New Israeli Bill to Stiffen Penalties for Illegal Building Targets Arabs, Critics Say

Israeli deputy attorney general defends bill: ‘If we don’t insist on the rule of law, that will destroy planning. We are not happy about demolitions.’

A bulldozer demolishes a building in a Bedouin village in Israel.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The Knesset is set to vote Wednesday on a controversial bill that increases jail time for illegal construction from two years to three, and reduces the authority of the courts regarding such offenses while granting more powers to the Finance Ministry’s unit that enforces construction laws.

The bill, proposed by the Justice Ministry, is based on a report by Deputy Attorney General for Civil Law Erez Kaminitz a year ago that highlighted illegal construction in Arab communities.

According to the report, the Finance Ministry enforcement unit handles more than new 700 stop-work and demolition orders every year, and demolishes 160 buildings each year. Planning officials say there are 50,000 buildings built without permits in Arab communities. The government voted to finance implementation of the report’s recommendations from the development budget of Arab communities.

The Knesset Interior and Environment Committee, which on Sunday approved the bill for its final votes, which is to take place during a meeting called for the Knesset's holiday recess, inserted significant changes to soften criticism. For example, the law prohibiting the use of an illegal structure will be enforced only for buildings built over the past two years and in the future. Moreover, the new law will only go into effect in another six months.

Arab MK: 'Another discriminatory bill'

MK Abdullah Abu Maaruf (Joint List) yesterday said the bill was “yet another law that expresses the continued policy of the Netanyahu government of discrimination against Israel’s Arab citizens, and the law will impose heavy and cruel fines and expedite the demolition of unregulated houses.”

Maaruf said that while there are no exact figures of houses built without permits in Arab communities, “the number of demolition orders issued each year shows that the softening of the bill – which exclude buildings constructed two years ago or more – will not solve the housing crisis in the Arab communities, which is forced to build without permits because of bureaucratic obstacles set by the state.”

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked yesterday welcomed the Knesset committee’s approval of the bill. “Today we are taking another significant step toward changing the reality of enforcement of planning and construction laws. The new tools the new law gives will allow efficient enforcement to benefit planning and the rule of law” in all sectors of Israeli society.

Kaminitz, who took part in the committee’s deliberations, said: “Clearly there was a problem of planning in the Arab sector. There are already a few communities where detailed planning has been approved. Together with this, there is no choice but enforcement. If we don’t insist on the rule of law, and we allow construction of roads and schools, that will destroy planning. We are not happy about demolitions.”

MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) told the committee that she did not want to criticize the professional aspect of the legislation. “I have no doubt that the intentions were good and to a certain extent the political cloak that’s been attached to this legislation is not your fault. It can clearly be seen that there was a desire to reach a compromise,” she said. Zandberg added that there had been a decision to reject the bill, but pressure had been brought to bear from the Prime Minister’s Office, which Zandberg said “leads to the feeling that these things are pushed for political reasons.”

Committee chairman MK David Amsalem (Likud) said the importance of the bill was in “the awareness it creates, that the Arab population also understands that the state intends to act as a state with laws, and at the same time we have to help and lead to master plans for Arab communities. We agreed that even if there isn’t enough money, we will provide it so the plans can be made.”