Israeli Parliament Mulls Harsh Law on Illegal Construction

Bill goes to committee as pro-equality NGOs warn of its discriminatory effect on Israeli Arabs.

Homes demolished in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in southern Israel, January 25, 2017.
Alex Levac

An Israeli parliamentary committee started discussing a bill on Monday that would significantly up the penalties for illegal construction, despite a coalition of nongovernmental organizations warning against the bill and its impact on the Arab community.

The bill’s proposal to expand demolitions of illegally built homes ignores the state’s long-standing failure to make adequate provision for legal construction in Arab towns, “which has led many people to break the law,” the NGOs’ position paper said.

The NGOs behind the position paper are Sikkuy – the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Bimkom – Planners for Planning Rights, the Arab Center for Alternative Planning, the Mossawa Center and the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights.

Nevertheless, the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee is expected to approve the bill.

The bill is based on a report issued about a year ago by Deputy Attorney General Erez Kaminitz. The cabinet adopted the report’s recommendations about six months ago and decided that the money for implementing them should be taken from existing government funding for Arab communities.

The bill itself acknowledges that illegal construction is “among the most common crimes” in “every segment of society.” Yet the proposed changes would especially affect Arab communities, which, the position paper notes, “suffer from an extremely severe housing shortage born of deliberate government policy over many years, of which building without permits is just one symptom.”

The bill includes numerous provisions. It would reduce the courts’ authority over building violations and expand the powers of the Finance Ministry’s enforcement unit, reduce the courts’ discretion to go easy on building code violators, permit longer jail terms for such violators, transfer certain powers from local planning and building committees to the treasury’s enforcement unit, require these committees to report to the unit about their own efforts to enforce building codes, and make the financial penalties for illegal building “significantly more stringent,” including by reclassifying building violations as administrative offenses. That will enable authorized inspectors to impose large fines without needing to launch criminal proceedings.

The treasury’s enforcement unit, whose powers would be greatly bolstered by the bill, is headed by attorney Avi Cohen. About 10 days ago, Haaretz reported that Cohen himself lives in Palgei Mayim, an illegal West Bank settlement outpost near the settlement of Eli. Demolition orders were issued against every house in Palgei Mayim between 2001 and 2007, and according to Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank, half of these houses are located on privately owned Palestinian land.

The NGOs’ position paper said the bill would lead to a “dramatic” rise in house demolitions in Arab towns. It also noted that since Israel’s establishment in 1948, not a single new Arab town has been established (aside from seven Bedouin towns meant to replace unrecognized Bedouin villages), while the land controlled by the existing 139 Arab towns has actually been reduced, and is now estimated to amount to less than 3 percent of Israel’s total territory.

Moreover, the paper said, until 2000, no Arab towns had up-to-date master plans. Since then, the Interior Ministry has taken some steps to rectify this problem, but they haven’t been sufficient to provide “suitable solutions to the existing shortage.”

The paper charged that the bill doesn’t distinguish between different types of building offenses. It also deplored the reduction of the courts’ authority, the concentration of powers in the treasury’s hands, and the expropriation of enforcement powers from local planning and building committees, which “know the local needs and enforcement priorities better.”

In conclusion, it said, there is “no justification” for increasing the number of house demolitions or stiffening other penalties for illegal construction. Instead, the government should begin a dialogue with Israeli Arab leaders aimed at producing legal avenues for building in Arab towns, “including by legalizing existing construction.”

“Building without permits in Arab towns doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” explained attorney Raghad Jaraisy of ACRI. “It stems mainly from lack of choice, and is meant to provide roofs over the heads of young Arabs and families whom the government and the planning authorities have left for many years without housing solutions.”