Israel Suspends Demolitions of Illegally Built Homes, Tells No One

Illegal construction is much more prevalent in Arab communities, and when Netanyahu and Kahlon agreed to the freeze they kept it quiet for fear that their right-wing coalition partner would raise a hue and cry

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

The government created a legal twilight zone by quietly and informally deciding to suspend the execution of demolition orders against illegally built homes.

Officials chose not to publicize the decision, which applies to all homes built without proper permits on private land and within the jurisdiction of a local government.

Since illegal construction is much more prevalent in Arab communities, they are disproportionately affected by it. Fearing that their right-wing coalition partners would raise a hue and cry about the move, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon agreed to the freeze two and a half months ago they kept it quiet. The only written communication on the matter was a letter sent by Akram Hasoon to mayors. Hasoon, a member of Israel’s Arabic-speaking Druze minority, is a Knesset member for Kulanu, the party headed by Kahlon.

Hasson’s letter, dated February 15, trumpeted the “historic decision to freeze demolition orders on private land belonging to all citizens – Arabs, Jews and Druze – for a period of two years.”

But that informal announcement wasn’t the end of the story. Several days after word of the freeze began circulating, the Attorney General’s Office issued a statement saying it didn’t recognize the decision and instructed district attorneys to ignore it. “Enforcement of planning and building laws is essential part of the rule of law If we don’t prevent violations, the work invested in promoting orderly planning will be lost,” the statement said.

Enforcement of zoning and building laws has long been a problem in predominantly Arab towns and cities in Israel, where the shortage of housing is more acute than in other Israeli communities. A government committee, the “120 Days Team,” formed at the end of 2014 to address the problem found that the problem was made worse by the absence of master plans in Arab municipalities and by a tradition of informal building by families rather than by big contractors.

It was with the government’s 120 Days team in mind that the Netanyahu-Kahlon decision was made behind the scenes.

For Kais Nasser, a lawyer who has been fighting in court to stop Lod from tearing down a home owned by his client Ali Al-Kadima, the government’s waffling is frustrating. “The silence of the Finance Ministry on the one side and the letter for the attorney generally denying it on the other has confused the public and the courts as well,” Nasser said.

Kadima has been bouncing between courts since Lod issued demolition orders against a residential property of his in the predominantly Arab neighborhood of Pardes Schnir. His appeal to Ramle Magistrate’s Court to delay the order was rejected and Judge Rivka Glatt ruled that the city was free to destroy the building at any time after February 10.

Armed with Hasoon’s letter, Nasser returned to the court, only to be turned down again, after the city submitted the attorney general’s letter to the court. Nasser then appealed to the district court, which sharply criticized the lower court and ordered it to hold another hearing.

“The finance minister never denied he made a decision to freeze demolitions, and the letter was not refuted or concealed by evidence on behalf of the respondent," wrote the judge. “This is an issue that requires proper legal clarification, in light of its great importance.”

The Prime Minister’s Office and the Finance Ministry both declined to comment.