Last week, Israeli politics was in an uproar over the formation of the country’s “most right-wing government ever” (as it was described in much of the world’s press, at least). The controversial appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as defense minister became official this week as the Yisrael Beitenu chairman moved into his new office in the Kirya in Tel Aviv.
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The very same week, however, two other interesting, seemingly unrelated, decisions were passed concerning urban planning. Last Tuesday, a committee headed by Finance Ministry deputy budget director Eran Nitzan decided to advance a plan to build a new neighborhood in the Arab city of Taibeh in the Triangle area that would comprise 2,300 apartments as well as 30,000 square meters of commercial and work space – one of the largest building plans in the Arab sector to have been approved for many years.
Two days later, Interior Minister Arye Dery signed off on the recommendations of his ministry’s Borders Committee to add 2,100 dunams (some 520 acres) to the Sakhnin municipality, area that will be subtracted from the neighboring Misgav Regional Council.
The close proximity in the timing of these two decisions, both of major significance for two of the largest Arab cities in Israel, is not coincidental. Over the past year and a half there have been an increasing number of decisions to accelerate development in the Arab sector, after many decades of neglect and inaction. One negative consequence of the planning neglect was that building violations became the norm.
Besides these two decisions, there have been several more regarding minority communities, including approval for construction of a new, 900-unit residential section in Tur’an in the Lower Galilee, promotion and approval of new master plans for Arab and Druze localities, and approval for a number of boundary amendments or division of income between local Arab and Jewish regional councils in the Galilee and the Negev.
All this derives from a series of recommendations made by the “120-days team,” an inter-ministerial government working group that was active in 2014, under the previous government, led by Finance Ministry budget director Amir Levy.
The team, which mapped out the land and housing problems in the Arab sector, submitted a list of recommendations for addressing the housing shortage in Arab communities, including retroactive approval of illegal construction in built-up areas, registration of land ownership, granting planning authority to local councils and establishing a committee to examine the possible expansion of the boundaries of some Arab municipalities.
Many of these recommendations were included in the government’s five-year plan for economic development in minority communities that was approved in December 2015.
While all this is still not nearly enough to substantially alter the difficult situation in many Arab localities, there is undeniably a new spirit afoot among the decision-makers in the building and planning field.
One cannot help but wonder why this change is finally taking place under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the man who never seems to miss a chance to demonstrate hostility toward the group that makes up a fifth of Israel’s population (“The Arabs are going to the polls in droves” and so on), and whose government has a significant number of members with nationalist views.
Ghaida Rinawi-Zoabi, director of Injaz - Center for Professional Arab Local Governance, says there has been a shift in recent years, which she says derives from a new approach mostly at the senior administrative level, mainly in the Finance Ministry, and not so much at the political level.
“The government ministries are starting to grasp the severity of the planning and building issues. The 120-days committee was a significant step toward finding applicable solutions,” she said.
But it’s too early to tell how much real impact the latest decisions will have, she added. “We have to wait to see the results. The approval process for a master plan in an Arab locality still takes longer than for a similar plan in a Jewish locality.
“Another thing that has hardly been discussed is the way that the government decision does not provide for any possibility of planning and building detached houses in the Arab sector, while Jewish couples have a wider range of types of properties to choose from,” Rinawi-Zoabi said.
Attorney Kais Nasser, who specializes in zoning and housing law and is currently pursuing a doctorate at Tel Aviv University in urban planning, says that the increasing number of planning decisions does not necessarily mean that construction will actually be made possible soon according to these plans.
“Since most of the lands in the Arab towns are private, one of the biggest obstacles to building is the unification and division plans, which take a very long time and often do not reach the final stage,” he said.
“There is no mechanism in place to support a more rapid advancement of these plans. Also, for most of the landowners there is not sufficient incentive to give up private parcels of land for residential buildings. There’s no market for this kind of housing in the Arab sector. So to a large degree, the steps approved by the government are divorced from reality.”
Moran Aviv, a city planner involved with Sikkuy - The Association for the Advancement of Civil Equality, says another key thing that’s needed is massive support for the local councils, especially for their engineering departments, in the form of funding and training.
“Once these decisions are made and the land is obtained by the Arab local councils, someone has to take the reins and advance the plans and get the right permits and supervision, and this someone is the local authority,” said Aviv.
But she says that after so many years of neglect, one cannot expect the Arab authorities to suddenly be prepared to undertake wide-scale planning of residential neighborhoods and industrial zones. “They haven’t stretched that muscle in a long time,” she said.