Israel is promoting a plan to grant ownership to people living in properties that were declared absentee property – some 4,800 homes in Israel whose original Arab residents fled during the War of Independence in 1948.
The current inhabitants of these homes are mainly Arabs, and the plan will allow them to buy the properties in which they live at a significantly reduced – up to almost completely subsidized – price.
The parties involved, including the government, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality, the United Arab List party and representatives of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, are discussing how to enact the plan, and sources say that Bennett has, in principle, consented to the plan.
A quarter, or about 1,200, of these properties are located in Jaffa’s Ajami neighborhood, and the rest are spread out across the country, in cities like Lod, Ramle, Nazareth, Haifa and others. The homes’ residents are currently considered protected tenants, meaning they cannot be evicted, for just two generations.
The Israel Land Authority currently holds the homes, in accordance with the Absentee Property Law. In August 1996, the state decided to begin selling the abandoned properties; through the state-owned public housing company Amidar, which has been managing the properties, about 80 of these homes have been sold each year since.
The government has stated it wants to sell the properties to the protected tenants living in them. They have the first right of refusal in purchasing the properties, and are entitled to a maximum discount of 320,000 shekels ($101,000) on the price. But because of their socioeconomic situation, most of these residents are still unable to afford even the discounted price, which is based on the market price of nearby real estate. As a result, most residents forego their right to buy the property and are forced to move out after the apartment is sold.
The plan originated with a meeting held a few months ago between United Arab List Chairman Mansour Abbas, Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai and cabinet secretary Shalom Shlomo. The parties discussed the need to work together on an answer – first by defining the problem and then by “setting principles for a fair solution” for the residents, said a source with knowledge of the meeting. According to the source, the director general of the Construction and Housing Ministry, Aviad Friedman, was also involved; his ministry denies this. Huldai held follow-up meetings with Bennett and Construction and Housing Minister Zeev Elkin.
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“We understand the phenomena that we are dealing with,” Abbas said in an interview. “Now everyone needs to work together and reach the goal.” His party is eager for a significant achievement for the Arab public, while the Housing Ministry, which is also requesting that the plan be expedited, has drawn criticism for years over its handling of abandoned properties.
The circumstances of buying abandoned properties is particularly dire in Jaffa, due to the rising housing prices in the area. According to the Madlan real estate website, property values jumped by 132 percent from 2009 through 2019; the price of an average apartment in Ajami has been pushed up to 4.9 million shekels ($1.558 million). Prices for the abandoned properties are set accordingly. Compared to other regions in Israel, the protected tenants in Jaffa are even further away from the possibility of buying their own apartments. Huldai said in an interview that this is a “ticking time bomb.” He said that “if you try to force Jaffa residents out of their apartments, there will be serious, and in my opinion justified, turmoil.”
The municipality has been working for a while to alleviate the housing crisis in Jaffa. Recently, the city has promoted a number of construction plans for land it owns, meant to provide affordable housing for Arabs from Jaffa. But most of the residents there cannot buy these homes at the reduced prices, which cost around 1.5 million shekels ($477,000) for a standard apartment.
Amidar says the sales pace of the Jaffa properties, about 12 a year, has not risen. But many Jaffa residents claim that this is the government’s way to push Arabs out of the area. “Even if there is no unambiguous intention to Judaize Jaffa – that is what happens in practice,” said an Arab resident of the neighborhood who has been involved in the issue.
Huldai even claimed in April that the violence that swept the city during the fighting with Gaza stemmed from the area’s housing crisis, rather than ethnic conflict. “This is true distress and I plan on doing everything possible to bring about a solution,” he pledged at the time on his Facebook page.
In recent meetings, the municipality asked to give protected residents a 95 percent discount in buying the properties. Sources involved in the plan says that the Israel Land Authority may have difficulty approving this, as the subsidy would mean a large loss of revenue for them. But according to Abbas, that if the government holds its ground vis-à-vis the authority, the initiative will be implemented. “The ILA makes decisions independently, but according to government policy,” he said. The approach needs to be diplomatic, and not institutional, he added. “The state will not lose money by helping its citizens; it will only profit. The discount amount is the main factor in the project’s success, or lack thereof.”
However, these plans are inadequate for engendering significant change for two reasons. Firstly, many Arabs in Jaffa are unable to purchase their own home even at the reduced price offered by the city in its developments – which cost around 1.5 million shekels for a standard apartment. Secondly, and more importantly, any real improvement in the housing situation is possible only if the Lands Authority, which controls most of the local land, agrees to allocate state-owned land for the project.
The heart of the plan is to use state-funding to increase the subsidy for the sale of the property to the present residents to a nearly full subsidy. The initiative is only in a preliminary stage, and the parties are discussing how to implement it – whether as an inter-ministerial plan, through a cabinet resolution or in some other legal format. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has agreed in principle to the plan, and his representatives have participated in meetings held on the matter.
The authority needs the most convincing, because almost completely subsidizing purchases of the homes – the municipality is calling for a 95 percent discount – means a large loss of revenue for the ILA, said sources involved in the matter. But Abbas says that if the negotiations reach fruition and the government keeps its promises, then the initiative will be implemented. “The ILA makes decisions independently, but according to government policy,” Abbas told Haaretz. The approach needs to be diplomatic, and not institutional, he added. “The state will not lose money by helping its citizens; it will only profit,” he said. “The discount amount is the main factor in the project’s success, or lack thereof.”
But everyone recognizes that a huge discount is not the only solution required. Given the socioeconomic situation of the residents living in abandoned properties countrywide, it is already clear that some of them will need bank loans and guidance for the home buying process, so families won’t mortgage themselves to the banks. Planners also will have to retroactively approve changes made without permission to the properties over time – or to demolish such additions. The processes of legalizing the status of these properties will lead to “internal wars between families, and people will be murdered because of arguments over ownership,” said an activist from Jaffa. Decision makers are aware of these three obstacles, but it is “still too early to discuss them,” said one of them.
The parties involved are expected to meet again soon, in an expanded format including representatives of other government ministries. The negotiations have been described as in the “beginning” stages, so there are many questions but few answers. But the willingness is what is most important, said the sources
“There is a new government and with it a certain political process. I very much hope that it will happen,” said Huldai. “At least for now, there is someone to talk to. Before this, there was no one to talk to.”