Israeli Arabs Cry Foul on Move to Tie State Funding to Demolition of Illegal Construction

Community vows not to cooperate with new government move, tied to budget pledge, to destroy widespread illegal construction in their own locales.

Joint List party leader MK Ayman Odeh at the 2015 Israel Conference on Peace.
David Bachar

The Israeli cabinet resolved Sunday to establish an entity to supervise planning and construction in the Arab sector, but it conditioned funding to Arab towns on demolition of illegal structures. Outraged, representatives of those locales vowed not to cooperate with efforts to make them part of the enforcement mechanism against illegal construction.

Population growth has not been accompanied by a commensurate expansion of Arab towns, or of permits to build new housing, which has resulted in widespread illegal construction there. The resolution would crack down on such building, which has been rampant in the Arab towns and cities, on several fronts.

First proposed in January, legislation mandating creation of the new body technically transfers the power of enforcing construction-related regulations from regional councils to local, town committees in the case of locales numbering over 10,000 residents.

One possible upshot of the resolution could be the demolition en masse of illegal structures erected over decades, including in Druze towns, Arab sources point out. They reiterated that they will not be “the government’s wrecking ball in Arab towns.”

The cabinet’s decision to set up an enforcement mechanism removes an obstacle to implementation of a five-year, billion-shekel scheme aimed at strengthening Israeli Arab society, say sources at the Finance Ministry and Social Equality Ministry. Representatives of the Committee of Arab Local Governments, who met Sunday with staff from those ministries, argue, however, that much of this vaunted plan still remains murky.

Sunday's approval of the plan to create the new entity was based on recommendations by a team of ministerial directors general, headed by the deputy attorney general, Erez Kaminitz.

Under the scheme, a national enforcement unit for planning and construction will monitor the local planning committees in Arab towns. If the latter committees fail to enforce demolitions ־ which among other things means to raze illegally built houses – the national enforcement unit will take over. The state will allocate 22 million shekels a year (about $5.7 million) to strengthening the national enforcement body, which will also be allotted a one-time subsidy of 5 million shekels this year. The money will enable dozens more inspectors, prosecutors and others to be hired.

In tandem, the planning and construction laws will undergo review and amendment. Among other things, the courts’ power to postpone the execution of demolition orders will be confined to so-called irregular cases as defined by law. Fines for individuals found guilty of illegal building offenses in criminal proceedings will be increased.

The existing law governing administrative offenses will also be tweaked, to increase fines for violation of planning and construction regulations, thereby reducing any financial incentive to build illegally.

The powers of construction and planning supervisors will be beefed up, enabling them to confiscate heavy machinery used in what is deemed to be illegal construction, and to use reasonable force to gain access to land in order to fulfill a demolition order.

The move is not being welcomed in Israeli Arab circles. “We will not demolish one stone in the Arab towns,” Mazen Ganaim, mayor of Sakhnin and chairman of the National Council of Arab Municipalities, told Haaretz. “Construction without permits is the result of years of discrimination with respect to planning and approval of master plans, and to expanding areas of jurisdiction and allocation of resources and housing solutions to Arab towns.”

The solution has to start with legitimizing the illegal houses retroactively, Ganaim adds, and finding solutions for housing in the Arab locales.

Among those who have spearheaded the 5-year plan to benefit those locales is Israeli Arab politician Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint List, who also assailed the cabinet resolution on Sunday.

“This is the face of the extreme right government led by [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu,” he declared. “At one meeting they decide to pass a million-shekel budget to deepen the occupation and the settlements at the expense of the rest of the people. At another they approve a shocking plan that clearly sets it sights on the Arab public."

The entire decision about a new enforcement entity is based on a warped mind-set, Odeh continued: “The plan steps up home demolitions instead of finding housing solutions. It tries to create pressure, of borderline legality, to make local governments hurt their own people.”