Israel Passes Law Meant to Crack Down on Illegal Building in Arab Communities

In fractious special session, Netanyahu lauds measure and an Arab opposition lawmaker is removed from Knesset.

Demolition of illegal structures in the Israeli Arab community of Kafr Kana, in 2015.
Rami Shllush

Israel’s legislature passed a law on Wednesday that increases enforcement against unauthorized building, convening during its spring recess for a vote of 44 to 33. The law, sponsored by the Justice Ministry, does not explicitly state that the crackdown targets the country’s Arab population, but in practice, it is expected to disproportionately affect unlicensed construction in Arab communities.

Dubbed the “Kaminitz Law,” the bill increases the maximum custodial sentence for anyone convicted of building without permits to three years, from two years. It also reduces the courts’ authorities in regard to building offenses while enhancing those of the Finance Ministry’s construction enforcement unit.

The Knesset Interior and Environment Committee made changes to the bill, in response to public criticism, before sending it to the plenum for its second and its third, final, reading on Wednesday. As a result, the law will only come into force in six months’ time, and it will not affect buildings that are more than two years old.

In an unusual step, after the vote Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took to the Knesset dais and applauded the initiative. His address was greeted with cries of protest from opposition lawmakers, and MK Jamal Zahalka (Joint List) was removed from the hall for disturbing the proceedings.

“The government I lead has invested and will invest more than any other government in the Arab sector,” Netanyahu said. “In infrastructure, in education, in welfare, in culture and yes, in housing too, in order to narrow the gaps. They want to be part of the State of Israel, they want to share in the success of the Israeli economy, in Israel’s future. Therefore we invest as no other government before us invested. We want to integrate Israel’s Arabs into the State of Israel. That means integration into the laws of the State of Israel. We are making a historic correction here, stepping up enforcement throughout all parts of the land. One nation, one law and one enforcement. That is what we have done today.”

During the discussion that preceded the vote, Knesset Interior and Environment Committee Chairman David Amsalem (Likud), said that Arab MKs chose to defend building offenses instead of cooperating with the bill’s advancement. Amsalem accused Arab lawmakers of trying to disrupt the legislative process, “because their function is evidently to defend the lawbreakers. Apparently in your parts, lawbreaking is sanctified. I have not seen one single Jewish mayor coming before the committee and stating that they want to defend construction violations.”

MK Esawi Freige (Meretz) said the only reason that he could find for holding the vote while the Knesset was in recess was because “it serves you politically. At your level of thinking, the Arab public in Israel is a punching bag and there is nothing better than convening the plenum in order to kick it.”

When Freige went on to protest what he said was the demolition of 50,000 illegal homes in Arab towns that the law would lead to, he was interrupted by MK Benny Begin (Likud), who said he was exaggerating — “Nobody is about to wave a stick at 50,000 houses. You know that.” Frej agreed but said, “I want equality in construction, not only equality in enforcement. Before you bring the stick, give me the carrot.”

In an effort to deflect criticism of his conduct, Begin said that throughout the deliberations on the bill in the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee, Arab MKs were brought into the discussions.

Construction planning and licensing can take decades in Israel’s Arab communities, leaving their residents with little choice but to build illegally. According to sources in Arab planning bodies, there are around 50,000 homes in Arab communities that were built without the appropriate permits.

The provisions of the new law were based on a report written by Deputy Attorney General for Civil Law Erez Kaminitz a year ago and a cabinet resolution from several months adopting his recommendations. According to the report, every year the Finance Ministry construction enforcement unit razes 160 buildings and handles over 700 stop-work and demolition orders.