled to reject prospective Arab residents on the grounds of maintaining their cultural and social atmosphere. These include all of Israel’s kibbutzim, nearly all the moshavim and a large portion of rural towns, all of which are currently permitted by law to discriminate against applicants for residency.

“Just imagine that Germany had 940 communities that could reject Jewish residents – what an outcry that would create,” Jabareen said.

Jabareen didn’t check how many of the 940 communities actually have Arab residents, or how many actually rejected Arab applicants. But it’s likely that after the well-publicized story of the Ka’adan family, whose attempt to move to the community of Katzir led to a High Court ruling specifying the limits to which communities can discriminate against potential residents, very few Arab families have tried their luck in a similar manner.

The upper-middle class Arab residents of Nazareth, fed up with the poor quality of life in their crowded city, are moving to neighboring Upper Nazareth, where they joke that they’ve raised prices so much that Jewish residents are being pushed out. And where do the Jews go? To the small communities scattered around the Galilee, including kibbutzim and moshavim, which are closed off to Arabs.

This migration pattern – wealthy Arabs moving out of Nazareth for Upper Nazareth and Jews leaving Upper Nazareth for other towns in the Galilee – represents for Jabareen the “ghettoization” that Israel pushes onto its Arab citizens. The state chokes off Arab cities by leaving them without land for expansion, which creates a poor quality of life in the cities while also limiting Arabs’ ability to live in other towns in the periphery. Most of these towns are already closed to Arabs, and that’s without any explicit clause in the nation-state bill.

There’s apparently no debate among experts about the urban ghettoization of Arabs. However, there is a fierce debate over whether this policy is still in effect, given the government’s steps to ease the housing and construction crisis in the Arab sector.

In 2015, the government set up its so-called 120-days team. This led to a wide range of steps designed to ease this crisis, including assisting Arab communities in urban planning, giving Arab local authorities more planning authority, and even increasing the land available to Arab cities at the expense of state land. This is a nearly complete reversal of the stated policy in the 1950s of taking land from the Arab community to “Judaize the Galilee.”

Except the Arab community isn’t aware that a revolution has taken place. A rancorous discussion at TheMarker’s economic conference in Nazareth two weeks ago showed the community’s distrust, as senior government officials’ attempts to argue that the state was acting in good faith were rejected. Their data was repeatedly questioned by those who are yet to see an improvement in infrastructure, and in light of government-led legislation that appears to be pushing a consistent anti-Arab agenda.

Before even considering any nation-state bill, Arab anger is directed at legislation regarding illegal construction. Arab communities contain an estimated 50,000 structures built illegally. Arabs blame ghettoization, saying that they don’t have enough land on which to build legally. They also blame the weakness of Arab local authorities, which lack building plans and thus cannot enable legal construction.

Over the years, the state rejected these claims, saying there was no justification for breaking the law. But in its discussions, the 120-days team changed its approach, and the government has since accepted at least some of the Arab community’s claims about a lack of alternatives to illegal construction. That’s why the team decided to help Arab communities improve their planning, and even hinted that the state might retroactively approve illegal construction within municipal boundaries.

But immediately after the recommendations were issued came a law to increase enforcement against illegal construction, and the Arab community took that law at its face value – an attempt by the state to destroy 50,000 Arab Israeli homes. Attempts to explain that the state only intended to demolish the few homes that were built outside municipal limits, or on land slated for critical development projects, fell on deaf ears.

It appears that the state does indeed intend to retroactively approve most of the illegal Arab construction, which was built on the owners’ personal property within community limits. But that still hasn’t happened. One reason is the refusal of Arab local authority heads to set up local planning committees – which, aside from planning, would also be responsible for enforcement of construction laws. As Israel’s election year approaches, Arab leaders are well aware of the implications of penalizing residents in their communities for construction violations.

Even the state’s well-intentioned move to grant extra land to Arab communities is advancing slowly, and has been greeted by much skepticism. Sikkuy, an Arab-equality NGO, says that only 9% of the expansion requests submitted to the Interior Ministry have been examined; the ministry’s director general countered that the figure is actually 60%.

More than 30 Arab local authorities have submitted requests to expand their area open to construction or reallocate their revenues to ease the housing crisis. It’s too early to say how many requests will be approved, and to what extent Arab communities will become less crowded.

In addition, the state has started approving major expansion plans for several Arab communities, while relaxing the requirements to enable quick construction on private property. But here, too, progress is being stymied by illegal construction, as well as the difficulty facing Arab villages in advancing construction plans because almost all the available land is privately owned, and the owners are reluctant to sell even for large profits. Here, too, good intentions are being crushed by reality.

In general, it seems that the state’s good intentions are being met by such a crisis of confidence among its Arab citizens that they are reluctant to cooperate. And now, given the intent to institutionalize racism through the nation-state bill, that crisis of faith is likely only to deepen.