Tough Bill on Illegal Construction Set to Get OK From Knesset Panel

The bill includes increasing the maximum imprisonment for building violations from two years to three years, and reducing the authority of the court in favor of the Finance Ministry’s enforcement unit.

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Construction in Rishon Letzion, December 22, 2016.
A typical sight in Israel: Construction in Rishon Letzion, December 22, 2016.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

The government-sponsored bill currently being discussed by a Knesset committee seeks to amend planning and construction laws in order to make the punishment for violations more severe. Although the bill does not explicitly target Israeli Arabs, human rights organizations have warned that the repercussions will be particularly hard on the community.

The Knesset Interior and Environment Committee, headed by MK David Amsalem (Likud), is expected to approve the amendments.

The bill includes increasing the maximum imprisonment for building violations from two years to three years, and reducing the authority of the court in favor of the Finance Ministry’s enforcement unit.

The bill is being advanced by the Justice Ministry and is based on last year’s report by Deputy Attorney General Erez Kaminitz and a government decision from six months ago to accept the report’s findings.

The bill 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 nongovernmental organizations’ 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 government even decided to use funds designated for developing Arab towns to fund implementation of the recommendations.

The bill includes numerous provisions. For example, it would reduce the courts’ authority over building violations; reduce the courts’ discretion to go easy on building code violators, and 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 would enable authorized inspectors to impose large fines without the need to launch criminal proceedings.

The treasury’s enforcement unit, whose powers would be greatly bolstered by the bill, is headed by lawyer Avi Cohen.

The coalition of human rights NGOs warned that the bill’s policy of demolishing homes ignores the dearth of planning over the years in Arab communities, and the state’s planning failures that led people to commit offenses.

The NGO coalition claimed that it would lead to a “dramatic rise” in home demolitions in Arab towns. The position paper 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.

The NGOs behind the position paper are Sikkuy – the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel; 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.

The paper alleged that the bill doesn’t distinguish between different types of building offenses. It also deplored the reduction of the courts’ authority, the concentration of power 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.”

Moran Aviv, a city planner for Sikkuy, said, “Reducing court involvement and taking administrative measures will lead to a situation in which residents have no means of appealing for legal assistance. And even if they do, the court’s consideration is limited and has no place in considering the circumstances of planning, the personalities or the type of building.”

Lawyer Raghad Jaraisy, director of ACRI’s Arab minority rights unit, noted that building without permits in Arab towns “does not happen in a vacuum. 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 planning authorities have left for many years without housing solutions.”

The Attorney General’s Office said the bill was intended “to improve enforcement in all communities, in an egalitarian manner and regardless of the identity of the perpetrator.”

The bill “expands the variety of enforcement tools, out of a desire to reduce the use of criminal proceedings, which is the most draconian tool,” it continued.

Regarding enforcement in Arab communities, the office said that Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit had “given his blessing to advancing moves that fit the rationale at the basis of the amendment – enforcement that supports legislation.

“As a rule, enforcing planning and building laws is meant to allow the best and most modern planning, while preserving open spaces and public needs,” the office added. “In light of the significant progress in recent years of planning in the Arab community, the time has come to change the situation with regard to enforcement. We are confident that leaders of the Arab community, who have met with the attorney general on this issue in the past, will contribute to these efforts.”